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‘Stars aligned’ for searching Elmwood kennels

Anonymous complaints kept officers at bay while an alleged puppy mill existed on the other side of the gated entrance to an Elmwood man’s home.

That’s what Pierce County Sheriff Nancy Hove said prevented deputies from seeing inhumane conditions described in a criminal complaint against Stuart E. West, who was charged last month with 117 counts related to the operation at his Alma Bottom Pointing Labradors kennels.

Copies of incident reports made on the property dating back to 2012 revealed several complaints about conditions there. In those instances, deputies went to the gate on West’s property and spoke with him, but did not go further onto the property.

Hove said that’s because the sources of the complaints wished to be anonymous and did not file formal reports. In their documents, the deputies reported observing nothing out of the ordinary.

“Our investigation kind of ends there,” Hove said, noting that unless officers are invited onto private property, then anonymous complaints prevent them from seeking a search warrant. “That’s what people need to remember.”

Of the dogs that could be observed at the West property, “they looked fine,” Hove said.

The sheriff said it’s not customary for deputies to ask to go on to gated property to investigate animal complaints.

“They’ll invite you up,” she said of property owners.

Circumstances changed after a March 15 complaint at the West property submitted to the state’s agriculture department.

That report prompted a visit by a state kennel inspector along with Pierce County deputies on March 28.

“The stars aligned,” Hove said. “We were lucky to get in there.”

Their findings generated a search warrant that led to the removal of 48 dogs from the property and the discovery of numerous dead dogs. Authorities alleged the dogs were living in cramped conditions without access to water and fed off dead cows and deer.

Hove said deputies are not trained in animal welfare. Some counties employ humane officers, though Pierce does not.

“We’re not vets,” she said, adding that regulation of operations like kennels initially falls to town boards.

So what’s there to prevent potentially illegal animal-related practices from happening behind gated properties? A lot depends on people reporting problems, Hove said.

“If you see something, say something — but don’t be afraid to get involved,” she said.

Hove said that people wanting a pet should ask to see where it comes from before buying. If something doesn’t look right, she said that should be reported.

“And remember that reporting anonymously can only get us so far.”

Mike Longaecker

Mike Longaecker is the regional public safety reporter for RiverTown Multimedia. His coverage area spans St. Croix and Pierce counties. Longaecker served from 2011-2015 as editor of the Woodbury Bulletin. A University of Wisconsin-River Falls graduate, Longaecker previously reported for the Red Wing Republican Eagle and for the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau. You can follow him on Twitter at @Longaecker

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