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Arizona residents scout out Harmans' new property

Posted: Monday, March 03, 2003

Upset by the saga of the collies in Montana, Diane Troxell of Arizona wondered what type of facility dog owners Jon Harman and Athena Lethcoe-Harman had in mind if and when they relocated their dogs to her part of the world.

To find out, Troxell recently chartered a small airplane. Together with her husband and a friend, she flew over the Harmans' property.

On a flat, barren stretch of high desert south of the tiny town of Woodruff, Ariz., Troxell spied a Quonset hut-style metal building and, adjacent to it, four fenced dog runs.

It's what she didn't see that concerned her.

No source of power. No sign of water. And no shade.

"The metal building doesn't look large enough" to house the dogs, Troxell said in a phone interview with the Great Falls Tribune in Great Falls, Mont. And "if the dogs are outside in the desert sun and it's 100 degrees in the summer, they're going to bake."

The Harmans were moving from Nikiski to Woodruff when U.S. Customs inspectors stopped their tractor trailer late last Halloween night as the couple approached the Canada-Sweet Grass, Mont., border stop.

By morning, the Harmans had been charged with animal cruelty, and by the following night, authorities had removed 166 collies, five other dogs and 10 cats from the tractor trailer.

The dogs were thin, dehydrated, wet, cold and stressed, veterinarians testified during the first trial. A number of the dogs were emaciated.

One dog was dead.

The seven-day trial in January resulted in a deadlocked jury and a mistrial. Teton County Justice of the Peace Pete Howard will decide today whether to retry the Harmans on 181 counts of misdemeanor animal abuse.

The Harmans' attorney is asking Howard to dismiss the case and let his clients carry forward with plans to move their large kennel to Arizona.

The collies have been housed at the Marias Fairgrounds outside Shelby, Mont., for the last four months.

But Troxell worries that returning the dogs to the Harmans would only invite more headaches.

"It becomes Arizona's problem if she repeats that pattern of behavior," she said of Lethcoe-Harman.

Neighbors of the Harmans in Nikiski have described their kennel here as a maze of rundown pens and outbuildings, known for its pungent odor and filthy dogs.

Defense attorney Scott Albers portrayed Lethcoe-Harman as a champion dog breeder who let her Valiant Collies kennel swell in size because she was trying to breed out collie eye anomaly, a condition that causes blindness in 2 to 5 percent of collies.

If the Harmans simply had been allowed to drive on through to Arizona, the dogs would have been fine, Albers argued. At one point during the trial he held up a photo of the newly constructed 40-foot-by-40-foot metal building to demonstrate the degree of planning that had gone into the move.

That's not much bigger than the 45-foot-by-8-foot tractor trailer the dogs were driven in the 2,240 miles from Alaska to Montana.

When the mistrial was declared, Troxell tracked down the coordinates of the Harmans' property, which is south of the Navajo Nation and west of the Zuni Indian Reservation in the northeastern section of the state.

It runs along a private dirt road a mile or two off a public dirt road, Troxell said -- impossible to reach by ground without trespassing.

From her seat in the Cessna 172, she snapped photos of the site and mailed copies to Toole County Attorney Merle Raph in hopes he'll use them during the second trial, if one is held.

Two weeks ago, Troxell also e-mailed one of the photos to a collie chat room on the Internet, where the picture generated considerable buzz.

A supporter of the Harmans identified on the chat site as Pennsylvania collie breeder Lauren Wolfe responded that the metal building is insulated and "will or does have" air conditioning. Solar panels will provide electricity, she wrote.

She said the dogs would be let out in groups into the pens, which measure 48-feet by 196-feet, "and will come in to their own private kennels."

Contacted Friday, Wolfe declined to discuss the matter further.

A veterinarian at the Flagstaff Animal Hospital in Flagstaff, Ariz., which is about 100 miles west of Woodruff, said he didn't think the high desert climate would pose a hardship to the long-haired collies.

The Woodruff area is above 5,000 feet, Dr. Fred Bush said.

"It doesn't get too hot and it's real windy," he said. "It would be parasite-free -- like Flagstaff. We don't have ticks, fleas, any of that stuff."

He added that northeastern Arizona escapes terrible winters. "Maybe a little snow. Not much," Bush said. "Six inches would be a lot."

It's uncertain how many collies the Harmans would house at the kennel. After the mistrial was declared, Albers said Lethcoe-Harman was willing to adopt out some 70 of the dogs. She wanted to keep the remaining 100, he said.

Troxell said people can judge for themselves if the Arizona facility looks adequate. A collie owner, she said her own dog can stand "about 20 minutes out on the patio in the summertime" before wanting to come inside.

"I wish I didn't have to take the picture. I'm the kind of person that minds my own business," Troxell said. But "it looks like there were some really abhorrent conditions in Alaska. I don't want that to happen here."

Carol Bradley is a reporter for the Great Falls Tribune.



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