Thursday, August 7, 2003

California: In court, Emma Harter pleads not guilty to felony and misdemeanor animal cruelty

CALIFORNIA -- A retired school cafeteria manager from whom county officials seized more than 200 Chihuahuas pleaded not guilty Tuesday to felony animal cruelty and other charges.

Los Angeles County animal control officials also are seeking to remove two Chihuahuas, a male and a female, remaining at 72-year-old Emma Harter's Acton home, because they are not spayed or neutered.

"There is some worry that it will be the beginning of the next generation of 200," Deputy District Attorney Steven Heller said after a court hearing Tuesday in Lancaster.

Harter, who is free on a written promise to appear in court, is charged with two counts of felony animal cruelty and misdemeanor charges of battery on an animal control officer, creating a public nuisance, running an illegal kennel, animal endangerment, keeping animals in unsanitary conditions and failing to isolate sick animals.

Harter was convicted in 1995 for operating an illegal kennel, but that conviction was overturned by an appeals court. 

Lancaster Superior Court Judge Lisa Chung is expected to rule Friday on what do with 170 Chihuahuas that have been kept at a county shelter in Baldwin Park since being taken by authorities from Harter in November.

Officials estimated in July that it was costing the county about $2,000 a day to keep the dogs, totaling about $500,000 as of last month.

Chung denied a motion by Harter's attorney that the battery charge should be tried separately from the animal charges. Her attorney said the battery charge would be inflammatory and prejudicial if combined with the animal charges.

The prosecutor argued that the alleged battery took place during the serving of a search warrant and that "any prejudice that might take place is minimal."

"It's a misdemeanor charge. It's not a charge where she fired a shotgun," Heller said. "Separating the count out would be an incredible waste of time and burden to the system."

At a court hearing in July, an agreement about what to do with the dogs fell apart after Harter refused to sign on to an agreement that would have released them to a Chihuahua rescue group based in Burbank.

At Harter's home, the Chihuahuas had formed feral packs that preyed on weaker dogs, animal control officials have said. Inbreeding also had affected their behavior, officials said.

County officials said just 36 of the dogs are adoptable, but officials with Burbank-based Chihuahua Rescue, which has spearheaded the effort to save the dogs from being killed, have said the dogs can be rehabilitated and given to new owners.

(LA Daily News - August 6, 2003)