Testimony favors Harmans' treatment of dogs during trip

Posted: Tuesday, January 28, 2003

SHELBY, Mont. -- A man who began the trip from Alaska with accused animal abusers Jon Harman and Athena-Lethcoe Harman testified Monday that he grew frustrated because Lethcoe-Harman insisted on stopping for several hours each morning to water and exercise her 170-plus collies and other dogs.

Jan Krekt, who testified via Webcam from Holland, said he bowed out of the journey after just three days when the vehicle he was driving behind the Harmans' tractor-trailer burned up in an engine fire. But during the time he accompanied the Harmans, the dogs were exercised, Krekt said.

"It was all this work to get the dogs out," he said of the first leg of the trip. "Every day (the dogs) all went out. Every morning."

Several other witnesses testified on behalf of the Harmans, Nikiski residents, as their defense attorney, Scott Albers, continued to lay out their case. Lethcoe-Harman herself may take the stand today as the trial enters its sixth day. Both sides are expected to wrap up their arguments.

The Toole County Sheriff's Office arrested the Harmans at the Canada-Montana border in Sweet Grass in the wee hours of Nov. 1 after U.S. customs inspectors discovered the malnourished, dehydrated and filthy collies crowded in the back of the trailer. The Harmans have pleaded innocent to 181 counts of misdemeanor animal cruelty. A six-person Justice Court jury will decide whether to convict them or let them go free.

The Harmans face a maximum $500 fine and-or six months in jail for each count. They also could lose their dogs and 10 cats and have to reimburse Toole County for the animals' care.

Krekt's thick Dutch accent and the dry tone of his voice had the two women jurors bent over in peals of laughter at one point.

"Girls," Justice of the Peace Janice Freeland reprimanded gently.

The entire courtroom chuckled moments later when, asked if he ever saw Lethcoe-Harman mistreat the dogs, Krekt testified, "She was very carefully for the dogs. She sleeps with the dogs. I think it's enough."

Laughter erupted again when, in cross-examining Krekt, Toole County Attorney Merle Raph found himself repeatedly asking a variation of the buzz phrase "Who let the dogs out?"

In answer to that question, Krekt said he and the Harmans all three would set up the portable chain-link partitions the Harmans had brought along for the dogs. The Harmans would then release the dogs.

In contrast to prosecution witnesses' concerns about ventilation inside the trailer, a second witness, mechanical engineer Darryl Byle of Kalispell, said he's convinced the dogs had sufficient air.

He said vents cut into the front and rear side of the trailer combined with 32 one-inch-diameter holes cut into a metal plate and cracks along the rear doors allowed 12 total volume air exchanges an hour when the rig was traveling at 50 mph.

Byle also said ammonia created by the dogs' urine would have risen to the top of the trailer because ammonia is lighter than air. The pungent odor would have swirled down and out when the trailer's back doors were opened, which would explain why officials were knocked over by the smell, he said.

"So that horrendous stench was not really a clear picture of what the dogs have had to breathe?" Albers asked.

"No," Byle said.

Albers had two witnesses testify about collie eye anomaly, a condition common to collies that Lethcoe-Harman has worked to diminish.

Testifying via Webcam, Dr. Joyce Murphy, a veterinary ophthalmologist at the Alaska Animal Eye Clinic, said she has checked Lethcoe-Harman's dogs for CEA for almost 15 years. She said CEA can cause not only blindness, but detached retinas and glaucoma, which can be painful.

Murphy described Lethcoe-Harman as a "much more humane, compassionate and ethical" breeder than many because she has never subscribed to the "test and slaughter" philosophy whereby puppies that test positive for CEA are put down. Lethcoe-Harman prefers to find good homes for her dogs, Murphy said.

Asked if she had ever seen Lethcoe-Harman mistreat her collies, Murphy said, "Quite the contrary."

"She would drive many hours to get the examinations," she said. "The dogs always had food and water. Before seeing me and before leaving she would clean them up."

She said she and Lethcoe-Harman discussed many times how to make the trip to Arizona "with the least amount of discomfort to the animals."

In his cross-examination, Raph asked Murphy if she accompanied the Harmans on their trip. She did not, she said.

"You didn't see these dogs on Oct. 31, 2002, in Sweet Grass, Mont., did you?" Raph said.

"No, I did not," Murphy acknowledged.

Dr. Gary Bryan, a semi-retired veterinary ophthalmologist from Washington State University, also testified via Webcam. He said he didn't know the Harmans -- "the name and the kennel meant nothing to me" when Albers contacted him, he said. But he said collie eye anomaly is a serious problem, one that also is so common that few breeders tried to breed away from it. Only about 1 in 1,000 collies are noncarriers of CEA, Bryan said.

Asked what the value of a dog like Lethcoe-Harman's male Sultan, a known noncarrier, would be, Bryan said it would be "great."

Under cross-examination, Bryan said that while 80 percent of collies are believed to be affected with CEA, only 2 to 5 percent will actually go blind.

Teton County Attorney Joe Coble, who's helping prosecute the case, asked Bryan: "Is it possible to have a genetically superior animal and still neglect it?"

"Well, of course," Bryan said.

Carol Bradley is a reporter for the Great Falls Tribune in Great Falls, Mont.

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