Wednesday, January 7, 2009

28 pit bulls seized from New Bedford apartment




NEW BEDFORD — Animal control officials seized 28 pit bulls — 19 of them puppies — from an unheated West End apartment littered with animal waste, and charged a man and a woman with cruelty to animals.

Multiple dogs were locked in crates built to hold one dog, and five pit bulls — three in one crate — were found in a room in which the floor was frozen over with urine, police said.

Just after 3 p.m. Sunday, officers from New Bedford Animal Control and the Animal Rescue League of Boston executed a warrant at 197 Weld St.

Police said they were tipped off by an anonymous caller who visited the apartment last month in response to a newspaper classified ad selling puppies. The conditions the dogs were kept in led the caller to notify police, officials said.

"It was like someone took a gallon of ammonia and splashed it everywhere," New Bedford Animal Control Officer Emmanuel Maciel said, describing the smell.

There was no electricity in the third-floor apartment. Officers found an extension cord running through a window from the first-floor apartment, officials said.

Police said they have charged Jessica Sandstrum, 26, and Michael Smalls, 34, each with 28 counts of cruelty to animals. They both live in the third-floor apartment where the dogs were discovered. They also will be cited for not vaccinating or having licenses for any of the pit bulls.

Police arrested Ms. Sandstrum on an outstanding warrant for missing a court hearing on motor vehicle violations. Police did not arrest Mr. Smalls, who was not at home Sunday, but he also faces charges, officials said.

"They were trying to make a living out of breeding and selling these dogs," Officer Maciel said.

On Tuesday, both defendants told The Standard-Times that they were not abusing or breeding pit bulls for sale, and that their apartment was not stained with dog urine and feces as police described.

"The animal control guy has something against us," Mr. Smalls said. "We never abuse these dogs. We treat these dogs better than we treat ourselves. I love those dogs like they're little kids."

"All my dogs are healthy," Ms. Sandstrum said. "It was just that there were two litters of puppies we accidentally had."

Officials said there were at least three litters of puppies in the Weld Street apartment.

"People don't realize how fast dogs duplicate when they're not spayed and neutered," Officer Maciel said, adding there were indications of inbreeding among the dogs.

The pit bulls have been taken to shelters in Boston and Fall River, where they will be evaluated and possibly be put up for adoption.

"The dogs look to be in decent shape, given (that) the conditions they were living in were very bad," Officer Maciel said.

Meanwhile, Mr. Smalls said he has received conflicting information from animal control officials. He said he was told he would receive the dogs back if he promised to spay and neuter them. He declined to do so.



"There was no dog breeding. Nothing like that was going on," he said.

Sunday was not the first encounter between animal control officers and the defendants.

On Dec. 11, 2007, while accompanying building inspectors walking through a condemned property at 352 N. Front St., police found the defendants with 18 pit bulls, nine of them puppies from a single litter.

Officer Maciel said eight adult pit bulls were taken because they had not been vaccinated or licensed. Officers left the defendants with the mother and nine puppies. The puppies were not yet required to be licensed or vaccinated.

Officials believe the nine puppies multiplied to the 28 pit bulls that were seized this week.

Mr. Smalls said he and his girlfriend took a lot of dogs in from the street.

"Some of the dogs we had, we rescued them," he said. "We don't like people mistreating or fighting the dogs."

Animal control officials said they have been aware of the problem of dogfighting for several years. Treadmills and other equipment have been found in places suspected of training pit bulls to fight.

In 2007, three pit bulls turned up dead in city waters. They had scratch marks and facial puncture wounds consistent with dogfights.

After December 2007, animal control officials said they lost contact with Mr. Smalls and Ms. Sandstrum until three months ago, when new complaints came in from a Nye Street residence indicating that the defendants were there breeding pit bulls.

Officer Maciel said animal control officers tried contacting the defendants, but they never returned phone calls or messages.

The defendants left the Nye Street area, and officials again did not know where they were until receiving the anonymous call two weeks ago.

"Without the help from the public, we would probably have never known those animals were living in those conditions," Officer Maciel said.

New Bedford police spokesman Lt. Jeffrey P. Silva commended animal control officials for their investigation.

"Once again, our dedicated animal law enforcement professionals have distinguished themselves by rescuing innocent animals from their chasm of cruelty and bringing those responsible to justice," Lt. Silva said.

Contact Brian Fraga at bfraga@s-t.com

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