02/06/09 — Rescued: 300 small breed dogs seized from alleged puppy mill; VIDEO

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Rescued: 300 small breed dogs seized from alleged puppy mill; VIDEO

By Steve Herring And Kenneth Fine
Published in News on February 6, 2009 12:57 PM

News-Argus Video Report

See all photos on the Photo Gallery

Clad in overalls and wearing masks to hide the stench of ammonia, animal rescue workers early this morning began removing the first of some 300 adult dogs and puppies from what is being called a "puppy mill."

A steady procession of local animal control workers and workers from the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) brought the animals from sheds at Thornton Kennel, 180 Westbrook Church Road just miles from the Wayne-Sampson County line.

The animals were taken after the county filed a civil injunction late Thursday afternoon against Virginia Thornton alleging she was "willfully and intentionally" depriving the animals of a proper living environment.

The operation, that was initiated by Wayne County Animal Control Director Justin Scally, is being called the largest ever in the state. It culminates a year-long investigation.

The dogs, some with matted fur and swollen eyes, were shivering as they were brought out to be checked by veterinarians, photographed and have identity bands placed on them before being loaded into a large trailer.

In the yard, family members milled around and instructed deputies not to allow the media onto their property. The family did not respond to a request for comment.

The animals were located in several sheds, some near the house and others across the road.

The first load of about 100 animals was taken to a makeshift shelter at the Wayne Regional Fair-grounds for further examination.

When they arrived, volunteers and veterinarians were waiting.

They had been since 5 a.m. -- building cages and unloading food and medical supplies despite the bitter cold.

But as soon as that truck pulled in, the squeaks, barks and yelps drew them to the animals.

It was 9:45 when the first was walked into the home it will know for the remainder of the weekend.

A volunteer stepped off the truck holding a curly-haired mutt with a swollen eye and mud covering its white coat.

It was shivering.

But each time the woman's hand a ran down its back, his tail wagged -- as much as it could.

Another volunteer was close behind, holding a pair of Chihuahuas shaking uncontrollably.

"It's pretty sad," said Amanda Arrington, president of the state chapter of the HSUS, as the volunteer passed by.

But the scene, she added, was far worse.

Wayne Sheriff's deputies and animals control officers arrived there about 6:30 a.m. and were expected to be there for most of the day.

"Most of the animals are breeding females," said Jordan Crump, HSUS emergency services public information officer. "Most were females. She (Ms. Thornton) was trying to get the most out them."

In some cases, the animals were so old they produced single puppies and small litters, she said.

The animals, she said, were confined in small dirty wire cages -- some several to a cage -- in buildings lacking proper heat and ventilation.

The animals did have food and water.

Ms. Crump said the lack of ventilation had created such strong ammonia smell that in some cases caused the animals' eyes to swell shut. Ammonia fumes that strong can also cause skin infections, she added.

In some cases the animals have been in the cages for up to eight years, she said.

Most were small breed animals -- poodles, Pomeranians, Lhasa Apso, Shih-Tzus and Chihuahuas.

Assisting the county's Animal Control Department were representatives from the Humane Society, PetSmart Charities and United Animal Nations. The workers came from Florida, the Midwest and HSUS headquarters in Washington, D.C.

A hearing is scheduled for 2 p.m. Tuesday at the Wayne County courthouse to determine whether a permanent injunction will be ordered and whether Ms. Thornton should pay for the cost of care for the animals while they are in county custody.

The petition for the injunction includes an affidavit from veterinarian Kelli Ferris, assistant clinical professor at N.C. State University's College of Veterinary Medicine.

Scally submitted photos and video taken at the kennel for Dr. Ferris to review.

"The photos and video provided lead me to believe that many animals are being subject to animal cruelty in this facility," Dr. Ferris wrote. "Puppy mills are dog production units where dogs are housed for years in cramped conditions with no environmental enrichment or opportunities for normal exercise."

The animals will remain in the custody of Wayne County Animal Control pending final custody decisions.

Should Ms. Thornton surrender the animals or be ordered to do so by the courts, HSUS will work with animal control as well as rescue groups in other states to rehabilitate and find homes for the dogs.

Many of the animals might be taken back to the Washington, D.C., area, Ms. Crump said.

The animals mostly were being sold over the Internet, she added. A sign in front of the house lists a Web site www.thorntonkennels.com, advertising "Toy and Designer breeds."

Ms. Crump said Ms. Thornton would not allow people to visit the kennel and met potential customers at other locations.

That, she said, should be a "tip-off" to people that something is amiss.

People can unknowingly support "this horrible industry" by buying over the Internet or not checking a kennel.

"The only way to stop this is through legislation," she said.

She urged people interested in adopting an animal to visit an animal shelter

Scally said he asked for the assistance of HSUS when he realized how many animals were at the kennel.

"We realized we did not have the resources to handle all of these animals by ourselves," Scally said. "I can finally rest easy knowing that these animals are no longer living in constant confinement."

County Commissioner Steve Keen, in whose district the kennel is located, rode to the scene with animal control officers.

Keen said some people had questioned the expense the county went to when it built its new animal center. These animals, he said, underscored how important the shelter is.

"But this is so overwhelming," he said.

"These dogs have may need extensive rehabilitation, but they are already beginning to warm up to their temporary caretakers. I believe they are on their way to leading new lives as loving family pets," added Janell Matthies, UAN emergency services manager.

Residents of North Carolina interested in taking action for animals can sign up for the upcoming Humane Lobby Day, which The HSUS will host on Feb. 12 in Raleigh. Local advocates will gather at the Capitol to lobby for animal welfare legislation - including the puppy mill bill

The Humane Society of the United States is the nation's largest animal protection organization -- backed by 11 million Americans, or one of every 30. For more than a half-century, the HSUS has been fighting for the protection of all animals through advocacy, education and hands-on programs.

For more information visit www.humanesociety.org.

None of the dogs seized this morning were in critical condition.

Still, they will be housed at the fairgrounds for the next several days, officials said -- receiving treatment and love.

"Just the human touch, they don't even experience that," Mrs. Arrington said. "Their feet probably haven't touched the ground in years. But when you pick them up, you can tell they know it's going to be OK."

-- Staff Writer Catharin Shepard contributed to this report.