Jury gets case in PA animal cruelty trial

After a six-day trial, ending with closing arguments from both sides this morning, the animal cruelty case against former Lehigh County kennel operator Derbe Eckhart is now in the hands of a jury.

Here's the latest from the Associated Press:

A jury began deliberating Monday in the trial of a Pennsylvania kennel owner charged with neglecting scores of dogs and cats, allowing them to live in their own waste and failing to give them sufficient food, water and medical care.

Prosecutors told jurors in Allentown said Derbe “Skip” Eckhart ran Almost Heaven Kennel on the cheap and ignored the horrible conditions that developed. “The motive here is greed, even if the defendant doesn’t want to admit it,” Jay Jenkins, Lehigh County chief deputy district attorney, said Monday. Eckhart was charged with animal cruelty after a 2008 raid by the Pennsylvania SPCA and state Bureau of Dog Law Enforcement.

Prosecution witnesses testified that dogs and cats pulled from Almost Heaven suffered from severe, painful matting and a variety of skin, eye and upper respiratory ailments. Eckhart, who is also charged with operating the kennel in violation of a state order to shut down, maintains he was unfairly targeted by
headline-seeking animal-welfare activists.

His attorney, Jeff Conrad, accused the Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals of twisting the truth about Almost Heaven’s conditions in order to generate publicity, raise money, and help shut down a huge commercial kennel that it considered to be a puppy mill. The SPCA also wanted to lend momentum to Gov. Ed Rendell’s push to pass tough new kennel regulations, he said. “This case is terribly, terribly overblown,” Conrad said, reminding jurors the kennel had passed state inspection less than two months before the raid.

He insisted there was no evidence whatsoever of “wanton cruelty.” At worst, he said, some of the animals needed to be bathed and groomed. But Jenkins said Eckhart didn’t hire enough workers to properly care for the 800 animals that lived on his Upper Milford Township compound, allowing a disgusting buildup of feces and urine and putting dogs and cats at risk.

Eckhart could have reduced the animal population, but more dogs meant higher profits, Jenkins said. “What costs money? Having a sufficient number of employees, having a vet come to treat animals that need it. ... And if some dogs remain in pain, the kind of pain that comes from (severe matting), well, he’s got a business to run.” State kennel regulators have called Almost Heaven one of Pennsylvania’s “most notorious” kennels.