02/11/09 — Settled: Dogs will find forever homes

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Settled: Dogs will find forever homes

By Nick Hiltunen and Catharin Shepard
Published in News on February 11, 2009 1:46 PM

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Wayne County resident George Wolfe speaks to reporters as Louise Garris holds a sign in the background that reads "No Puppie Mills in Wayne County" at the Wayne County Courthouse on Tuesday. Thornton Kennels owner Virginia Thornton agreed in an out-of-civil-court settlement to surrender the custody of all 283 dogs to Wayne County Animal Control.

The 283 dogs seized from a puppy mill are now in Wayne County's custody, and will be sent around the country to adoptive homes.

But how long the animals will wait before being adopted will depend on the amount of rehabilitation they need, veterinarian Lisa Dixon said.

"Hardly any of them are in perfect health," said Ms. Dixon, who works with a clinic in Charlotte and came to Wayne to help in the recovery of the animals. "Almost every single one of them has some health issue, from moderate to severe."

The announcement of the settlement between the county and Virginia Thornton, the owner-operator of Thornton Kennels, came as a surprise just before a scheduled hearing yesterday in Wayne County District Court.

Instead of the civil injunction hearing scheduled for Tuesday afternoon at 2 p.m., the owner of the puppy mill, Ms. Thornton, settled out of court.

Meanwhile, the canine victims of alleged rampant mistreatment were being organized to be shipped to adoption centers around the country, officials said.

The dogs were still in temporary housing at a barn at the Wayne County Fairgrounds, where volunteers worked to bring the dogs back to health.

As volunteer workers from a multitude of organizations worked to remove the waste and stench from the dogs' fur, their demeanors improved, the veterinarian said.

"You wouldn't imagine their change in attitude once we get them cleaned up. They become more alive," Ms. Dixon said.

One thing that can't be cleaned up easily is the dogs' poor dental health, the veterinarian said.

"Most of the animals have horrible dental disease because they've never been taken care of by a veterinarian," Ms. Dixon said. "Most of them are losing their teeth or have teeth that need to be removed.

And because many of the dogs had spent their entire natural lives in cages, they would also need help psychologically, the vet said.

"Some of them are going to need psychological rehabilitation, because they do not know what the real world looks like.

"They have never seen the sky before," she said.

Amanda Arrington, the state's director of the Humane Society of the United States, said the dogs may serve as the example that finally forces North Carolina to outlaw puppy mills.

Ms. Arrington said that Sen. Don Davis, D-Greene, agreed Tuesday to sponsor a bill to make it more difficult to run a "puppy mill."

"We want to use this story of these dogs to prevent this situation from happening again, so we are pushing state legislation so (people) such as Virginia Thornton in the future would be licensed and regulated by the state," Ms. Arrington said.

Wayne County Animal Control Director Justin Scally was the first to announce that the county had reached an agreement with Ms. Thornton.

Scally said that all evidence collected by his office had been turned over to District Attorney Branny Vickory's office on Tuesday.

A phone call to Vickory on Tuesday afternoon was not returned before deadline.

Scotlund Haisley, the senior director for emergency services with the Humane Society of the United States, said his agency would still push for criminal charges against the owner of the alleged puppy mill.

"The Humane Society of the United States will stop at nothing ... until there are stronger puppy mill laws, until criminal charges are filed against Ms. Thornton, and until she is no longer allowed to operate any puppy mill."

The settlement came as a result of Ms. Thornton and her attorney, Billy Strickland of Goldsboro, negotiating with County Attorney Borden Parker.

She gave up all rights to the dogs, transferring them to Wayne County, who will in turn give ownership rights to the dogs to the U.S. Humane Society.

Strickland said the settlement itself was evidence of how the case was handled.

"I think the court record speaks for itself," he said. "Cooler heads prevailed. It was not a rush to judgment."

Strickland declined to comment when asked about his client's reaction to the settlement.

The HSUS will rehabilitate the dogs and distribute them to communities around the country, where they can be adopted.

But the 283 dogs seized was a number that stood to grow, as some of the canines called "breeding machines" by officials were ready to give birth.

"We have a couple of pregnant moms who are about to give birth," the veterinarian said. "So there will be even more puppies available for adoption."

Investigators began looking into Thornton Kennels in December 2007, but it took a long time for animal control officials to prepare for the seizure operation.

When Scally began looking for ways to help the dogs, he found there were no state laws against puppy mills, county spokeswoman Barbara Arntsen said.

"When he realized the magnitude, he called in the other organizations. The only thing we could do was what we did, get the injunction so we could get the dogs, and we documented what condition they were in," Ms. Arntsen said.

The seizure operation was an expensive endeavor for the agencies involved, but the HSUS, PetSmart Charities and other groups footed most of the bill.

"I don't believe the county had a whole lot of costs involved," Ms. Arntsen said. "The county was able to use the fairgrounds at little to no cost."

Volunteers stepped up to care for the animals. Even the veterinarians and groomers donated their time and skills, and a spokeswoman for PetSmart Charities said their 501(c)3 charity donated between $50,000 and $60,000 in supplies.

As for the HSUS, "I haven't heard on a number yet," said Jordan Crump, a public relations official with the society, but Ms. Crump estimated that the costs incurred from the operation were in the tens of thousands.

The HSUS isn't ready to put its wallet away, either.

"We're also going to pay the medical costs, and to have them spayed and neutered," she said.

All of the dogs will be spayed or neutered before they are made available for adoption, which could happen quickly for some of the pups.

"Rescue groups will probably be coming in within the next 24 hours to pick up the dogs," Ms. Arntsen said.

Although the dogs will be going to different rescues, most will be within driving distance of Goldsboro.

"They'll be a few hours away," Ms. Crump said. "We try to place them fairly close by so they don't have to be driven a long way."

While some of the dogs have special needs and will require extra care, soft beds and loving arms are waiting for all of them.

"They've all already been placed" with temporary homes, she said. "There will be several for adoption within the next couple of weeks."

The unused supplies donated by individuals and organizations will likely be given to the local animal shelter, or to other animal welfare groups, to support their operations.

As for the former owner of the dogs, while the county as a legal entity cannot press charges of animal cruelty or neglect, the district attorney can.

"That's up to the D.A., that's not up to us," Ms. Arntsen said. "Now it's totally in their hands."

The photographs, veterinarian reports and video files were turned over to the district attorney's office Tuesday afternoon following the settlement.

"There is still a possibility she (Virginia Thornton) will face charges," Ms. Crump said. "It's not over yet."