September, 2008. Keith Streff receives a call from Isanti County Investigator Lisa Lovering about a number of pit bulls being kept at a property near North Branch, MN. There are several complaints that the dogs are aggressive and in poor condition. Keith learns that the animals had recently been at a sale, and were in such poor condition that a prospective buyer had called Isanti County with the complaint.
Keith meets with county officials and suggests a search warrant be obtained to make a more thorough investigation. He initiates a search of the home and property of the owners of the dogs. The search, which is carried out with the cooperation of law enforcement, reveals abject animal cruelty.
Living in mud with a dilapidated shelter, the dogs are spaced throughout the yard on 8-10 foot chains outside, straining to be free. Owners Troy Lieffring and Teresa Schwartz claim that the dogs are well cared for, but cannot remember exactly how many dogs are on the property.
The pit bulls display wounds and scars. Multiple lacerations and scars are found on the face, back, and legs of the dogs. According to Keith, the evidence suggests the dogs are being bred and trained for fighting – an illegal “sport” that exploits dogs, most often pit bulls – by training and breeding aggressive traits into them. Dog fighting is considered a serious felony offense in Minnesota.
“It appears the animals have been kept on chains all of their lives,” says Keith. “Their teeth are broken and their mouths torn from trying to chew through the chains. These dogs must be removed from their owners.”
Keith walks through the house to be sure that no other animals are in jeopardy. He sees a pistol in plain sight and rifles, shotguns and an AK-47 in the bedroom of the owner’s 13 year-old son.
When the 27 seized dogs are put into transport kennels, they strain at the confinement. Several bite through the plastic, causing cuts as they try to break free. Others bite at the metal on the transports. A local veterinarian is called in to tranquilize the animals so that they can be safely transported to the Animal Humane Society’s St. Paul location where they are cared for by trained staff. These dogs have been trained to fight each other and it is uncertain whether they will be aggressive towards humans.
At the Humane Society, the dogs chew through metal water buckets, hard rubber bones and toys, and in one case, the finger of a humane society staff member, Animal Care Technician Brenda Henry. Her thumb has a puncture wound from the dog’s tooth, and is black and blue from the force of the bite (rabies is not present, and Brenda’s thumb will recover fully). Even so, Brenda defends the animals.
“A good majority would have had have sweet temperaments,” she says. Aggression has been trained into the animals. “You just don’t treat animals like that,” she says.
Within ten days of seizure, the owners have a right to appeal the seizure in court. A date is set, and Keith is called as a witness. Keith and Brenda drive to Cambridge for the trial, but the court case is continued because of an overbooked calendar. The appeal of the seizure is continued for eight more days. The owners of the dogs vow that they will have a veterinarian and several other witnesses at the trial.
Under threat of conviction and before the new trial date, owners Lieffring and Schwartz and their lawyer contact Keith. They are prepared to give up their rights to the dogs, but they have one request – to say goodbye to their dogs.
On a chilly Friday evening, Keith Streff meets Lieffring and Schwartz and three others at the Saint Paul shelter. Although he has reason to believe that they may be carrying guns, he greets them and explains how this will work. “You may see the dogs in their kennels. They will not be let out of the kennels and you will not enter the kennels,” he tells them.
When they have agreed, he walks them through the kennels. Lieffring and Schwartz walk from cage to cage, greeting each dog by name and reaching through the fencing. They are crying. Keith shakes his head, wondering how they could treat these dogs so cruelly and still believe they have a bond.
Schwartz turns to Keith with a combination of worry and defiance. “You won’t let anyone adopt them and chain them up, will you?” Keith swallows hard before answering. He does not point out that Teresa herself kept the dogs on chains. “We’ll do our best,” Keith assures her.
As they leave the shelter Keith waits for them to go. He wants to be sure that they have cleared the property before relaxing. “That,” he says, “could have been really dangerous.”
For the AHS staff that now must decide their fate, these dogs present an ethical, moral and emotional dilemma. Because of the wounds, scars, lacerations, prescription drugs and training equipment it is clear that these dogs were used for fighting. Of the 27 dogs, only four pass AHS’s extensive behavioral evaluation which deems them safe to be considered for adoption.
The four dogs that passed have been trained to kill and to fight to their death—what is AHS’s obligation to these dogs and what is its obligation to the family that would adopt them if they are made available? While there is an intense desire to give these dogs a chance the fear is this: What if a dog is placed in a family and kills another dog or worse, harms or kills a person? In the end it is determined that this chance cannot be taken with animals with such a history of violence. The safety of the community outweighs the desire to give the dogs an opportunity for a normal life.
Michael Vick’s dog fighting operation may be called to mind for some. In this case hundreds of thousands of dollars were expended to attempt to rehabilitate a small number of the dogs involved. Because of the notoriety of the case these animals were afforded an opportunity and alternative to euthanasia that is just not reality for other dogs whose lives are essentially ended, one way or another, when they were bred and trained to fight and kill.
At press time, Troy Lieffring and Teresa Schwartz were charged with three criminal counts of animal cruelty—one felony charge of dog fighting and gross misdemeanor charges of torture and cruelty to animals.