CAPE MAY COURT HOUSE — One of three people facing animal cruelty charges in connection with the seizure of dozens of dogs from a Middle Township property testified Monday that she and her parents never harmed any of the animals at her family’s Goshen Road home.
“Leann, do you love animals?” asked defense attorney Mark Rinkus. “Yes,” replied his client, Leann Thomas. Thomas, 20, said her family often traveled to North Carolina to rescue dogs from what she said was a high-kill shelter.
“We were adopting them out to find them homes,” Thomas told Superior Court Judge Raymond Batten. “The mission was to find them good homes.”
Investigators from the New Jersey SPCA went to the family home with a search warrant on Dec. 18, 2010. They seized 61 dogs, many of which were in poor health.
Leann Thomas’ parents, Dawn Scheld and Leroy Thomas Jr., face several third-degree charges of animal cruelty; all three are charged with conspiracy to commit animal cruelty.
SPCA Investigator Theresa Cooper previously said many of the animals were living amid feces and urine and were infested with fleas.
Defense attorney Robert Pinizotto, representing Leroy Thomas Jr., asked why Leann Thomas allowed the animals to live that way.
“I didn’t believe it was wrong,” she said.
She told the judge that the family did clean when it wasn’t too busy and that no one in the family ever intentionally gave the animals any diseases.
“Why did you choose to live like that?” Pinizotto asked.
“It didn’t bother me. I thought we were doing the right thing,” she said of the family’s interest in saving the animals from being euthanized.
During cross-examination, Assistant Prosecutor Christine Smith showed Leann Thomas and the court a photograph of the family kitchen with piles of feces on the floor.
“You didn’t mind it?” Smith asked. “No,” Leann Thomas said.
Thomas also said she wasn’t living at the home at the time of the search warrant, but she admitted she maintained the Goshen Road address on her driver’s license and that she continued to keep her possessions at the home.
Smith also said a sign on a bathroom door that asked the door be kept closed was meant to keep in several puppies that were locked in the room. Leann Thomas denied that, saying the sign, which she wrote, was placed there in 2009 so that the door would be closed keeping other dogs out.
Rinkus asked her if she lived in the conditions at the house because her concern was saving the animals.
“Was that more important than the way you lived?” he asked.
“Yes,” Leann Thomas said.
Her testimony came after the court heard from Dr. Heather Lingley, a Mount Holly-based veterinarian.
Lingley was a volunteer with the SPCA and was on the scene when the search warrant was served in 2010.
She described finding dogs in various conditions at the property.
Dog number one, for instance, was a dachshund mix with its eyes completely crusted over. Lingley said, “These eyes were caked closed.”
The dog was later taken to an opthamalogist who performed surgery to save its eyes, Lingley said.
Another dog had suffered a rectal prolapse, meaning it had tried so hard to defecate because of diarrhea that the tissue of the rectum was pushed outward. It required corrective surgery.
The dog, Lingley said, was experiencing “extreme physical pain.”
Another dog, a large-breed collie, was lethargic and struggling to breathe and was suffering from heartworm. The dog, she said, was in congestive heart failure. “I thought he would die,” Lingley said, adding the dog survived with treatment.
A fourth dog was emaciated and suffering from mange with patches of lost fur as well as many gastrointestinal parasites.
Lingley said she found a variety of diseases and problems among the 61 dogs, including fleas, Lyme disease, some suspected scabies, parasites, hookworm, whipworm, among others.
Lingley said she also conducted a necropsy and determined a buried dog on the property had died of shock between four to seven days prior to the search. The dog had dog-bite marks on its body.
Also Monday, Batten denied a defense motion to dismiss the indictment against all three defendants.
The trial will continue today.
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