Authorities seize dogs from Benton County compound

By Paula Horton, Herald staff writerMay 28, 2009 

KENNEWICK -- What Humane Society officials said was one of the nation's largest and worst puppy mills was shut down in Kennewick on Wednesday by the Benton County Sheriff's Office.

Detectives, deputies and about 50 specially trained volunteers from various animal rescue groups seized more than 400 dogs.

The animals were found living in wooden crates, shopping carts and other makeshift kennels caked with feces and soaked with urine.

Sheriff Larry Taylor said the conditions at Ella Stewart's home at 511 E. 27th Ave. were horrible.

"The conditions were not only shocking, but also heartbreaking to veteran deputies," he said.

Inga Gibson, state director with The Humane Society of the United States West Coast Regional Office, said they've rescued animals from more than a half-dozen operations in the past couple of months.

"This is definitely one of the worst cases we have seen because of the conditions they were kept in," Gibson said. "It's one of the largest in Washington state and close to one of the largest in the country."

Stewart, 66, owns Sun Valley Kennel, where she breeds miniature American Eskimo dogs. She reportedly has owned the operation since the 1960s.

All of the dogs will need some medical care but some will need extensive treatment, Taylor said. All also need extensive cleaning.

Officials said some of the dogs suffered from malnutrition, urine burns and overgrown claws.

Sheriff's officials arrived at Stewart's home at 8:30 a.m. Wednesday, where they served a warrant to seize the dogs, assess the living conditions of the property and collect any business documentation of animal sales.

Detectives wore gloves and put booties on their shoes before walking onto Stewart's two-acre property.

Stewart, who was home when officials arrived, was "relatively cooperative," Taylor said.

The westbound lane of 27th Avenue between Gum and Washington streets was closed as patrol cars and dozens of vehicles filled with volunteers and cages lined the road in front of Stewart's home.

A 75-foot semi-truck with cages built into the air-conditioned trailer was used to haul the dogs to the Benton County Fairgrounds where temporary kennels had been set up Tuesday. The animals will be moved before the annual fair starts in August.

After the living conditions were documented by pictures and videos, rescue workers slowly and methodically began capturing dogs.

Each dog was given a preliminary exam, had a picture taken and was tagged before being taken off the property. More comprehensive exams will be conducted at the fairgrounds.

Some puppies cowered as rescuers climbed into the pens but were relatively calm once they were leashed and carried to the examining table. Other dogs barked, growled and frantically jumped around as workers got close.

One rescuer carried a dog under his arm and three tiny newborn puppies in the palm of his hand.

Neighbors gathered across from Stewart's home and on an adjacent property happily watching. They said it'll be nice when it's quiet and they can spend time in their yards without the foul odor.

"The lack of smell will be fabulous. Just knowing this has come to an end is fabulous," said Helen Richardson, whose daughter has lived next door to Stewart for 20 years.

A couple of neighbors thanked a group of deputies as they walked by.

"I'm greatly relieved. Words can't describe the joy and relief," said Richardson. "... This is like the Holocaust, only with dogs."

Richardson said the family has been saddened by what they've witnessed over the years and frustrated that nothing was done sooner .

"If she knows what she's done, she's evil," Richardson said. "But to give her the benefit of the doubt, she can't know the magnitude."

Stewart was arrested May 12 after a deputy found deplorable conditions at her kennel while responding to an unrelated call at a neighbor's home. She pleaded innocent to one count of second-degree animal cruelty in Benton County District Court and will be back in court in early June.

Second-degree animal cruelty is a misdemeanor that carries a maximum penalty of 90 days in jails and up to a $1,000 fine. But prosecutors reviewing the case said additional charges are possible.

The dogs weren't seized two weeks ago because the county doesn't have an animal control facility and there was nowhere to house them.

"We can't just go out there and arbitrarily seize 400 dogs with no place to put them," the sheriff said.

It took time to find a licensed veterinarian who could provide an expert opinion on the dogs' condition and animal rescue groups that could help out.

Last week, sheriff's officials made a second trip to Stewart's property, which is just outside the Kennewick city limits, along with health department officials, a code enforcement officer, a veterinarian and county Commissioner Jim Beaver, to inspect the site.

Animal control doesn't fall under the jurisdiction of the sheriff's office, but Taylor said he was glad to take the lead on finding a solution to the problem.

"My position is we're in dire conditions. I'll worry about the finances later," Taylor said. "This isn't something we run into every day. This has a tremendous impact on the sheriff's office and the county."

Food and other supplies, donated by Pet-Smart Charities, were unloaded Tuesday from a semi-truck with the words "Emergency Relief Waggin' " on the side.

In addition to The Humane Society of the United States, rescue groups that are helping are Emergency Animal Rescue Services from Seattle; United Animal Nations from Sacramento, Calif.; Humane Evacuation Animal Response Team from Spokane; and Spokanimal CARE from Spokane.

Officials said the volunteers are specially trained to care for animals found living in such conditions. No additional volunteers are needed, but Taylor said they desperately need veterinarian assistance.

Veterinarians who can help can call the sheriff's office at 735-6555, ext. 5.

Dr. Charles Coleman, of Coleman Animal Health Center in Pasco, is the lead veterinarian assisting the sheriff's office. Dr. Tanja Menks and Dr. Eric Gillum were also on the site Wednesday helping check the dogs.

Community members can donate money to the sheriff's office that will be designated to specifically help cover costs of food and medical care for the dogs. Checks made out to the Benton County Treasurer can be sent to Sheriff Taylor at 7122 W. Okanogan St., Building A, Kennewick, 99336.

* Paula Horton: 509-582-1556; phorton@tricityherald.com

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