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Horton convicted of animal cruelty charges

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By Christopher Brooke, Reporter

By CHRISTOPHER BROOKE

Staff

HILLSVILLE — Found guilty of 14 counts of animal cruelty and 25 counts of neglect, a commercial dog breeder from Hillsville received 14 years of probation and saw his kennels limited to 250 dogs and puppies by a Carroll County General District Court judge Friday.

These misdemeanors against Lanzie Horton Jr. of Hillsville — plus a charge for exceeding his Carroll County-issued kennel license — were brought after a covert video taken by animal advocates spotlighted Horton's Pups in a probe of Virginia puppy mills.

Their findings led the advocates to announce that the state had become a breeding ground for large-scale commercial operations involving companion animals.

They said at the time that Horton's Pups, with its estimated 500 to 700 breeding animals, was among the largest operations they encountered in the state.

Horton had his day in court Friday before Judge E.M. Turner.

Found guilty on every charge and fined $4,775, put on probation for 14 years, facing limits on the number of dogs he can keep and ordered to pay an unspecified amount of restitution to veterinarians who offered their services in the animal rescue operation, Horton will appeal the ruling to Carroll Circuit Court.

Veterinarians Kathy Davieds and Heather Jenkins testified for the prosecution about conditions found at Horton's Puppies, and their testimony brought murmurs of disapproval from the dozens of animal advocates who listened to the case in court.

Jenkins was among the veterinarians examining dogs at the Carroll County Search and Rescue building on Nov. 8, 2007 — before they were turned over to adoption agencies from New York to Florida.

Dogs that other vets examined and were found to have serious health issues or signs of neglect were referred to Jenkins for a more thorough look — beyond the basic information gathering, like their weights and temperatures and estimated age.

In court, Jenkins identified these dogs by their processing numbers — like 181, a four-week-old shih tzu puppy that was a quarter the size of others from its litter, weak and dehydrated.

Plus, the vet wondered if the animal might be suffering from water on the brain.

Despite being put on a tube to get nutrition and then placed with a nursing dog, the puppy later died, she testified. Jenkins believes the dog had a problem with its esophagus that caused food to catch there, then come back up to a place where the dog would aspirate it.

This was a life-threatening condition that she attempted to treat after the initial exams, Jenkins testified. The rescue groups that came were reluctant to take away a dog that was sick, so Jenkins took them and tried to cure them.

Some had a successful response to treatment. Dog 108, despite being 10 percent dehydrated at first, recovered after fluids and a blood transfusion were given, she said. This dog is now doing well.

The state of 10 percent dehydration indicates ongoing problems

Dog 206, a six-year-old white bichon, ran a serious fever when the vets at the rescue checked her out, besides suffering from severe dental disease and feces matting. Jenkins' concern was the fever indicated an infection of the uterus.

Antibiotics and other treatments brought the fever down significantly by the next day.

Many of the dogs had dental diseases, and that can be a conduit for bacteria to enter the body and can become life threatening, Jenkins explained.

Dog 254, a 14-pound Westie, had red and inflamed tips on its ears and tail and no hair in those spots, she said. Jenkins believed that was proof of frostbite and that the animal had inadequate shelter.

Several of the dogs had eye diseases or injuries, leading to the problem eyes being removed in follow-up treatment, the vet said.

Jenkins went over each of the dogs’ prognoses and treatment that led to the 14 cruelty charges.

Reviewing 463 medical records from the examinations, Jenkins found that only 30 percent, or 138, of those dogs could be considered "normal." The rest had some kind of medical or health problems.

She broke it down in response to defense attorney Jim Ward — the records showed that 40 percent of the 463 dogs examined had dental diseases, 36 percent had skin diseases, 13 percent had some kind of eye problem, 5 percent had reproductive problems and 15 percent had some kind of congenital defect, among other things.

One pregnant dog had a leg bone twisted around 180 degrees — a congenital condition — but was still being bred, Jenkins testified. The extra weight on the problem leg could have caused the dog discomfort.

This defect likely came from overbreeding, she said.

In examinations and treatments, the vet testified that she spent $6,600 on healing these unhealthy dogs after taking them in, but had heard from Carroll County officials that she would not be compensated for her work.

"I wasn't putting the dogs to sleep," she told the court.

Davieds, a veterinarian from Floyd, reported the conditions she found when she toured Horton's Pups last November.

In two whelping buildings, Davieds said she found about six dozen mothers nursing puppies while lying in "moist feces."

Through the wire at the bottoms of suspended cages, she testified that she could see paws and entire legs going through. Some dogs had "red, raw legs" because of that. Davieds chose to examine a female dog from the small whelping cages, one that she was told just had a C-section.

The vet took the dog and set her down carefully and the animal slumped to the ground. Davieds found that the dog had "no musculature left" on her limbs to support herself.

From her practice, Davieds has seen dogs that have had C-sections stand and walk in one or more hours — so she didn't find convincing the explanation that the dog was in such a state from that.

Going through all the buildings on site, Davieds found the "distressed barking" of the dogs deafening.

Horton’s Defense

Horton said he tried to keep the dogs in good shape, with air-conditioned and heated buildings for the puppies to stay in, automatic watering devices and plenty of food.

"I've got one of the best kennels in Southwest Virginia," he told the court. "I spend a lot of money on those dogs."

The idea behind the wire mesh floors is to let the feces drop through and clean out the cages easier, he said. If smaller mesh were put in, Horton expected it would catch the feces and it would mount up even more.

Horton's business received a visit by Animal Control Officer Terry Woods a couple weeks before the puppy mill situation arose, and the county official didn't point out any of the problems that came up later.

Horton remembered that Woods told him that "everything looked good."

Visited by local officials over the puppy mill accusations, Horton signed an agreement turning the majority of the dogs to Carroll County — something he said happened while he was under duress.

He admitted that he had too many dogs, but he thought he should have been allowed to take care of that issue himself.

"They were my dogs," Horton said in court. "I should have been able to sell the dogs for myself."

Two veterinarians testified for the defense.

Nash Williams, who has a practice near Sparta, N.C., told the court he does C-sections for Horton, gives examinations and vaccinations and does emergency work for the defendant's business.

In response to questions from Ward, Williams said that he's not seen deficient housing or signs of neglect at Horton's Pups.

"Every time I was there, everything had food and water," he said. "I saw no dogs hungry or thirsty."

Ward pointed out there were 14 charges of animal cruelty brought out of at least 463 dogs examined, and he asked Williams the likelihood of finding health problems in that many dogs.

"You're looking at all these animals, something's going to be wrong somewhere," the vet responded.

When Commonwealth's Attorney Greg Goad asked Williams how often he went out to Horton's, the vet said once a year.

Veterinarian James Adams remembered going out to the kennels eight years ago to give rabies vaccinations to the 300 dogs there. Considering the standards at the time, he found the dogs were adequately housed.

This January and February, after the fallout from the puppy mill situation, Adams testified that he went out to Horton's twice to look at puppies, and he found it to be extremely clean.

Adams also sees many dogs that were bought from Horton's Pups, and they are generally well cared-for animals.

Adams participated in the examinations at the animal rescue himself, seeing 30 to 40 dogs, two or three of which he referred to Jenkins for a closer look.

"Out of 30 to 40, I did not see any clear signs of abuse," the vet said.

Having dental issues, like gingivitis or tartar, is pretty much the norm in older dogs that haven't had their teeth cleaned, Adams said.

Eye problems can be common in certain breeds of dogs, like shih tzus.

He sees a lot of pets with eye problems at his practice.

To Adams' surprise, many of the dogs had been clipped.

"I also didn't see a lot of evidence of foot injuries," he added.

The Verdict

Summing up the case later, Goad noted that Horton had acknowledged that his licenses did not cover the numbers of dogs he had.

The six dozen dogs nursing puppies while lying in filth proved the 25 counts of neglect — a number arrived at "for judicial economy," instead of bringing even more such charges, Goad said.

Proving cruelty takes either evidence of depriving emergency medical care to dogs in cases of life-threatening conditions or depriving animals of treatment to alleviate suffering, Goad said. Jenkins had testified to seeing instances of both.

For his part, Ward heard no evidence given that would prove abuse or criminal intent by Horton.

"There's no evidence in here that any of this stuff was caused by anything Mr. Horton did," the defense attorney said.

Evidence concluded, Turner said he had gotten an education in the more than three hours that testimony went on.

"I think really what we've got here is a situation that got out of hand," the judge said, talking about Horton's business.

Based on what was said in court, Horton's Pups clearly grew over the years from 300 when Adams first visited to more than 1,000 last fall, he said.

"I find Mr. Horton guilty on all counts — the question is what do I do with it?" Turner said.

He ruled that the veterinarians involved may file for restitution for their services, though they might not ask for any.

Horton's probation will be overseen by New River Valley Community Corrections, as assisted by Carroll's animal control officer, the judge said. He also indicated he wanted to see Woods' future inspection reports on Horton's Pups.

As to fines, they amount to $250 for each animal cruelty count, $50 for each neglect count and $25 for the kennel license.

"I'm not going to put him out of business yet," Turner said, while limiting Horton's kennels to 250 adult dogs and puppies.

The judge expected the commercial breeder to pay closer attention to the regulations in the future. "I think the system has got Mr. Horton's attention."

Ward notified the court that Horton would appeal the convictions.

In a related matter, Turner found Timothy Ray Bullion, an employee of Horton's Pups, guilty of selling a puppy under the age of seven weeks and failing to supply a correct health certificate.

Bullion was fined $200 as a result.