She doesn't look like a dedicated undercover operative, this 76-year-old animal lover with arthritic knees.
But she is. Now Helen Smith is expected to provide key testimony against a veterinarian who serves some of Pennsylvania's big dog-breeding kennels and who has been charged with animal cruelty on allegations that he mutilated a puppy's tail.
"I seem harmless," Smith said yesterday, describing how she gets around with a cane. In fact, "I'm not harmless at all."
At 2 p.m. March 10, she went to Country Lane Kennels in New Providence, Lancaster County, to try to acquire a one-eyed dog she had seen. There, accompanied by an undercover officer from the Pennsylvania Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, she unexpectedly witnessed the act that led to the first-degree misdemeanor charge against Thomas F. Stevenson of the Twin Valley Veterinary Clinic in Honey Brook.
A Lancaster County police criminal complaint states that Stevenson treated a 9-week-old mixed poodle's already injured and bleeding tail by "soaking it in scalding water" and then cutting it off with shears "without sedation or prior numbing of the tail."
Stevenson could not be reached for comment yesterday; messages left at his clinic were not returned. If he is convicted of animal cruelty, his license could be suspended or revoked.
"The dog was screaming, and screaming, and screaming," Smith said yesterday. "You could see the blood. You could see the exposed bone."
Smith is the mother of Bill Smith, founder of Main Line Animal Rescue in Chester Springs, which has strived to improve conditions for thousands of dogs in Pennsylvania's puppy mills. As Bill Smith began to be more recognized, making it hard for him to get into kennels, his mother started taking his place.
Helen Smith has been infiltrating kennels for close to a decade, scoping out conditions, rescuing animals, and informing authorities of what she finds. Many places she visits are feces-laden warehouses where dogs are confined in small pens.
But long experience did not prepare her for what she said she saw March 10.
Smith had gone to Country Lane Kennels, owned by Samuel E. King, to check on a dog she had often noticed tied up outside. The dog was a brown-and-white mixed bulldog, dirty, with an injury that had claimed an eye.
Smith and the undercover SPCA officer were walking through the kennel, she said, when "I heard this screaming. I can't tell you - I almost passed out."
She saw King and Stevenson holding a filthy puppy under scalding water as the vet cut off the tail, she said.
When it was over, Smith said, she asked whether she could buy the dog - paying $200 and creating a receipt that could be used as evidence. She wrapped the dog in a towel and took the bleeding animal to another vet's office, where surgery was performed on its tail, she said.
The affidavit states that King said he had cut the puppy's tail while grooming it the previous day. However, the officer wrote that she had seen no evidence that the puppy had been groomed. Its hair was long and matted with feces, and the bleeding wound was covered with feces and hair, the officer wrote.
King, like Stevenson, was charged with cruelty to animals. He also could not be reached for comment yesterday. His home phone number is unlisted, and a message left at Country Lane Kennels was not returned.
Volunteers from Main Line Animal Rescue returned days later and bought the one-eyed dog.
Stevenson is the vet of record for most of the largest kennels in Pennsylvania, responsible for thousands of dogs, according to state records. He is also the vet of record for some of New Jersey's largest pet stores.
Libby Williams, founder of New Jersey Consumers Against Pet Shop Abuse, said she had received dozens of complaints in recent years from people who bought sick dogs allegedly examined by Stevenson.
The veterinarian also was named in a New Jersey consumer-fraud lawsuit against Joyce and Raymond Stoltzfus of CC Pets, one of the largest puppy brokers in Pennsylvania. The New Jersey suit alleges Stevenson provided CC Pets with fraudulent health certificates.
"We accused him of conspiring with the kennel operation to conduct substandard or nonexistent veterinary exams on dogs," said Garen Meguerian, the attorney for plaintiffs Louis and Stephanie Ostrander.
Lancaster veterinarian Tom Gemmill filed a complaint against Stevenson with Pennsylvania's veterinary medical board after serving as an expert witness for the Ostranders. He said Stevenson failed to keep records on the dogs he examined, a violation of the veterinary practice act.
That complaint is pending.
Helen Smith said yesterday that, given the publicity surrounding this case, her undercover career was probably over. The retired mother of three will continue to volunteer for Main Line Animal Rescue - and to follow her favorite TV show, Law & Order.
Smith complimented the work of the SPCA, but said other regulatory agencies should be doing more to end deplorable conditions at puppy mills.
"The state should be doing this," she said, "but they're not. That's why volunteers have to get involved. If the inspectors won't do their jobs, then somebody has to help these dogs."