When Caring is Over Your Head: A Dog Abuse Case in Stark County

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On August 25, after receiving noise complaints from neighbors, Stark County Humane Society officers teamed with local cops to raid a barn in which three women were housing over 40 rescued stray dogs. The dogs were confiscated and the women in charge of Companion Animal Rescue Effort (CARE) -- Belinda Rife, 53, Candy Martin, 55 and Joan Fisher, 57 -- were all hit with charges of animal cruelty. Prosecutors claimed the women neglected to give the dogs ample drinking water and, with a pristine yard as evidence, that they had clearly not been allowing the dogs to roam outside. “The animals weren’t being taken care of,” says Humane Society Director Lou Criswell. “The combination of the number of dogs, and the small space they were kept in, created a bad situation.” At trial, Bradley Neer, a local veterinarian who had treated CARE dogs in the past, testified for the defense. “I don’t think there was any neglect on the part of CARE,” he says. “They were doing their best to care for some animals that would’ve been put to sleep otherwise.” He scoffs at the drinking water accusation: “These dogs were well fed. Who gives a dog food but neglects to give them water?” The defense even returned accusations of abuse, claiming that in the raid and the trip to the pound, six previously healthy dogs died. “It looks like there was abuse on the part of the Humane Society,” says Neer. “One of their bodies certainly showed evidence of abuse at the end of a rabies pole.” Criswell insists that the six dogs were already dead when they raided the barn, or if they died en route or were euthanized, it was due to existing poor health. The jury convicted the women, and the judge sentenced Rife and Martin to 20 days each. Fisher received a whopping 80 days in jail. Turns out, she’s been down this route before; she was on probation from a previous animal rescue operation shut down by cops. The Humane Society claims she’s irresponsible and doesn’t respect the law. Fisher says she’s an animal lover, with her heart in the right place, needlessly hounded by the authorities. Rife, who is appealing the case to the Ohio Supreme Court, is the only woman still free. A prosecutor in the case, Derek McClowry, believes that the women didn’t have malicious intent. “They were overwhelmed with the amount of dogs they took on, and unfortunately, the dogs suffered,” he told the Columbus Dispatch. Neer, of course, sees the case differently: “It’s the type of thing that makes you want to stay out of Stark County. Get caught speeding and they might give you the death penalty.” – Gus Garcia-Roberts

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