Nikiski couple's dog kennel leads to cruelty charges

Posted: Monday, November 11, 2002

A Nikiski couple recently charged with numerous counts of animal cruelty is not thought of as bad people by members of the Kenai Kennel Club.

In fact, they're viewed as intelligent people -- people who have had some great successes in breeding collies without collie-eye anomaly, a genetic disorder that affects the vision of many collies.

But the need to keep a large number of breeding specimens to monitor success, possibly an unwillingness to give their dogs away without payment, or perhaps just an inability to part with their dogs, has led to their situation getting out of hand.

"When that happens, you have to stop. Spay or neuter ... keep males and females apart ... give dogs away," said Laura Pabst, a local breeder and a member of the Kenai club.

Instead, Johnathan Lewis Harman, 49, and Athena Ann Lethcoe-Harman, 40, continued collecting or hoarding dogs and on Halloween night, while they were reportedly moving their kennel from Alaska to Arizona, they were stopped at the Canadian border and arrested for cruelty to animals.

The Toole County Montana Attorney amended charges against the Nikiski couple last week to 182 counts each of misdemeanor cruelty to animals. Each count carries a fine of up to $500 and up to six months in jail. No court date had been set as of Friday.

U.S. Customs agents stopped the couple in Sweetgrass, Mont., Oct. 31, allegedly trying to transport 170 malnourished dogs and 11 cats across the border.

Agents found the animals in 66 wooden boxes the couple had built in the back of a 40-foot trailer and in 99 airline carrier kennels on top of the boxes. The animals, mostly long-haired collies, were reportedly caked in dirt and urine in the back of the unventilated truck. One dog was dead.

"I've known them for years," said Leslie Batchelder, proprietor of Tarma Grooming in the Red Diamond Center. "They once were members of our kennel club.

"There's no way I want to condone what they did. I don't think they had any criminal intent. They just had poor judgment in keeping that many dogs," Batchelder said.

"As a kennel club, we tried to send people out there (to the couple's Nikiski kennel) to help them, but they wouldn't allow us to go in.

"She did bring one of her collies into my shop and I groomed it from top to bottom, so she knew the right way to do it," Batchelder said.

But, for the past six years, the couple's dogs were banned from Kenai Kennel Club shows and behavior classes.

"Their dogs were filthy," she said.

"I've seen their dogs come to the Kenai Kennel Club and to dog shows," said Pabst.

"They were not socialized. They were skittish. We finally had to post signs saying we had the right to not allow them into our behavior classes," she said.

"(Harman and Lethcoe-Harman) weren't stupid people. They knew if it gets out of hand, you stop breeding ... you give some away ... you don't worry about the money," Pabst said.

"The dogs are so much better today," said Linda Hughes, director of the Humane Society of Cascade County in Shelby, Mont., Friday.

The dogs and cats were taken to the fairgrounds in Shelby where they are being treated by veterinarians and cared for by the Humane Society and community volunteers.

Many of those helping were shaken by news photos of the dogs as they were being unloaded from the truck by border authorities, local police and firefighters.

"Right now we're hauling in 1,800 gallons of water twice a day," said Hughes. "It was four or five times a day.

"It's unbelievable how quickly they can recover."

Loran Keller, a mobile veterinarian from Great Falls, Mont., spent more than 12 volunteer hours this week giving dental care to many of the dogs that had abscessed teeth and bleeding gums, Hughes said.

She also said the dogs were being tested for other disorders and so far, all have been found to have giardia.

"We'll start treating them as soon as we have all the test results back for other parasites that might be present," she said.

She also said none of the dogs was spayed or neutered.

Since news of the incident has spread across the country, many donations of food and other supplies have come into the small ranching town.

Harvest States Mountain View Co-op and Iams have donated one ton and five tons of dog food, respectively.

"Right now we have enough food and enough people," Hughes said. "But if it starts raining or snowing, I just hope the enthusiasm stays up.

"Shelby is such a small community, but it has such a big heart," she said.

Donations to help the town help the animals may be made to the Toole County Community Collie Rescue Fund, First State Bank of Shelby, 260 Main St., Shelby, MT 59474.

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