SHELBY, Mont -- The regional head of the Humane Society and a sled dog racer from Seeley Lake, Mont., disagreed Friday over whether conditions in the tractor-trailer used to transport 181 animals from Alaska to Montana were cruel and inhumane.
Dave Pauli, director of the Humane Society's Northern Rockies regional office in Billings, said crowding that many animals in a 45-foot-by-8-foot trailer with a lack of ventilation, in unsecured crates and with no free access to water for seven days running wasn't just cruel, it was also unsanitary -- a hotbed for contamination.
The collies and other animals were traveling in "boxes in a box," Pauli said.
But Donna Miller, who has had sled dogs since 1989, said the trailer's configuration did not strike her as cruel. As long as dogs are taken out for watering regularly, it's not a good idea to put a bowl of water in a kennel, Miller said. Nor did she see any problem doubling up dogs in a single crate. In this case, 30 of the dogs were doubled up in 15 crates.
Pauli and Miller testified in the fourth day of the animal cruelty trial of Nikiski residents Jon Harman and Athena Lethcoe-Harman. The couple was arrested at the Canada-Montana border in Sweet Grass Nov. 1 and charged with 181 counts of animal cruelty after authorities discovered the malnourished and dehydrated dogs crowded into what appeared to be a poorly ventilated trailer.
A six-person jury will decide whether they're guilty or innocent. If convicted, they face a fine of up to $500 and up to six months in jail for each count. Justice of the Peace Janice Freeland also could require the Harmans to forfeit the dogs and reimburse the county for their care.
The entourage comprises 166 collies, two shelties, two Stabyhouns, a fox terrier and 10 cats. A litter of seven puppies born since the arrest brings the total number of animals to 188.
The Harmans' defense attorney, Scott Albers, had barely begun to make his case when Justice Court adjourned Friday afternoon. The trial resumes at 9 a.m. Monday in the Toole County Courthouse.
The Humane Society's Pauli based his observations on 22 years of investigating animal cruelty. Testifying on behalf of the prosecution, he said the Harmans could have retrofitted the trailer for not too terribly much money and made it sufficient to transport at least some of the dogs. Under no circumstance was it safe to squeeze 179 dogs and cats into so tight a space, however, he said.
Another dog and cat traveled in the Harmans' cab.
"There's a reason moving companies don't accept animals or plants," Pauli said.
He said mushers have the right idea when they transport sled dogs; they face their kennels toward the outside so each dog has its own supply of fresh air. If one dog develops a contagious illness, the other dogs don't have to breathe contaminated air.
In the case of the collies, Lethcoe-Harman divulged earlier that two of her dogs were placed in the trailer even though they were recovering from parvo, a highly contagious and sometimes fatal disease.
Pauli testified it's a bad idea to stack 99 plastic airline-type crates on top of the wooden pens because the crates are slippery and can topple over easily. Some of the crates had in fact tipped over when the Harmans were stopped at the U.S.-Canada border.
He also had a real problem with the 66 wooden pens built two-deep into the Harmans' truck, Pauli said. The dogs housed in them had access to no fresh air and would have risked overheating in warmer climes such as Arizona, which is where the Harmans were headed. The unpainted wooden pens are impossible to clean once they absorb urine and other germs, Pauli added.
A dog that died during the trip had been housed in one of the wooden pens. Pauli said he's known of dogs in other situations to die from insufficient ventilation.
"In this case, one dog out of 181 animals died," Albers said.
In a bizarre twist, Albers tried to discredit Pauli by painting his employer as an extreme animal-rights organization whose goal is to destroy breeders like the Harmans.
A bewildered Pauli denied the charge, but Albers persisted, saying only breeders who pass muster with the Humane Society are the ones the organization leaves alone.
Albers also accused the Humane Society of operating no animal shelters of its own -- that's incorrect, Pauli said; the organization has a large shelter in Dallas -- and faulted the group for offering rewards of up to $2,500 for information leading to the arrest and conviction of animal abusers.
"Who got the reward in this case?" Albers asked.
"There was no reward in this case," Pauli replied.
The Humane Society got involved, Pauli said, when the Toole County Sheriff's Office contacted Pauli for help after the Harmans were arrested, knowing that the organization offers 72 hours of emergency care in situations involving numerous animals.
In a matter of hours, Pauli and other Humane Society officials, including Cascade County Hu-mane Society Director Linda Hughes, had mobilized a team of officials to provide medical triage to the collies at the Marias Fairgrounds.
Pauli added that had the Harmans stopped at any Humane Society-run shelter on their trip and asked for help, it would have been given. He said the collies could have been adopted out in a nonjudicial setting the same way 38 neglected terriers recently were in Miles City, Mont.
"The amount of money spent on this case could have gone to fly the dogs first class to Arizona," Pauli said.
Miller, who testified on behalf of the defense, downplayed concerns about dehydration. If the collies were able and willing to drink water at the end of the trip, they were OK, she said.
The Harmans drove the dogs 2,420 miles over nine days, not 3,800 miles as had been previously estimated.
Miller agreed that ventilation was key. She had no problem with the solid doors covering the wooden pens, however. Shown examples of heavily chewed doors, she shrugged.
"Dogs chew," she said.
Miller also disagreed with Pauli that bedding provides important warmth and protection from the ground. People think bedding's important, but dogs don't care if they have it or not, Miller said.
Albers showed Miller two notebooks filled with photos of each of the dogs taken after they were unloaded at Camp Collie. Stop me when you see a dog that looks neglected or abused, he told her.
Miller never did stop him. The dogs needed a bath and probably needed water at that point, she said, but otherwise they looked OK.
Under cross-examination, Miller admitted she couldn't tell from the photos whether any of the dogs were dehydrated, had suffered a loss of muscle mass, had sores on their body from overly matted coats or had rotten teeth.
In fact, Miller confessed she has never laid eyes on the collies.
Carol Bradley is a reporter for the Great Falls Tribune in Great Falls, Mont.
Peninsula Clarion ©2013. All Rights Reserved.