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HILLSVILLE — Two Carroll County men facing several misdemeanor charges — each under Virginia's new “puppy mill” laws passed last year — told a judge they are out of the commercial dog breeding business.
Confusion was in evidence as the first two cases tried under the new state law — against Donald Frazier of Austinville and Lanzie "Junior" Horton of Hillsville — came before Judge Edward Turner III in the Carroll County General District Court on Friday.
Both men had been charged with keeping more breeding dogs than the 50 allowed in the state code, keeping inadequate records for a commercial breeding operation and providing inadequate care to animals. The charges came after surprise inspections by Animal Control Officer Terry Woods and state veterinarians just weeks after the law went into effect in January.
Woods testified that the inspections took place Jan. 27.
For Frazier, the inspections yielded charges of maintaining more than 50 animals, failing to maintain adequate records and breeding records on the dogs and six counts neglect of the animals.
Charges placed against Horton, who'd previously been convicted of 14 counts of animal cruelty and 25 counts of neglect stemming from his commercial breeding operations in 2007, included maintaining more than 50 animals, 12 counts of neglect, failing to have breeding certificates and failing to maintain adequate records.
Of the more than 60 breeding dogs found at Frazier's, state veterinarian Rachel Trouro said the wire mesh floors caused problems to several of the dogs paws.
Putting their weight on the wire floors caused irritation on the webbing of their feet for several animals and one dog had a place where the fur had been rubbed off its leg, she said. And, there were cases of infections found.
The vet showed photographs of the dogs' feet going through the wires.
Trouro also had pictures of dental diseases of several dogs, including plaque and gingivitis. Matted fur and an eye problem, which she referred to as "dry eye," were also found.
These health problems would have warranted either medical treatment or improved grooming, the state vet testified.
Attorney Jim Ward, who represented both Frazier and Horton, submitted to the court papers from a USDA workshop for commercial dog breeders, at which Trouro had given a talk. The document pictured wire cages as suitable housing for dogs, like those that Frazier and Horton had, Ward argued.
Wire cages are not recommended by Virginia, because of the problems they cause the some animals' feet, Trouro explained. Wire cages may be appropriate, depending on the size of the dogs and whether or not their feet pass through and get irritated.
That can be the case in smaller dogs, she said.
While Frazier had some solid surfaces and mats for the dogs to lay on, they were not sufficient so all the dogs could lay down at the same time.
Wythe County vet Sheryl Taylor gave Frazier a spirited defense, saying she had worked with his livestock for 25 years and more recently with his breeding dogs.
She visited every six to eight weeks to see all the dogs at Frazier's kennel and found the cages "very adequate."
"His kennel is up to USDA standards," Taylor told the court. The idea of the wire floored cages is that feces falls through and the cages can be cleaned out easily, she explained in response to questions from Ward.
"Everything was fine, all the animals had food and water, the cages were clean — they were happy," Taylor said she observed from her visits to Frazier's kennel.
At the end, Taylor asked the court for permission to add to her defense of Frazier. Nobody, she said, who raised animals to sell would intentionally mistreat those animals, because they serve as the breeder's livelihood.
"These people require their animals to be healthy to make a living," Taylor said.
In Frazier's case, his animals were cared and provided for. On the other hand, she could think of pet owners who leave their dogs tied to trees outside with no food and water.
"You're going after the wrong people," she concluded.
Frazier told the court he built his kennel in 2007 to raise 50 animals of his own, but also to help his son maintain breeding dogs. They each had kennel licenses for up to 50 dogs.
Frazier heard from officials like Woods that would be okay, as long as the two men kept their dogs separate.
He acknowledged that one of the dogs had a problem with an eye, and he took that animal to the vet's office the first day it opened after the inspection on Jan. 27. But, Frazier added, he sold all his dogs by the end of that month and got out of the business.
Pictures introduced to the court showed that Frazier had put in heating and air conditioning, automatic feeders and water and mats for the dogs to stand and lay on.
Frazier also told the court that he had a septic tank for the dogs' waste that was pumped out every few months.
From raising livestock, Frazier explained that he knew the better you cared for animals, the better they produce.
About the records, Frazier testified that they had been in the care of his vet, who was compiling them.
In asking Woods and the state veterinarians questions about the new commercial breeder law in November 2008, prior it going into effect, Frazier said he got conflicting answers from different parties about whether he needed mats on the floors of his cages and what kind.
"Who do you listen to?" he asked.
That was after Frazier took it upon himself to ask Woods about the new law.
Woods testified that Frazier had shared with him that some of the dog were his son's, but there was no documentation to prove that.
Turner took the opportunity to ask Trouro how much outreach the state had done for commercial breeders before the law went into effect.
When state vets find problems at a breeder under the new law, did they follow up later and give the breeders a few weeks to correct the situation? the judge asked.
When the informational session that Trouro spoke at was held, did the breeders have many questions about the law?
Yes, Trouro answered, there were tons of questions.
In his closing argument, Ward noted that, just days and weeks after a new law went into effect, state and local officials swooped in to see if these places were in compliance.
At Frazier's, the authorities found a comfortable kennel, unlike many others, with shelter that had its own heating and cooling and septic system.
Turner agreed that Frazier's operation looked better than some of the photos from the USDA workshop, judging from the pictures he'd seen in the booklet.
But Turner found that Frazier was clearly in violation on the number of dogs he had under the new law. The judge also upheld two of the six neglect charges and dismissed the other four.
The judge fined Frazier $100 each for the neglect convictions and $250 for going over the number of breeding dogs allowed.
Turner noted that he was taking into consideration the fact that Frazier told the court he's no longer in the dog breeding business.
In his ruling, Turner said he found the law unclear on several points. He wondered why the state and local officials would slap Frazier with an inspection and couldn't put him on notice and follow up to see if he had complied with the law.
When it came to the case against Horton, Woods testified that the inspectors found a total of 107 dogs at Horton's place in Hillsville — 87 of them breeding animals.
Horton explained that 30 of the adult dogs were his, 30 belonged to his father and 27 belonged to his brother.
The three family members kept separate operations in the same kennel building, Woods recalled from the inspection. But there was no way that Woods could tell the different operations apart.
"There was nothing to give us a separation," the animal control officer said.
Has Horton in fact ceased his kennel operations? Turner asked.
Yes, Woods said.
Trouro testified that the neglect charges against Horton came from the dogs standing on inadequate floors, and 11 dogs had swollen parts of their feet from the wire floors.
There was nothing about the conditions that were life threatening, the vet acknowledged to Ward.
The breeding certificate for Horton's dog was inadequate, Trouro said. His vet had issued a one-page typed blanket statement that all Horton's dogs could be bred, instead of individual exams and the resulting paperwork.
The defense attorney pressed her about the kennel's wire floors, saying they are USDA approved.
Trouro answered the best kind of cage flooring would be made from stainless steel, where the dogs would be removed so the cage could be washed cleaned regularly.
While on the stand, Junior Horton confirmed he no longer has a breeding operation in Virginia and denied that he moved his dogs to Ohio.
Veterinarian Nash Williams testified that he had visited Horton's property in January, before the inspection, to give the dogs rabies vaccinations.
"I found the animals to be ... frisky and healthy," Williams said. "The facilities were clean."
Not all the dogs were in perfect health, but Williams said that Horton asked about how some problems with the dogs should be treated.
Tony Horton, younger brother of Junior, testified that the three members of his family had dogs in the same facility. His dogs were in with the others because Woods and the state veterinarians had visited for an inspection last fall and told Tony Horton that he had to move his animals inside for winter.
Ward argued that the charges against Junior Horton weren't proven.
"One thing that is beyond a reasonable doubt here is there's a great deal of confusion about how to maintain this kind of operation" under the new law, Ward said.
Again, he stressed that the USDA and the veterinarians for the defense found no problem with using the wire-floored cages. "You do what they say, and yet you get convicted," Ward said.
Turner dismissed the records keeping charges, though he noted that Horton could have done a better job there.
Though the three family members may have had three breeding operations, the judge held Junior Horton responsible for having more than the allowed 50 breeding dogs on his property.
He found Horton guilty and gave him a $2,500 fine and 12 months in jail, suspending $2,000 of the fine and the entire jail term.
Turner found Horton guilty on two neglect charges, fining him a total of $200.
The other charges were dismissed.
Horton is not to have any kennel operations in Virginia after this conviction, Turner said.
Again, Turner said he felt the state and local authorities should have been more helpful in getting the commercial breeder into compliance, rather than jumping on him after a couple weeks under the new law.