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¡Ay, Chihuahua! Judge Will Decide Where, Oh Where, Little Dogs Go

A rescue program is trying to save 174 canines seized from an Acton breeder. Many are deemed unsuitable for adoption. By Tina Daunt, Times Staff Writer.

It's a story of what happens when Chihuahuas go bad. Granted, some people could argue that Chihuahuas always go bad, but perhaps sympathy is in order because 174 little lives hang in the balance.

The saga involves a breeder who let things get out of control, two competing Chihuahua rescue groups, a judge who must determine the dogs' fates and, of course, all those Chihuahuas.

A Los Angeles County Superior Court judge must decide, possibly this Thursday, whether the Chihuahuas, confiscated from a ranch in Acton, are suitable for rescue or must be destroyed.

Animal control officials and one Chihuahua rescue group say most of dogs are just too wild to mix in polite society. Before county animal control officers stepped in, officials said, the animals were kept in filthy conditions and had formed ferocious, feral packs. Think coyotes that would fit in handbags.

Indeed, some of these vicious little dogs have been attacking — and killing — each other during their eight-month captivity at a Baldwin Park animal shelter.

But another Chihuahua rescue group, which plans to hold a candlelight vigil today, is lobbying hard to win freedom for the dogs it calls "angels on death row."

"Chihuahua Rescue just believes that every dog has the right to live, whether they have behavior problems or not," said the Burbank-based group's rescue coordinator. "They might not be great with humans, that doesn't mean they cannot have a wonderful life in their own environment."

The saga started last November and originally involved 236 Chihuahuas.

At that time, neighbors of Emma Harter complained that the animal breeder was housing the dogs in unsanitary conditions. County animal officials raided her property in Acton, an unincorporated rural community in the hills between Santa Clarita and Palmdale, and found scores of the tiny dogs living in close quarters. Too close, as it turned out. The dogs were not neutered or spayed and more Chihuahuas were later born at the shelter in Baldwin Park.

The district attorney's office has filed two felony and four misdemeanor animal cruelty charges against Harter, who is awaiting arraignment. Harter could not be reached for comment. The dogs now occupy one of the Baldwin Park facility's three kennel buildings, five or six dogs per cage. The sheer repetition of Chihuahua after Chihuahua takes some getting used to. There are roly-poly ones and skinny ones. There are long-hairs and the lean "Yo quiero Taco Bell" variety. The dogs are tan and black and white and mottled.

All of them are loud and the effect is ear-splitting.

When a human enters the kennel building, some dogs growl, others cower. None appears friendly. They bare their teeth and visitors wouldn't dare pet one.

A couple who learned of the Chihuahuas' plight visited the shelter Tuesday, not realizing the dogs were not available for adoption. The couple walked into the kennel, setting off a fresh round of barking, yapping and growling. They quickly retreated and went to look at cats.

Initially, county officials determined that only 36 of the Chihuahuas were suitable to be placed with rescue groups. The rest, they said, should be destroyed.

In the face of a legal challenge from Kimi Peck, the leader of Chihuahua Rescue, the county has softened its stance somewhat.

"We don't want to put any animal to sleep that doesn't need to be put to sleep," said Kaye Michelson, a spokeswoman for the Los Angeles Animal Care and Control Department. "But we need people to realize what they are getting into with these dogs. They are pretty unsocialized and have some behavior issues."

She added: "We are working with the rescue group and we will go with the judge's decision."

Richard Spann, a retired Superior Court judge brought in to hear the case, on Thursday is scheduled to hear from a team of animal behaviorists — including nationally known pet expert Warren Eckstein — who have been evaluating the Chihuahuas for several days.

At issue now are 174 dogs. Some of the original 236 died or were so sick that they had to be destroyed. Some of the puppies born at the shelter were put in foster care before they could learn their parents' wild ways.

Eckstein, who visited animals at the request of Chihuahua Rescue, said he believed the dogs can be rehabilitated.

"The bottom line is there's not a dog in there who can't live with somebody," Eckstein said. Peck said her group would hold its vigil at a kennel she runs in Burbank tonight to call for the dogs' rescue. She said she has also chartered buses to transport supporters to the courthouse in Lancaster for the hearing before Spann.

Hoping the judge would find in the group's favor, Peck said she was prepared to house some of the dogs at her kennel. She said animal rescue groups around the country have also volunteered to take in the dogs. Alaska Airlines has agreed to transport the dogs to cities where rescuers were standing by.

"We're ready to go," said Peck, the former daughter-in-law of the late Gregory Peck.

But not everyone agrees that these dogs' barks are worse than their bites.

One animal group, Chihuahua Rescue & Transport, posted a warning on its Web site this week:

"We have received information that the majority of the dogs are not adoptable because of serious genetic/health and behavioral problems due to inbreeding and lack of socialization," according to the Web site, http://www.<null> . "Therefore, we cannot support these dogs being placed in any homes."

In a follow-up e-mail, group official Lynnie Bunten said: "Lots of well-meaning folks are scurrying around on the Internet in a frenzy to try to save them all. Most are not going to be saved because they are so aggressive."

Peck, who has been operating with little sleep in recent days, said she would not give up.

"I have been rehabilitating dogs like this for the past 10 years," she said. "I know it can be done."

July 24, 2004

Burbank Leader
Dog handler sentenced
* Woman convicted of animal cruelty put on probation for five years and ordered to seek counseling.

By Jackson Bell, The Leader

BURBANK — A woman convicted of animal cruelty for keeping more than 230 Chihuahuas in her home has been sentenced to five years probation and ordered to undergo counseling, authorities said.

Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Lisa Chung on Thursday also prohibited Regina Harter, 73, of Acton, from owning or handling animals, and will be searched by animal- control officers every three months. The sentence was handed down Thursday.

The dogs, along with 60 birds, were seized from Harter's home in November 2002. Animal- control officers found feces throughout her home, and some of the dogs were living in the overcrowded house's walls, authorities said. They added that most of the dogs had formed vicious, feral packs.

A Lancaster Superior Court jury on March 16 convicted Harter of four felony counts of animal cruelty and four misdemeanor charges, including assault on an officer.

Harter's attorney, Robert Conaway, did not return calls Friday.

Many of the seized dogs died from illness, and the 150 that survived were scheduled to be euthanized. But the Burbank- based Chihuahua Rescue fought last summer to save the dogs by placing them with people trained to deal with antisocial animals.

Chihuahua Rescue representatives did not return calls Thursday or Friday.

Harter was ordered to pay restitution estimated at $440,000, which should cover the expense of collecting the animals, treating them and providing boarding for them. The official amount will be set at a Sept. 8 hearing.