B.C. puppy mill operator convicted of cruelty denied appeal
In what is being hailed as a legal milestone in the fight against puppy mills in this province, a B.C. dog breeder banned from owning animals for two decades has been denied a bid to appeal his criminal conviction.
Puppy mill operator Mel Gerling was convicted of two counts of animal cruelty after 14 badly neglected puppies and dogs were seized from his Abbotsford property in 2010. The seizure followed nearly 50 compliance orders by the BC SPCA, and four years of complaints about “substandard care” of dogs in his care.
The dogs, which were bred through an operation called B&B Kennels, suffered a range of physical and genetic problems, including matted fur, rotting teeth, overgrown nails, skin infections, ear mites and ulcerated eyes. They included purebred Shih Tzus, Chihuahuas, pugs and terrier crosses.
The dogs were bred at various kennels in the Fraser Valley, including Chilliwack and Abbotsford, and sold through his now-closed pet store in Surrey, Puppy Paradise.
During the trial in 2014, an expert witness testified the animals were clearly in distress, and their condition would have taken a considerable time to develop.
But Gerling maintained after the seizure that the BC SPCA was on a “witch hunt” against him. A man who boarded the dogs for Gerling said the canines were just in need of a bath.
The trial judge disagreed, and ruled that the breeder willfully neglected to provide suitable care and shelter for the animals under the Criminal Code. The ruling said Gerling should have understood the animals were in distress, and said there was no evidence to show he had a plan to relieve it – or rectify the problems.
Gerling was given a relatively light sentence. While the crimes he was convicted of are punishable by a fine of $10,000 and 18 months in prison, the longtime dog breeder was only ordered to serve a six-month conditional sentence, including house arrest, plus 50 hours of community service.
The real coup for the BC SPCA was the fact he was handed a 20-year ban on owning animals, which essentially put him out of business.
Gerling did not agree with the decision. He has been fighting against the conviction since 2015, with the argument that the trial judge did not adequately prove his intention to break the law.
In his defence, Gerling said the seized dogs were not in distress because “he did not see any of the dogs limping or having difficulty walking and did not notice any of them wince in pain,” according to court documents.
He claimed he was busy, not neglectful.
But in a judgement released by the B.C. Court of Appeal Wednesday, Justice Edward Chiasson dismissed those claims – and his bid for an appeal.
Chiasson said the initial conviction successfully established the “deplorable state of the dogs” and “ample” evidence to establish that the neglect was in fact willful.
Speaking to the animal cruelty charges, the judge ruled that Gerling should have reasonably understood the dogs were not being cared for properly.
The written decision said Gerling never offered sufficient evidence during his initial trial to explain for the conditions of the dogs.
The court decision comes as the BC SPCA deals with two massive seizures of animals from breeders and suspected puppy mills in Metro Vancouver.
In both cases, the operators are suspected of keeping dogs and cats in deplorable conditions in order to sell animals for profit to unsuspecting consumers.
Speaking about the court’s decision to dismiss Gerling’s appeal, BC SPCA chief enforcement officer Marcie Moriarty says they are “thrilled.”
It’s hoped the strongly-worded decision by the appeals court will influence upcoming proceedings to prosecute puppy mill operators, and strengthen the SPCA’s powers to shut them down.
Instead of being limited to issuing “endless” compliance orders that compel the breeder to deal with welfare concerns, the SPCA could take stronger action to remove vulnerable animals from a property.
“This upholds our ability to issue a warrant and not give more opportunities to relieve distress in similar circumstances, where someone responds to our orders, but only in a very minimal way.”
And that’s key when dealing with puppy mill operators who promise to clean up their act, only to quickly slip back into old habits.
“In cases where they’ve slipped a few times, we can be justified in saying ‘no, we’re going for a warrant, you’ve had enough chances,’” Moriarty said.
“That’s a powerful precedent.”