(By Brandon Hansen/Chewelah Independent)
Seizures of poorly treated animals highlight problem in Stevens County, other rural areas…
The smell hit animal rescuers long before they even saw the property.
“It was unlike anything I’ve seen in my entire life,” a shocked Jamie McAtee, the founder of Rescue4All, told The Independent. “Seeing a dog chained to a tree with a life threatening injury and the smell of death in the air took my breath away.”
Earlier this month, 40 dogs and some cats were voluntarily surrendered to Rescue4All from Theresa and Thomas Hostetler’s property west of Deer Park. The number was so large that it took a convergence of resources to come together: Stevens County Deputies, Rescue4All, HEART and the Clayton Community Fairgrounds were opened to house the dogs.
Charges have been filed against the Hostetlers for animal cruelty but this incident has already hit social media and area media, with people asking how this can happen.
“I am angered by the unwillingness of county authorities to put a stop to this before it gets to this point,” said NE Washington Humane Society member and Becky’s Best Buddies founder Becky Washington. “It seems like we always find out that these properties had numerous visits from law enforcement or numerous complaints from neighbors.”
However, animal cruelty isn’t a simple matter of catching the abusers but rather a result of circumstance, state laws and limited resources.
“It’s two-fold in a rural county,” McAtee said. “If a county doesn’t have an ordinance, and many rural counties don’t, then it defaults to state law and state law says you can have 25 intact breeding pairs. That’s 50 dogs. No one needs or should have 50 dogs unless they are running a puppy mill or are a hoarder.”
Rescue4All is a volunteer run, foster home-based animal rescue that helps dogs that are not able to go up for adoption at local shelters and provides them life skills and training in safe, loving foster homes. Responding to Hostetler’s property was emotional, overwhelming and angering for responding rescue organizations. The scope of the living animal’s condition was shocking for volunteers, who also found dead animals on the property.
The animals, McAtee said, were suffering from life-threatening injuries, embedded collars, massive worm infections, urinating and defecating blood, UTIs, skin infections, painful wounds old and new, facial lacerations, overgrown toenails, ticks, fleas, broken teeth and hair loss.
“Every single dog had something medically wrong with it,” she said.
Rural counties across the country grapple with these issues due to limited law enforcement resources and large swathes of land. Washington state laws concerning animal abuse are particularly forgiving and enabling to animal abusers, rescuers say.
For Stevens County Sheriff Kendle Allen there is a limited group of commissioned officers — 27 in all — to cover 2,541 square miles. When it comes to animal enforcement, Allen said that they respond to complaints from neighbors and reporting parties on conditions and treatment of animals.
Allen said that deputies need a search warrant in order to walk around around and search the property. A lot of times the landowner doesn’t even live on the property in question.
It was complaints that spurred Stevens County Deputies to respond to the Hostetler’s property on May 2. A deputy had to pepper spray a threatening golden lab to be able to observe the property. What he found was what appeared to be 30 dogs, including one with a fresh open wound.
This wasn’t the first time they had responded to complaints for the property. Prior talks with neighbors tipped deputies off that while it didn’t appear that the Hostetlers lived on the property, they always returned at night, avoiding contact with police.
According to Sheriff reports, deputies returned later in the day May 2 and had to pepper spray and tazer dogs trying to bite them. When they approached the camper on the property, Theresa and Thomas Hostetler came out and deputies asked them about a report of a neighbor being bitten.
In that conversation, the Hostetlers told deputies that they fed and watered the dogs twice a day and that they had started with a small litter but the population had gotten out of control. When asked about the dog with the fresh neck wound, Thomas Hostetler said he couldn’t afford a vet bill, according to Sheriff’s documents. Later he added that he wanted to get rid of the dogs but didn’t have the ability to do so.
Allen said when deputies respond to situations like these, they’re looking at the conditions of the animals to see whether there is evidence of the animal being fed and what the environment is like.
“If we have any question we go back with a search warrant and sometimes bring a vet to look at the animals,” Allen said.
Deputies learned from the Hostetlers that they didn’t have running water, electricity or a septic system. Follow up investigations showed that the dogs were terrified and acted as if they hadn’t been touched by a human.
The conditions consisted of garbage strewn through the property, three-day old puppies being kept in an igloo while the mother was tied to a tree with too short of reach, and a lack of water for dogs was recorded. Cats were also found on the property, some locked in vehicles with a lack of food and water or access to the outdoors.
“The property has no sewage, it has no plumbing or electricity,” McAtee said. “It is a biohazard.”
According to Becky Washington, the basics have to be provided: water, food, shelter and vet care along with sanitation, exercise and human contact.
“In our area we get a lot of complaints during the cold winter months and the hot summer months about dogs that don’t have shelter or water,” Washington said.
A tied-up dog can get tangled up and be away from their shelter or water quickly, she added.
According to court documents, Thomas Hostetler admitted that a majority of the dogs had never been off their chains.
“That is why it really isn’t a good way to leave your dog,” Washington said. “Other animals can come in and injure a tied dog too.”
The difference between this situation and a hunting or sled dog is that they’re usually kennelled or tied up then released to work, all while being cared for.
“Abuse happens when people quit caring for the animal and care for the use of the animal or what the animal can do for them,” Washington said. “They don’t take the needs of the animal into account at all.”
The Stevens County Sheriff’s Department has worked on many horse rescues and other pet rescues. These rescues can be time consuming and require a good chunk of manpower and that is when rescue volunteers are called in to help.
Neighbors said that several breeding dogs had been hidden from rescue volunteers and they were storing them in enclosures on different parts of the property. Two cats on the property were refused to be given up. McAtee said she believes the Hostetlers are going to just continue the puppy mill process all over again.
She said Rescue4All is becoming inundated with calls from people in Stevens County even though they’re based in Spokane County and said she would like to see county officials more proactive with animal abuse.
“I’m not blaming the sheriff deputies at all – they’re law enforcement, not animal control,” McAtee said. “But if officials and county leaders don’t know this problem is rampant, they’re out of touch with their constituents.”
Sheriff Allen said that these same problems happen in Ferry, Pend Oreille and Spokane counties and aren’t exclusive to Stevens.
“The problem is you have these pockets and you don’t know it’s there until you actually go there,” Allen said. “We’re going to go back and look over these complaints and see what we can do better and see if we missed anything.”
After the rescue process, deputies returned to the property on May 8 to arrest the Hostetlers for animal abuse. Thomas Hostetler brandished a weapon and retreated to his camp trailer before both Hostetlers were arrested.
Thomas Hostetler was charged with three charges of first degree animal cruelty, three charges of second degree animal cruelty and one charge of obstructing law enforcement. He is out on bail and pleaded not guilty on May 16. Theresa Hostetler was charged with three charges of first degree animal cruelty, three charges of second degree animal cruelty and she is out on bail with an arraignment set for May 23.
Sheriff Allen said that when owners become overwhelmed with their animals the Sheriffs Department tries to help them and get them set up with rescue groups. He asks if owners find themselves in this situation to please contact them or animal rescue groups.
Becky Washington of said that seizures like this aren’t uncommon in Stevens County. In fact another rescue that involved cats, dogs, horses and other farm animals took place over the week, which Washington helped with.
“We are just seeing the tip of the iceberg,” Washington said. “Our lax laws on care of the dogs and number of dogs people are allowed plus the lack of resources and priority to enforce the laws make this a destination county for people with bad intentions.”
The NE Washington Humane Society has been working to establish a shelter in Southern Stevens County to help people that can’t take care of their animals anymore, educate the community on humane pet treatment and find new homes for dogs in the county.
“I know people say there’s no resources here but do you think I have resources? Rescue4All is a 501c3 nonprofit, that is operated by volunteers and with the cooperation of off duty Stevens County deputies we were able to make this happen,” McAtee said, again echoing that the county and the communities need to do more about animal abuse in Stevens County. She wished the state punished animal abusers more for their crimes to discourage it from happening again.
“When we crested the hill on this rescue and saw this site we were horrified,” McAtee said. “It’s terrifying to know there are depraved monsters that live among us.”
For more resources on local pet rescue groups, you can go to http://www.rescue4all.org/ and http://bestbuddies.rescueme.org/.