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HILLSVILLE — The appeal Tuesday by the owner of Horton's Pups for his prior 40-misdemeanor-count conviction had the same outcome in Carroll Circuit Court as the original trial, which resulted after a puppy mill investigation last fall.
After hearing about six hours of testimony, evidence and arguments by the attorneys, Judge Brett Geisler upheld the conviction against Hillsville resident Lanzie "Junior" Horton of 25 counts of neglecting animals at his commercial breeding facility, 14 counts of cruelty and a single count of exceeding his county-issued kennel license.
Geisler imposed the same penalty as original trial Judge E.M. Turner III did in district court.
These charges against Horton were brought after a covert video taken by animal advocate group Virginia PAWS spotlighted Horton's Pups in a probe of puppy mills around the state.
Their findings led the advocates to announce that Virginia had become an under-regulated breeding ground for large-scale commercial operations involving companion animals.
They said last November when they went public with the operation that Horton's Pups — with its estimated 500 to 700 breeding animals — was among the largest such facility they encountered in the state.
Approached by Virginia PAWS representatives with their video last November, Animal Control Officer Terry Woods testified that he and other law enforcement officials, along with Floyd County veterinarian Kathy Davieds, went to Horton's Pups for an inspection.
Though Horton had a Hillsville business license and a license to keep 500 adult dogs from Carroll, Woods noted the business had about 125 more adult dogs than the county’s paperwork allowed.
Woods inspected the puppy room, where puppies were kept for sale, and he noted that it had cages with wire bottoms that a lot of the animals’ paws were going through.
Prosecutor Greg Goad introduced pictures as evidence while Woods described what he found. One showed puppies' legs slipping through the mesh bottoms of the cages.
When Woods asked Horton what number of dogs he had, the reply the business owner gave him that day was "I don't know — too many."
Woods and Horton discussed reducing the number of animals at the commercial breeding operation. Horton wondered if he could sell the dogs himself, Woods recalled, but the animal control officer thought that would take too long.
Then they discussed Horton voluntarily turning dogs over to animal rescue organizations to be spayed and neutered and adopted out, Woods testified. Horton agreed, as long as the dogs didn’t go to other breeders. He also asked to keep 200 of the dogs for his business.
Did officials take possession of the dogs at Horton's Pups at the time of inspection? Goad asked.
"No," Woods responded. "We had nowhere to take 700-plus animals."
Local officials had to make arrangements with the rescue groups to take the animals, and that could only be done after every dog was examined, the animal control officer testified. The processing was done beginning Nov. 6 at the Carroll Search and Rescue building with multiple veterinarians and other volunteers.
Dogs were assigned a number for processing purposes, had their photos taken for identification, given rabies shots if required and examined by the veterinarians, he said.
Did Horton give any indication of how he had gotten so many dogs? Goad asked.
"Best I recall he stated he just got too many dogs and he didn't realize he had so many," Woods answered.
Woods testified he had been at Horton's Pups a few weeks before in response to a complaint.
As a result of that visit, he had inquired with state officials about the regulations regarding wire bottoms in cages, but he hadn't received a response by the time Virginia PAWS had sought him out with their complaint.
State law says the dogs’ paws cannot go through the wire floors, Woods noted.
He continued describing the pictures for the court, such as those of the whelping room, where mother dogs nursed puppies. The place had dirty wooden cages with walls that were not properly cleaned and a large amount of feces on the mesh floors, the animal control officer said.
Defense attorney Jim Ward asked when Woods had been to Horton’s Pups before Virginia PAWS made its accusations and if the animal control officer had filed any charges then.
Woods confirmed he was there just a couple weeks prior, and saw the “discrepancy” about the wire mesh, which he was trying to get more information on.
The animal control officer hadn’t filed any charges stemming from that visit.
Ward asked about the reason for the wire floors, and Woods said the mesh is supposed to let the feces fall through.
Horton had told the animal control officer the cages in the puppy room were cleaned every day, Woods recalled.
“Are they supposed to go by every minute and clean it up?” Ward asked.
“That would be impossible,” the officer answered.
Davieds testified that she found nursing mothers in the whelping house and their puppies in an unhealthy environment.
Though the new metal shell building that housed the puppies for sale was fairly clean, Davieds saw a lot of dogs’ legs and paws, a dozen or more, she said, sticking through the cage floors. And there was no solid surface for the animals to get off the wires, something referred to during the trial as a resting bench.
Examining the puppies and seeing that some had their teeth just coming in, Davieds estimated some of the animals’ ages at four or five weeks — too young to be sold legally.
In the whelping area with its dozens of not-easily sanitized wooden pens, the smell of feces was highly objectionable, the veterinarian said. These pens did have a foam-like material for the mothers to lay on while nursing.
But the dogs were nursing their puppies in what Davieds described as several inches of feces. She asked Horton how often those cages got cleaned and she recalls him answering once or twice a week.
That is clearly inadequate for the dozens of mothers each, with perhaps as many as five pups, she said. Davieds saw animals with overgrown toenails and inflamed paws with feces and hair matted in them.
Some dogs appeared to have wasted limbs, and when the veterinarian had one mother placed on the floor, all four legs just splayed out from under her, Davieds said. Horton told her that this dog was recovering from an earlier C-section.
Muscle loss, though, develops over a long period of time, the vet said. She knows that healthy dogs can recover from C-sections on the same day.
Davieds found similar concerns in other buildings on the property and outdoor cages that she said were exposed to the elements.
Other health concerns she found were cocker spaniels that had swollen, irritated eyes, called “cherry eye,” which would require surgical attention; yellow or yellow-green eye discharge; lesions on legs; and dental problems in the form of tartar and inflamed gums. She also felt the animals were psychologically stressed.
Veterinarian Heather Jenkins, who helped examine the dogs at the Carroll Search and Rescue building before they went to animal rescue groups, testified about the health of the dogs that led to the 14 cruelty charges.
Individual animals and their health issues that Jenkins testified to included:
• an eight-week-old shihtzu that was weak, depressed, dehydrated, unable to stand and had vomiting and diarrhea.
• a four-month-old female yorkie that had a hernia. The hernia would allow the intestines to become twisted, a life-threatening condition.
Vets tried to surgically correct the problem, but the dog died.
• an eight-week-old male shihtzu that was dehydrated and had black stool, which can be an indication of bleeding in the intestinal tract.
This dog did well after a blood transfusion and receiving home care, Jenkins said.
• a four-week-old shihtzu that was a quarter the size of his litter mates.
As it turned out, this dog had a problem with its esophagus that kept it from getting food and water down.
• an underweight Jack Russell nursing mother who was 10-percent dehydrated. Jenkins said without treatment both this dog and her pups would have died.
Jenkins explained that 10-percent dehydration is something that happens after dogs go for long periods without water.
This would have not happened during the time it took to transport the animals to the search and rescue squad building from Horton’s Pups, she said. Dehydration is a life-threatening condition because a dog’s kidneys could shut down.
• a year-old Westie without hair on the tips of its ears and tail, indicating frostbite.
• a 3-year-old Yorkie that had a congenital defect in its rear right leg. It was turned 180 degrees and had painful bone-on-bone contact at the knee.
This dog was pregnant, and the extra weight caused her more stress on the problem leg, Jenkins said. She expected this problem would be passed on to the Yorkie’s offspring.
“This dog doesn’t need to be in a breeding pool,” the vet said.
Many of the dogs had untreated eye injuries, as well, the vet said.
Ward called on two veterinarians whose services Horton used as part of the defense.
Nash Williams, who practices out of Sparta, N.C., testified that he found that the kennels at Horton’s Pups were clean and the care adequate.
“As breeding kennels go, I would have judged it as one of the better onesee” he told the court.
Williams indicated that dehydration of the animals could have happened in a couple of hours, from the stress of being moved from their kennels to the search and rescue building.
A dog that was both vomiting and having diarrhea could get dehydrated quickly, because the animal would be “losing fluids out of both ends,” he said.
Ward asked veterinarian James Adams the same questions, and Adams agreed that an agitated dog, put in a warm enclosed place like a truck, could become dehydrated quickly.
“It can occur in a matter of a few hours, especially if a dog is compromised by injuryee” the vet said.
Adams, at the request of Ward, reviewed all the photographs of the dogs entered into the record by the prosecution and shared his professional opinion about whether their conditions were life-threatening and painful.
Adams acknowledged the difficulty in trying to diagnose health problems from a photo — you can’t see how the dog is behaving if you can’t examine it in person.
Horton told the court he had acquired some new dogs just a few days before the inspection, and he hadn’t had a chance to deal with their health issues yet.
He believed that sticking the dogs in tiny crates and “yo-yo-ing them around” while transporting was responsible for some of the conditions that were found during the exams.
In the end, Geisler found Horton guilty on all charges, and the judge imposed the same penalties as did Judge Turner.
This included putting Horton on probation for 14 years, a total fine of $4,775 and a limit of 250 dog and puppies at his commercial operation.
Geisler noted that he accepted the testimony of Davieds and Jenkins about the conditions of the animals above the defense witnesses because those vets had been able to examine the dogs in person.