Pierce County attorneys successfully argued for legal possession of every living yellow Labrador seized from Stuart E. West’s home during an April raid, plus the additional puppies born at the Animal Humane Society facility in Golden Valley, Minn. -- and they’re sticking the 68-year-old Elmwood man with a tab of nearly $90,000 in accrued animal care fees.
West, who is also facing 117 animal-related criminal charges in a separate case for a suspected puppy mill, will have to pay an estimated $87,962 for housing 69 dogs at the nonprofit facility, plus a $20-per-day rate for the next month for every animal that isn’t adopted out or euthanized, the court ruled Thursday.
After a nearly four-hour hearing, Pierce County Court Commissioner Jorv R. Gavic agreed with the county’s Assistant Corporation Counsel Jason Fey that the owner of Alma Bottom Pointing Labradors was solely responsible for the costs associated with an April 22 raid of his property, where a coalition of law enforcement, animal caretakers and public health officials seized 35 adult dogs and 13 puppies. Fey also noted it was in everyone’s “best interest” for the government to take ownership of the animals, who were living at least two dogs to a crate and eating rotting deer and cow carcasses -- maybe even hair -- as a food source.
“He is not capable of taking care of these animals,” Fey said.
The civil suit is just the first step in the government’s action against West. His next criminal appearing is scheduled for July 12, where he faces allegations of poor ventilation, improper housing and failure to provide food to the dogs.
What remains unclear, however, is how the civil court’s ruling will play into West’s criminal case -- where the dogs that could be adopted or euthanized might be considered evidence -- and how the county will recoup the costs.
Gavic reiterated the point that this specific hearing couldn’t determine whether or not a crime had been committed. But West, who records have shown has struggled to pay both local and state taxes, might not have the means to reimburse the Humane Society or Pierce County.
Represented by Keith A. Belzer of La Crosse-based Devanie, Belzer, & Schroeder, West appeared in court Thursday clean shaven, wearing sneakers, a white shirt and green pants held up by suspenders. His attorney argued against the maximum punishment of straddling the self-employed dog kennel owner with all the costs because, “Frankly, he doesn’t have any money,” Belzer said, adding that he is “essentially homeless” after county public health officials ordered him out because of conditions there.
Even though Humane Society adoption costs range from $150 to more than $350, officials say, that money will go back to the nonprofit -- not the county.
From the onset, West and Belzer faced an uphill battle in court, where, in a last-ditch effort to gather more information, they argued for a continuance. Belzer said he was “not prepared” for the hearing because he had only taken West’s case weeks earlier and needed more time to line up outside experts, like a veterinarian from Texas and a mentioned representative at the federal homeland security department, along with a defense contractor out of California.
“If he doesn’t get experts lined up for today, that’s his problem not the county’s,” Fey responded.
Then, after that failed attempt, Belzer asked Gavic to step aside, requesting a circuit court judge to preside over the case. Outwardly perturbed, Gavic denied that request, too.
The lawsuit hearing included call-in testimony from the Humane Society’s Director of Animal Services Dr. Graham Brayshaw and ASPCA forensic veterinarian Dr. Nicole Eller who both said the dogs were littered with health problems, both physical and emotional, and the conditions inside West’s home contributed to those issues. From ear infections and tick-borne diseases like Lyme, to dental deficiencies and lumps or masses, witnesses claimed the dogs lived in cramped crates and fed on rotting deer carcasses West picked up from the road and diseased cow carcasses he received from a friend -- part of a controversial diet called bone and raw food, or “BARF.”.
“There is no healthy food there,” Fey argued. “There’s none. Zip. Nada.”
In addition, West had no running water in his house -- not for him and not to hydrate the dogs.
Since being under the Humane Society’s roof, 25 yellow Labrador puppies have been born. Three puppies have died and one adult female dog died.
Pierce County Sheriff’s Office Inspector Collin Gilles, who led the coalition inspection in April, said the overwhelming smell of West’s home and land on 350th Street was “atrocious.”
'you could tell it (was bad)'
Broken glass and a “heaping pile of feces” crowded the basement and there was “junk everywhere,” Gilles recalled. Both animal specialists mentioned similar observations.
“Just walking around the property you could tell it (was bad),” Eller told the court, saying her “eyes began to water” because of the stench.
In a series of stories last month, the Herald found local authorities had multiple opportunities to curb West’s questionable dog kennel practices. Cost-saving measures instituted by County Board members in 2005 created circumstances allowing West to go unchecked for years.
Officials decided to sever ties with River Falls-based nonprofit Humane Society of Pierce-St. Croix County, which served as the regional animal control entity, to save money on humane officer efforts. Leaving municipalities to take care of animal issues, the county left towns like El Paso, where West files local dog licensing fees, without humane officers or nearby facilities to house animals.
Without the local Humane Society, West was able to dodge regular kennel inspections outlined in his conditional use permit. El Paso town officials claim they were barred from inspecting West’s facility and, outside of an occasional phone call, didn’t have much contact with him.
Additionally, despite multiple complaints filed with the state Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection, West’s dog kennel facility was legal under state statute because he didn’t sell more than 25 dogs per year. Pierce County Sheriff’s Office didn’t act on multiple complaints either, attributing it to a small staff and anonymous calls.