WHEATLAND, N.D. - Cass County authorities Wednesday seized 170 dogs living in filthy, cramped conditions at an apparent puppy mill near here after an anonymous tipster called a deputy state veterinarian.
The initial report made Tuesday was of 20 neglected dogs. But sheriff's deputies say they number of animals they found at the farmstead of dog breeder Darcy Darrell Smith, 51, may turn out to be 10 times that - a case that could prompt criminal charges and require "an army" to care for them.
Cass County Sheriff's Capt. Mitch Burris said at a news conference Thursday that some of the dogs seized when deputies executed a search warrant at 14604 34th St. SE near Wheatland are pregnant, and he expects the number of dogs to hit 200 soon.
The dogs, described as being Shih Tzus, Maltese and Yorkies, as well as a mix of those breeds, range in age from 5 days to 13 years old. All 170 dogs were taken to the Casselton Veterinary Service.
Burris said that Deputy Greg Smith was "shocked" at the conditions in the trailers in which the dogs were kept. They were stacked in kennels three deep, with five dogs sometimes to a kennel that had, in some cases, 5 inches of feces piled inside them.
"It was hot inside the trailers, and the odor inside the kennels was nauseating," Burris said.
The 170 dogs are under quarantine for two weeks at the Casselton clinic, a precaution that was required because Smith's records were not complete, Burris said.
The animals' general body condition was better than expected, given the conditions they were held in, aside from being underweight, said Dr. Trevor Bjerke, a veterinarian at the Casselton clinic.
However, Bjerke said the animals were lacking basic care such as vaccinations, treatment for ear infections, dental problems and grooming.
Cass County prosecutor Tanya Johnson Martinez said that some of the dogs' fur had become so matted that the animals' movement was restricted by their own hair.
Pondering care, charges
The story of the dogs' plight had already leaked out Thursday to the point where citizen calls offering donations for medical care and other assistance for the dogs had prompted the sheriff's department to establish a drive called "Operation Cass County Rover Rescue," to which residents can donate through any Bremer Bank location.
Authorities asked people not to go to Casselton Veterinary Service, since staff there had been instructed not to comment on what the deputies called an ongoing investigation.
But donations from the public will prove critical in the coming days, Burris said, as Cass County prosecutors estimated the cost of a single hour of veterinary care at $239. The cost of care alone would run anywhere from $300 to $500 per dog, he estimated.
All but 30 of the dogs need to be completely shaved, and Bjerke said all but 40 of them would likely have to be sedated to accomplish it.
"One-hundred-seventy dogs, I've never seen this on TV before," said Bjerke, saying it would "take an army" to care for the animals.
Cass County prosecutors Johnson Martinez and Leah Viste said that they were still gathering information to determine what, if any, criminal charges could be brought against Smith.
In North Dakota, animal neglect or cruelty is a Class A misdemeanor, which can be punishable upon conviction by up to a year in jail and a $2,000 fine.
Viste said that a new law increasing the penalties for animal cruelty had been passed by the Legislature, but since it does not go into effect until Aug. 1, it does not apply in Smith's case.
She said it may be possible to charge each incident as a separate offense, and that the State's Attorney's Office had not looked yet into whether any environmental laws had been violated in having so many animals in one location.
Smith told The Forum he was cooperating fully with both the prosecutors and deputies in Cass County, but he would not comment further.
Supplier for mall store
Smith would not confirm a report from the manager-owner of Pets R' Inn, a pet store at West Acres mall that sold Smith's puppies, that Smith called owner Shaun Evanson on Thursday to tell him his dogs had been seized and that Smith intended to try to get them back.
"We just caught wind - we had no idea," said Evanson on Thursday morning, adding that he was surprised by the reports from customers who had seen the story of the seizure, and that all the dogs he had bought from Smith had been clean and vet-checked when he purchased them.
Evanson told The Forum he had been buying puppies from Smith for about a year, and thought that the breeding operation Smith ran involved no more than five to 10 dogs.
"This makes us sick that he's affiliated with us - which is our fault for not knowing," said Evanson, adding that Smith was the only breeder he bought from with whom he had no prior personal relationship, or had not inspected the breeding operation of.
"We all love pets," said Evanson, "this breaks our hearts."
Evanson said in the past couple of months, Smith had offered him an increased number of litters to sell. Evanson said he had planned to visit Smith's Wheatland property within the week before agreeing to take any of the litters.
"He'd just call when he couldn't sell on his own," he said.
Evanson said he told Smith on Thursday, "We don't want to buy from people like you."
Bjerke said he could not determine what sort of inbreeding might have taken place, since it was unclear whether Smith kept the animals separated by family strain or by some other classification.
He said although the dogs were not at their best when he examined them, they were likely all to wind up being good candidates for adoption, should a judge decide they be taken from their owner permanently.
"We took them out of this (situation) and put them in a new environment," Bjerke said. "Time will tell."
Johnson Martinez said that time donated by the veterinary professionals from the Casselton Veterinary Service, and the efforts of animal welfare groups in the region, was instrumental in getting the dogs housed and cared for.
"It seems like vet techs came out of the woodwork," she said.
Volunteer workers from 4 Luv of Dog will also be donating time to help care for the animals during their quarantine, under the supervision of the Casselton veterinarians.
Sheriff's officials said they will let the public know whether additional help is needed with temporary housing and care once the quarantine is over.
Viste said that Smith had not yet requested the court to return his animals, and that if such a request was made, a judge would decide within 10 days if the animals should remain in the custody of deputies.
"What was most important here given their condition and the heat was their immediate safety," she said.
Readers can reach Forum reporter Emily Welker at (701) 241-5541