By Jeff Moravec
This may have been the longest 89 days in the history of Animal Humane Society.
It started on July 16, an hour before the sun came up, when a cadre of AHS animal care staff piled into three vans to make the long drive from AHS's Golden Valley facility to Pine River, Minn., a resort town of 900 northwest of the Twin Cities. The half-dozen people in the caravan had been instructed to meet AHS humane investigations agent Wade Hanson at a gravel parking lot next to the Pine River Police Department. Working with the Cass County Sheriff's Office and local police, Hanson needed the team to help with the seizure of an estimated 80 dogs reported to be living in inhumane conditions in a breeding facility owned by Deborah Rowell on the eastern edge of the city.
Hanson and the animal care team arrived in Pine River and huddled to finalize plans. Hanson departed to rendezvous with the law enforcement officials, and they proceeded to Rowell's property to present the search warrant. He then called in the team.
The crew arrived and rolled up Rowell's muddy driveway. It didn't take long to realize that this was a more severe situation than anyone expected. During the course of the seizure, they would uncover a total of 133 dogs and puppies suffering from neglect. On this humid, 90-degree day, the dogs were exposed to the blazing sun in a seemingly endless line of chain-link kennels, with only rancid water and moldy food for sustenance. Puppies and pregnant dogs were cowering in cramped quarters and stifling temperatures inside a shed next to Rowell's home.
With tenderness these animals had likely never experienced, the team went to work removing the canines. They watered them and placed them in kennels in the shade of a large tree. Calling in help from the Heartland Animal Rescue Team in nearby Brainerd, they began transporting the dogs to Golden Valley in air-conditioned vehicles, an operation that would extend into the wee hours of the next day. There were so many animals that some of the vans would have to make the six-hour round-trip again before all the dogs and puppies were safely removed.
But rather than the end of Deborah Rowell's story, this was only the beginning. For nearly three months, until October, Rowell would fight the seizure in court, using all legal means available to contest the validity of the search warrant used to seize the dogs.
During those 89 days that Rowell challenged the seizure, the future of the dogs remained in limbo – and not just those that were seized. Dozens of puppies were born to the pregnant dogs, most of them cared for at AHS's St. Paul facility. In all, more than 200 dogs and puppies waited to see whether a court would allow Rowell to reclaim the animals or if AHS would be allowed to find them new homes.
From beginning to end, AHS marshaled its forces to do what it does best – care for animals. Initially, that meant identifying health issues and medical conditions, and providing the appropriate treatment. But then, despite not knowing if these animals would end up back in Rowell's hands, AHS staff and volunteers took to the task of transforming these timid, unsocialized Pine River dogs into companion animals that could be welcomed into new homes. It was not just a job for hundreds of AHS staff and volunteers – it was a mission.
“Even though there was so much to be sad or upset about regarding where these dogs came from, no one really dwelled on that,” says Anne Johnson, AHS director of sites. ”Everyone just did what was necessary to care for the dogs while we waited. The compassion and dedication of our staff is what came to the forefront. We expect a lot, but we got even more. It was honestly amazing.”
Time and time again, as summer turned to fall, the grapevine would come alive with the word that maybe this case was almost over, that maybe the court was about to release the dogs. But time and time again, Rowell would go back to the court, and the decision about what would happen to the dogs would once more be delayed.
“It was heartbreaking seeing these dogs sit in cages when we knew they should be in loving homes,” says Ashley Sheridan, an AHS animal care technician lead. ”But we knew we could make a difference in their lives no matter what happened, and that's what we set out to do.”
“There have been a lot of emotions through these months, but the most emotional was the first day I spent helping in the big room where all the dogs were kept,” says Danny Robb, an AHS volunteer coordinator. ”That day I saw staff from different departments, volunteers and donors. It was truly amazing to see all these different stakeholders coming together for this cause – people from so many different roles, getting in and getting the work done so at the end of the day the dogs were better than when we found them.”
Providing basic care for so many dogs was in itself a challenge, but AHS staff was committed to doing more than that. Volunteers were solicited to put the dogs on a schedule for walks, and staff like Ashley even came in on their days off to get the animals outside to exercise in the fresh air.
“It was emotional taking the dogs outside for their first walk, knowing that they had probably never been for a walk or even touched grass before,” she says. ”They started off their walks very cautiously, but eventually they relaxed and it was a joyous moment watching how much fun they would have chasing bugs, picking up leaves, and sniffing everything.”
AHS volunteers stepped up in amazing numbers. By the time the dogs were released for adoption, more than 260 volunteers had contributed in excess of 2,100 hours of care.
Cheryl Carrigan was one of those volunteers, coming in to help with the dogs two or three times each week. ”Each time I would do the same routine – cleaning kennels, giving fresh water, petting the ones that wanted it and talking to the ones that were afraid,” she says. ”I kept telling them that we were working hard as an organization to fight for them and to be their voice. As the weeks went on, it was incredible to see their personalities develop and their trust in humans start to be re-established.”
That opinion is seconded by Sue Brown, AHS operations support liaison, who was one of the team members who went to Pine River and worked with the dogs during their entire stay. ”Many of these dogs have gone through a major transformation. They don't have to fight for food or water or to get out of extreme weather conditions. Their personalities have really changed. None of that would have been possible if it hadn't been for the support and hard work of our animal care staff, behavioral staff, volunteers, and adoption prep volunteers.”
On October 10, AHS President & CEO Janelle Dixon could finally say the words so many had waited so long to hear. Rowell had run out of options. ”It is with great joy that I tell you today that the Pine River dogs have been released to AHS and will soon be in our adoption centers and then on their way to new homes,” Janelle said. ”It has been a long, hard journey but in the end, this is what we all wanted – the outcome that is best for the animals. Hallelujah!"
It was an emotional day, but not quite as much as Saturday, October 12, when the Pine River dogs, spread out among AHS's five adoption centers, finally began going to their new homes. By the end of that weekend, more than a hundred Pine River dogs were adopted.
“From the moment those doors opened, the smiles didn't leave people's faces, even when they were crying,” Anne Johnson said.
“Honestly, my cheeks hurt from smiling so much,” added Lynne Bengtson, AHS volunteer services manager. ”It was truly an amazing day, and I am in awe of everyone who cared for these dogs – and the great folks who came to give these dogs loving homes.”
July 16 • Animal Humane Society works with the Cass County Sheriff on the removal of 133 dogs, including 29 puppies, from the property of dog breeder Deborah Rowell in Pine River, Minn., about 150 miles northwest of the Twin Cities. The sheriff's office had issued a search warrant as the result of an ongoing investigation into complaints of animal cruelty at the breeding facility.
July 29 • A nine-count criminal complaint is filed by the Cass County attorney's office, charging Rowell with violating the state's animal cruelty laws.
August 16 • In civil court, a Cass County judge upholds the validity of the July 16 search warrant, refusing Rowell's request that it be dismissed. The judge rules that the dogs could be returned to Rowell but only if: within 10 days, she proves she has improved her facilities so that the animals can be adequately cared for; and if she pays two separate bonds, one for $10,000 and one for $60,000.
August 29 • A second judge, following recusal of the first, reaffirms the validity of the search warrant but changes the stipulation so that Rowell must pay the actual cost incurred for caring for the animals from the date of seizure to the date of reclaim. She is given 10 days to do that.
September 9 • Rowell files a motion with the appellate court for a stay of the August 29 decision.
September 11 • The appellate court requires Rowell, in order to continue the case, to post a bond based on the actual costs incurred in caring for the animals. Rowell subsequently asks the court to stay the bond payment, but her request is denied.
October 9 • When Rowell does not make the payment, the lower court ruling is allowed to stand, and the seized dogs are released to the custody of the Cass County sheriff. The sheriff's office then gives permission to AHS to begin placing the animals, which it does, beginning October 12.
October 14 • In criminal court, Rowell pleads guilty to one misdemeanor charge of having improper kennel sizes. Eight other charges related to animal cruelty are dismissed. She is fined $50, and given a 90-day jail sentence, which is stayed. She is required to allow police to inspect her kennels.