08/13/09 — Kennel owner Thornton on trial

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Kennel owner Thornton on trial

By Nick Hiltunen
Published in News on August 13, 2009 1:46 PM

Virginia Thornton

A woman accused of 12 counts of animal cruelty in connection with running an alleged "puppy mill" went to trial Wednesday.

Virginia Thornton, 66, former owner of Thornton Kennel, was arrested after some 280 small-breed dogs were seized from the facility by Wayne County officials in February.

Now Mrs. Thornton is defending herself against a dozen misdemeanor counts of animal cruelty in Wayne County District Court.

Assistant District Attorney Terry Yeh spent much of Wednesday quizzing witnesses about the dogs seized from the property, and their medical conditions.

Mrs. Thornton's defense attorney, Billy Strickland, tried to poke holes in the state's evidence by asking if the medical conditions that Thornton's dogs had were common and whether they could have been caused by something other than abuse or neglect.

Justin Scally, the former Wayne County Animal Control director who initiated the case against Mrs. Thornton, testified that conditions were poor at the breeding facility.

"The animals had feces caked to their skin, their fur," Scally said, adding that he visited the site of Thornton Kennel at least five times after receiving complaints.

He testified that Mrs. Thornton made some improvements, and had all of the animals vaccinated for rabies. But he also said that Mrs. Thornton never cooperated to his satisfaction.

Scally has since resigned his job as animal control director, taking a position with the Humane Society of the United States as deputy manager of a "Puppy Mill Task Force."

The defense attorney had questions about that connection, because the U.S. Humane Society had helped seize the dogs from Thornton Kennel.

Strickland also asked about the lobbying of legislators -- regarding a bill sponsored by Sen. Don Davis, D-Greene, that is currently in a House committee -- not long after Mrs. Thornton's arrest, wondering if Scally had used the case to propel his career.

"Was this your banner child?" the defense attorney asked.

Replied Scally, "No sir."

Scally testified that the animals he seized had matted fur soiled with feces and urine, and said that 90 percent of them needed medical treatment.

Veterinarian Lisa Dixon of Charlotte, who supervised the veterinary team at the Wayne County Fairgrounds after the dogs were seized, testified to the medical condition of the seized dogs.

She entered one of the buildings at the former Thornton Kennel property, on Westbrook Church Road, near Newton Grove.

"I was just a little overwhelmed at how many cages. Most of the rooms had stacks of two or three cages," Dr. Dixon testified.

The veterinarian testified that all the dogs had "significantly long hair," which can lead to matting of fur, then skin disease. Some of the dogs exhibited "scalding," a painful condition of the skin caused by lack of grooming, Dr. Dixon testified.

Another dog was "severely thin, in a malnourished condition. It had no teeth in its mouth," Dr. Dixon said, adding the dog had an oral-nasal fistula.

"When a tooth is so rotted, it starts eating away at the bone around it," Dr. Dixon said. "Then the tooth falls out, and when the tooth fell out, a large hole was left.

"That hole went from the mouth cavity up into the nose cavity and basically moved through the entire length of the jawbone, on both sides of the upper jaw."

Mrs. Yeh, the assistant district attorney, asked, "How long would it take for such a condition to develop under the best of circumstances?"

"Years," answered Dr. Dixon, who also testified about the conditions of the other dogs involved in the complaint.

Those conditions included missing teeth and gingivitis, a metal collar link that had punctured a dog's skin and had become ingrown, over-tight collars, a disease called "urine scale," caused by long-term contact with urine, and ulcers on at least one dog's eyes.

Dr. Dixon said most of the conditions that the dogs had could have been preventable with proper care.

Strickland, however, argued that some of the dogs may have been predisposed to some conditions because of their breed, in particular eye infections that were said to be a problem with some of the dogs seized from Thornton Kennel.

The trial was expected to continue at 9 a.m. today.