Local Women Discover Puppy Mill, Animal Cruelty in Custer, Washington
by Bronlea Hawkins
Lynden Tribune reporter
Lynden Tribune, May 19, 2004
by Bronlea Hawkins
Mojo was not so lucky. She was found dead of starvation on the floor of her kennel at "Billies Bullies" in the 8400 block of Custer School Road. Owner Billie Paul hadn't even removed Mojo's body when Harriman found her.
Harriman, a veterinarian's assistant at Glacierview Animal Hospital in Ferndale, had to carry Apache out of his kennel. She said that when she removed Mojo's body for a necropsy, another dog leaped into the enclosure to eat the maggot-infested food inside. Harriman said the dogs had no food, and the kennel floors were covered with excrement and urine.
As horrific as the conditions were, Harriman said, the SSP Perferred Animal Care organization -- which is in charge of responding to animal cruelty cases within unincorporated Whatcom County -- was reluctant to remove the dogs. The organization visited the kennels three times before removing the dogs. Harriman said that SSP supervisors told her that under state law, they had to have a warrant from the county prosecutor's office in order to do so.
After looking into the Revised Code of Washington, Lynden resident Maria Risener, a friend of Harriman and fellow bulldog owner, found that the SSP officers were wrong, and that they could have removed the dogs. According to statute 16.52.085 of the RCW, "An officer may remove an animal under this subsection without a warrant only if the animal is in an immediate life-threatening condition."
"SSP botched this," Risener said. "I was just absolutely baffled that SSP didn't take those dogs out that (first) night."
Butch Baggett, the animal control supervisor who worked on the abuse case, said the SSP agency took the appropriate steps in examining and removing the dogs. "There's been too many sueings going on," Baggett said. We wanted to make sure we took all the right steps." The steps, he said, include an initial investigation of the premises, contact with the Whatcom County Prosecutor's office to get a search and seizure warrant, then a return to the premises to post the warrant and take the animals.
During SSP's investigation of the conditions at the kennels, Harriman said, she pulled a fold of Apache's skin away from his body to demonstrate his level of dehydration. A properly hydrated dog's skin would immediately return back to its normal position, Harriman said. Apache's skin stayed pulled up away from his body. "The SSP supervisor said, "Well, he doesn't look that bad to me,'" Harriman remembered.
Carmen Harriman and her husband Randy had known Billie Paul for many years. Paul had run a reputable breeding operation in Kansas prior to moving to Washington, and had bred dogs for more than 30 years.
"Within the last ten years, rumors started flying fast and far," Risener said. "There were stories saying 'don't buy a dog from Billie. Mine died after 17 months.'"
Paul had allegedly become addicted to Oxycontin, a prescription painkiller that, when taken in large amounts, results in a high similar to heroin. On Feb. 9, Carmen said, she and Randy went to Paul's residence to "do an intervention and get her help."
While they were there, Carmen said, Randy happened to look inside the dog kennels. He came running back inside telling her that the dogs looked sick and that many were skin and bone. Carmen immediately called SSP to report the animal abuse, then told Billie what she'd done. "When I told her that I'd called SSP she said, 'Why'd you do that? Why didn't you tell me first?'" Carmen said. "She'd somehow kept (the abuse) all a big secret, even with my husband knowing her."
When the SSP officer arrived and examined the kennels, there were four live bulldogs, one dead bulldog (Mojo), two Shih Tzu's and a pit bull. None of the dogs had any food, Carmen said, and the floor of the kennels was covered with dog feces. She said roundworms and tapeworms, intestinal parasites, were visible in the dogs' feces. "The stench was awful.," Carmen said. "If I could have bottled it, it would have knocked anyone to their knees."
Instead of removing the dogs, an SSP supervisor said that if someone would take responsibility for feeding and taking care of the dogs, an officer would come back the next day, and every day thereafter until conditions had improved.
Carmen removed Mojo's body so that veterenarian Dr. Paul Dean, of Glacierview Animal Hospital, could do a necropsy and determine the cause of death. Dean's necropsy report stated that "this dog died of starvation and had been dead for over 24 hours, probably days." "There wasnt any fat on her entire body," Dean said. "There was hardly any muscle mass left. You could almost see the bone there under the skin. As far as just lack of care, I would say this was pretty severe."
That night in February, Carmen said, she started keeping a journal to record the events that had happened. The following day, Feb. 10, another SSP officer met Randy at the kennels. Although the conditions hadn't improved, Carmen said, the SSP officer still didn't take the animals. Still concerned about the condition of the dogs, especially Apache, Randy asked Carmen to return that night. When they arrived, they found that another dog, a Shih Tzu, had died. Carmen immediately called SSP again, and requested removing the dogs from "Billies Bullies." With insistence from both her and Randy, she said, they finally agreed.
"They were so unprepared," she said. SSP officershad no "owner release" forms when they took the dogs. Instead, she said, they had Paul fill out "stray release" forms.SSP officers called Carmen the next day, faxed her a copy of the owner release form, and asked her to get a signature from Paul.
"They relied on a private citizen to do their job," Risener said, shaking her head in disbelief.
Bagget was unclear as to whether his officers served the owner release papers. He said SSP was "fortunate to get the dog's owner release." He said the owner release forms are standard, and that all SSP officers carry them in their trucks.
Paul and her grandson Danny Stumblingbear failed to appear for their first court appearance on May 7 on suspicion of second degree animal cruelty. A bench warrant for failure to appear was issued for their arrest. The two were taken into custody later that day, but posted bail that evening. They were arraigned on Friday, and plead not guilty to a charge of second degree animal cruelty.
"I abhor cruelty to animals," said County Executive Pete Kremen. "I hope that they are prosecuted to the full extent of the law -- and if found guilty that they get the maximum penalties. I believe that there should be no tolerance for that kind of treatment of animals in our community."
Although Paul and her son will go to trial, Harriman and Risener said they are still angry about how SSP handled the situation. Neither woman said she has any clear answers as to why SSP handled the situation as they did. But both said they hope more publicity from media state-wide will lead to an investigation of both Billie Paul and SSP's operations.
The SSP agency has had a contract with Whatcom County for the past seven years to provide animal control and an animal shelter. The agency receives $325,000 annually for operations. Owner Rustand said the SSP agency currently employs two full-time animal control officers who cover territory from Diablo Dam to Point Roberts. Kremen said the county's contract with SSP has been renewed twice, and will come up for renewal again in two years.
--- Contact Bronlea Hawkins via e-mail.
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