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Chihuahua Breeder Collapses After Animal Abuse Conviction

March 17, 2004|Sara Lin | Times Staff Writer

A 72-year-old dog breeder convicted Tuesday of keeping 235 Chihuahuas in fetid conditions collapsed after the verdict was read and had to be taken out of the courtroom on a stretcher.

Emma Regina Harter of Acton sobbed uncontrollably as she was declared guilty of four counts of animal abuse, including one felony cruelty charge and one count of battering an officer. With her head down on the table, Harter said she had done nothing wrong.

After collapsing, she was taken to a hospital. Her condition was unknown late Tuesday.

Robert D. Conaway, Harter's attorney, had said in his opening statements that his client was a considerate breeder who "opened her house to dogs."

Harter faces up to 5 1/2 years in prison, but Deputy Dist. Atty. Steven Heller said that based on her age and lack of a criminal record, he will not recommend imprisonment. The attorneys will meet with the judge Friday for an update on Harter's condition and to set a sentencing date.

"She clearly needs counseling," Heller said. "I personally don't believe she is able to admit to herself that what she did was wrong. It was a difficult case. She's an older lady; it raises some different issues."

The prosecutor said he will recommend that Harter be placed on probation and not be allowed to have any more animals. Heller will also recommend counseling and possibly ask that she pay restitution for the dogs' impound fees. The fees were more than $500,000, he said.

The dogs were seized from Harter's four-bedroom home in November 2002 and taken into custody by the Los Angeles County Department of Animal Care and Control. County officials had investigated four months earlier after neighbors complained about barking and stench, but Harter refused to let officers into her house. They returned with an inspection warrant and found scores of dogs living in packed quarters.

A video filmed by animal control officers as they entered the house showed dogs on tables and couches, soiled newspapers, dirty sheets, bloated ticks and feces. Outside, dead dogs were found in a freezer and shopping bags stuffed with dog carcasses littered the yard.

Many of the dogs in the house were inbred and suffered severe behavioral problems, forming feral fighting packs. Several died or were euthanized after they were taken from Harter's home.

The dogs had become so aggressive that they attacked and killed each other, the prosecutor said during the trial.

County officials had planned to euthanize the dogs, but after a lengthy hearing in August, Superior Court Judge Lisa Chung ordered the 177 remaining dogs turned over to Burbank-based Chihuahua Rescue for training to make them adoptable. According to Kimi Peck, executive director of Chihuahua Rescue, the dogs were dispersed to six organizations, with Chihuahua Rescue keeping the old and the sick.

Lt. Sheri Koenig, who led the inspection of Harter's home, testified that she had never before seen such conditions.

Jurors heard testimony from Harter's daughter, who testified that the home had been ransacked and that filth is a relative term. A veterinarian present during the impounding described the horrific conditions of the dogs. Conaway called the vet's testimony unfair to his client because the bodies of dogs euthanized or found dead were disposed of before autopsies could be performed.

"She testified and admitted they trashed the evidence of all the dead dogs," Conaway said.

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