Rabbit Advocacy Animal Matters


Pennsylvania SPCA: Stopping animal abuse or abusing power?

By Beth Brelje, Pocono Record Writer - December 21, 2008 

Miss Kittipie's owner, Linda Jones-Newman, watched in horror as her 13-year-old quarter horse was killed by lethal injection under the direction of the Pennsylvania Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

Now, the agency is being accused in federal court of violating Jones-Newman's civil rights.

The Pennsylvania case could set precedent across the United States for the way SPCAs seize and destroy property without recourse for owners. The case will be heard in Wilkes-Barre federal court. Litigants are awaiting a trial date. On Jan. 9, 2006, three days before Miss Kittipie was killed, Linda and husband Kevin Newman called their longtime vet, Ellen Johnson. She had been working with the Newmans to identify the cause of a recent illness in horses at the Thompson bed and breakfast business that featured horseback trail rides for guests. The Newmans asked Johnson to put down two of their sick horses.

Another horse, Miss Kittipie, was a former racer who received an injection of medicine in her injured knee when she was 2. The medicine caused the knee to swell and it stayed that way. The horse managed normally with the knee for 11 years and even brought eight foals to term as a brood mare. Miss Kittipie had been with the Newmans for nine months.

Johnson saw the knee and thought Miss Kittipie was crippled. She tried to convince the Newmans to put her down. They would not agree. When she left the farm Jan. 9, Johnson, who was later found to be working without a veterinary license according to court papers, called the PSPCA. Johnson later admitted, at a preliminary hearing in court, that Miss Kittipie's condition was chronic rather than an emergency.

Three days later, with no warning, PSPCA humane police officer Chad Weaver served a search warrant and issued a threat to the Newmans. "He said, 'This can end right now. If you give me all your animals, this can end.' He said they would drop the animal cruelty charges if I cooperated and gave all my animals over," Kevin Newman said. The animals had food, water and shelter. Newman did not agree to give them up.

This tactic is part of PSPCA humane officer training statewide. "We were taught to intimidate people into giving their animals up. We were told to tell them 'in lieu of charges, surrender your animals,'" said one former PSPCA humane officer.

Some former officers say there was a quota.

"My Christmas bonus depended on how many animals I brought in," said former PSPCA humane officer Tammy Kerr. That's false, says Howard Nelson, PSPCA chief executive. "There is no such quota. The majority of our cases are resolved by leaving the animals in place with some education," he said.

Kevin Newman says that without discussion and with no opportunity to get another vet's opinion, humane officers walked Miss Kittipie out of her stall the day of the raid and instructed Johnson to kill her, right in front of the owners. "I was really hurt. She was a sweet horse," Newman said.

Abuse of power?

The lawsuit brought by Linda Jones-Newman accuses the PSPCA of violating her civil rights by abusing its authority. It says humane police officers, acting as agents of the state, or acting under the color of law, seized property without notice and did not allow the Newmans an opportunity for defense.

"They took property and destroyed it and permanently deprived them of it, without giving the Newmans an opportunity for a hearing," said Stroudsburg attorney Kevin Fitzgerald, who represents Jones-Newman. "This theory that humane officers have all this authority not true. There are all kinds of checks and balances," countered Nelson.

PSPCA humane officers take photos and video of evidence at the scene. They also document an animal's condition during a medical evaluation.

After killing Miss Kittipie, the PSPCA humane officers were not done. They loaded up many animals: six ducks, two guinea hens, 15 chickens, seven geese, one parakeet, four cats, five dogs, five pigmy goats, one mini pony, two mini donkeys, two llamas, one miniature cow, three sheep, 16 horses and one grade pony. The seized animals became evidence. Some of the evidence was destroyed. The miniature cow was later killed by the PSPCA, which claimed it was dehydrated.

Humane officers also removed a macaw from the house in the middle of winter and left the tropical bird in a cold vehicle for hours during the seizure, according to Kevin Newman.

True to his word — since the animals were not given up freely — Weaver charged Linda Jones-Newman with 25 counts of animal cruelty and deprivation and Kevin Newman with two counts. A judge later dismissed all charges against Linda and one against Kevin. He paid $75 in a total fines for faulty sanitary conditions of four dogs. The PSPCA was ordered to give the animals back.

If they had been found guilty, the Newmans would have been forced to pay the PSPCA about $56,000 for the care of their animals by the agency and other foster homes. They also would have had to pay for the cost of the destruction of any animals the PSPCA deemed sick under Pennsylvania cruelty to animals law.

"The Newmans were running a rescue. They were taking animals in bad shape and trying to rehabilitate them. The PSPCA made a decision that some animals could not be rehabilitated," said attorney Fitzgerald.

'Deplorable condition'

Some of the animals that lived through the ordeal were returned from the PSPCA in deplorable condition, according to Newman. The dogs and cats had fleas, ear mites and hair so matted that it had to be cut. A tricolor Australian shepherd's white fur was stained yellow from months of living in the PSPCA's urine-soaked cage. "He was lying in urine when we went to get them," Newman said.

"Linda Jones was found not guilty of cruelty to animals on all counts. If not guilty of cruelty, why did they kill the animals?" Fitzgerald said.

Publicity for this and other high-profile seizures boosts PSPCA donations while simultaneously smearing the reputation of animal owners. "After this happened I was afraid to leave my farm. I thought they would come back. Now people look at me like I'm the animal killer. Everybody thinks they (PSPCA) are God's gift to animals. They kill most of the animals that they have in their shelters and the ones they confiscate," Newman claimed.

Testimony given in court is considered credible when coming from PSPCA officers because they are supposed to be animal experts. They also have total control over evidence — animals — that are alive and can change over time.

In the Newman case, humane officers made life-and-death decisions about animals first and prosecuted later. "They claimed the animal was in dire straights after the fact," Fitzgerald said.

Animals as evidence

Live evidence kept in storage cages for months and sometimes years while court cases drag on cannot be adopted out. It would seem to create a storage problem at the crowded shelters.

"It is the same process the police go through when they suspect a crime. In any search warrant process, the evidence is always seized. You have to secure the evidence to put on your case. The difference with a living, breathing animal is that we have to provide care. We are required by law to do everything we can for the animals so they are ready for adoption when we win the case," Nelson said.

When confiscated animals die of sicknesses, the blame is often allocated to the allegedly abusive owner, even after the animals have been in PSPCA care long enough to develop new illnesses.

Half of the cats seized in a Venengo County case died under PSPCA care. (The humane officer's authority to have animals surrendered was challenged in court in that case and a judge ruled in favor of the PSPCA).

The PSPCA made its case in a statement to the Pocono Record: "When animals are seized as evidence, they are just that — evidence for the case. Until a judge makes a determination of guilt in the case, the animals are still property of the defense. We cannot adopt the animals, but we can make a determination, with veterinary guidance, to euthanize suffering animals."

Animals that don't die in PSPCA custody can be penned up so long that they go stir crazy. Once an animal's behavior is negatively affected, it may likely be considered not adoptable and become marked for death row. Animals cleared for adoption pay their own way. They are not adopted out until a new owner gives a cash donation to the PSPCA.

Comment: This story is by no means unique.  The SPCA has increasingly come under attack for abuses of power, not only in the USA, but in other countries such as Britain and Canada.  The BC SPCA has faced lawsuits of this nature in recent years. In Ontario, the farmers and the the OSPCA have been at odds for decades. It's a system that has been broken since the late 1980's.

Farmers and the Ontario SPCA: The Case of the Limping Pig

OSPCA Truth: Sunny Reuter's Story

Farm animal movement, 'ag gag' bills, concealing cruelty, European and AU law

Of interest: Effectively silencing Canada’s whistleblowers