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County Lets the Chihuahuas Out

Feral dogs seized from an Acton breeder are being released to rescue groups this week.

August 12, 2003|Tina Daunt | Times Staff Writer

The Chihuahuas have been bailed out of jail.

More than 100 of the little dogs, many of them with severe behavioral problems, were handed over to a dozen rescue groups at the Los Angeles County animal shelter in Baldwin Park on Monday, ending a bitter battle over the dogs' fate.

Rescuers and animal-control officers worked throughout the afternoon, corralling scared, angry and growling Chihuahuas into animal carriers, which were then packed into large cars, SUVs and vans.

"I've been crying tears of joy all day long," said Kimi Peck, president of the Burbank-based Chihuahua Rescue group. "I hope this will set a precedent. We have proven that these dogs can be saved."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday August 14, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 55 words Type of Material: Correction
Chihuahuas -- An article in Tuesday's California section about more than 100 Chihuahuas being released from a Los Angeles County animal shelter inaccurately reported that nationally known animal behaviorist Warren Eckstein was hired as a consultant by Chihuahua Rescue, the group coordinating the dogs' release. Eckstein volunteered his services and was not paid a fee.

The animals, which initially numbered 236, had been held at the county facility since they were confiscated eight months ago from a breeder. The county had deemed only 36 of the dogs suitable for adoption because they had never been socialized and had formed feral fighting packs.

Animal-control officials had intended to destroy the remaining dogs. But after Peck threatened to take legal action, animal-control officials agreed to appear before a judge to work out a solution.

Peck argued that with love and patience, the dogs could be rehabilitated. On Friday, Lancaster Superior Court Judge Lisa Chung, comparing the tiny animals to abused children, announced that the dogs would be released as soon as possible to certified rescue groups willing to give them the necessary care. Another 60 dogs are scheduled to be set free from the shelter this week.

Peck said more than 400 people stepped forward, volunteering to take in the animals. After screening applicants, Peck narrowed the list to about 20 rescue groups, scattered throughout the United States and Canada.

On Monday afternoon, Peck was joined by animal rights advocates from more than a dozen local rescue organizations.

"Chihuahua Rescue has helped us before, and we're here because we want to return the favor," said Sherry Dargahi, who works with a pit bull rescue group outside Santa Clarita. "We're building a special pen for the dogs. I'll be the one working with them. I can't wait."

Officials began releasing the dogs shortly before 2 p.m. The process proved to be slow and arduous. Several animal-control officers, wearing gloves and carrying blankets, worked gingerly to force the frightened dogs into carriers.

At one point, nationally known pet expert Warren Eckstein, hired by Peck several weeks ago to evaluate the dogs, tried to coax one Chihuahua into a box. He ended up with bloody knuckles.

"It doesn't matter," Eckstein said of his wound. "This is nothing compared to what these poor dogs have been through. They are so frightened."

The saga of the Chihuahuas began last year, when neighbors of animal breeder Emma Harter complained that she was housing the dogs in unsanitary conditions. County animal-control officials raided her property in Acton, an unincorporated community northeast of Santa Clarita, and found scores of the dogs living in close quarters. Some of the animals had to be destroyed because they were ill, and some were killed by other Chihuahuas.

The district attorney's office has filed two felony and four misdemeanor animal-cruelty charges against Harter, who faces three years and eight months in state prison if convicted, according to Sandi Gibbons of the Los Angeles district attorney's office.

Kaye Michelson, a spokeswoman for the county Animal Care and Control Department, declined to comment on Harter's case. However, she said county officials were satisfied with the judge's decision to release the dogs.

"It's a win-win for everyone," she said. "We are very pleased the dogs will receive the rehabilitation that they need."

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