PHILADELPHIA (CN) – A breeder of basset hounds claims gun-toting officers from the Pennsylvania Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals broke her heart and “decimated” her pack of dogs, seizing 12 of them after illegally searching the dogs’ heated barn without a warrant, and threatening to “return with television cameras.”
Wendy Willard sued the PSPCA and two of its officers, George Bengal and Tara Loller, on constitutional charges in Federal Court.
Willard, a retired public school teacher, Ivy League graduate and volunteer for conservancy organizations, says she “has loved and worked with sporting hounds for more than 40 years.”
Willard says she is an “internationally recognized” breeder of dogs known as the “Murder Hollow Bassets.” An Internet search this morning turned up a trove of comments on the case from dog groups.
In her 26-page complaint, Willard says she has spent tens of thousands of dollars to care for her dogs, $30,000 on the heated barn she built for them, and has raised 17 litters of “highly regarded hounds.”
Willard’s attorney Emily Bell told Courthouse News that Willard, a cause célèbre in some dog-breeding circles, is “a really lovely woman who has endured some pretty terrible things” at the hands of the PSPCA. Bell is an attorney with Clymer, Musser, Brown & Conrad, of Lancaster, Pa.
The Murder Hollow Bassets get their name from a grisly 19th-century triple homicide that occurred near the dead-end, single-lane, wooded private road where Willard lives.
Until July 27, 2009, Willard lived in her home with a pair of older hounds and another 21 dogs lived in the $30,000 heated barn she built for them on her 2-acre Philadelphia property, which includes “100-foot runs and an exercise area,” according to her complaint.
But Willard says her world was turned upside-down that summer day when a group of gun-toting PSPCA officers paid an unannounced visit and asked for permission to enter the barn.
“When Miss Willard refused them permission to search without a warrant, the officers and wardens temporarily left her property,” but not before an officer “threatened Miss Willard that if she did not consent to a warrantless search of her property, the group … could return with television cameras,” according to the complaint.
“Rather than seek a warrant, the officers and wardens, however, simply entered the adjoining property of her neighbor, crossing from that property’s grassy area to trespass onto the wooded area on Miss Willard’s property,” according to the complaint.
Willard says the manager of the 340-acre preserve next door had told the PSPCA officers they were trespassing, but the officers responded “that they did not care and that as PSPCA agents they would go wherever they pleased and do whatever they wanted.”
“From their trespassing vantage point, the wardens and officers observed the fenced-in area behind Miss Willard’s barn and spied on Miss Willard as she went about her daily chore of cleaning her dogs’ exercise runs,” the complaint states.
Warrants were subsequently issued “in spite of the fact that the officers and wardens had observed no criminal activity from an area in which they were not authorized to be,” Willard says.
The crew returned at about 5 p.m., handed Willard a search warrant, and raided her dogs.
“Miss Willard’s hounds had sensed danger and begun to bark,” the complaint states. Willard says the PSPCA crew searched and photographed her barn, and a fleet of eight law-enforcement vehicles parked outside her home.
Willard says defendant PSPCA officer Tara Loller falsely accused her of violating Philadelphia’s “Limit Law,” which prohibits having more than 12 dogs in a single residence.
“Defendants improperly brandished this ‘Limit Law’ as the pretext to seize Miss Willard’s hounds from the heated barn. This inapplicable ordinance was used to oppress and badger Miss Willard into complying with defendants’ demands.”
Willard says the 12-dog limit applies to a “residential dwelling unit,” which the Philadelphia Zoning Code defines as a building “intended to be used for living or sleeping by human occupants.”
“Miss Willard’s barn is not a dwelling; no human occupants use it for living or sleeping and it was obvious to anyone on the property that the barn was not a residential dwelling. In fact, Miss Willard’s barn is a private stable under the Philadelphia Zoning Code. As no business is conducted on the property, her barn is not a kennel,” Willard says.
Willard says she involuntarily signed “surrender agreements” for seizure of 11 of her dogs after officers threatened to take all 23 of them “if she refused to sign over the others.” She says the officers told her “that the forms had to be signed immediately because one of the dog wardens was going into diabetic shock and needed medical attention; that if she did not sign the dogs over she would get so many citations that PSPCA would ‘own her home;’ and that defendants Bengal and Loller would not leave her kitchen until the documents were signed.”
Meanwhile, defendant George Bengal was a quarter-mile uphill, telling Willard’s neighbor that Willard was “running a puppy mill,” the complaint states. Willard says that charge is bogus, as she “does not sell her hounds, preferring instead to give them away to people she knows will provide warm homes and good care or to keep and raise them herself.”
She says the PSPCA claimed its raid was precipitated by “unattributed complaints about barking,” and that it forced her to make a “heart-rending” decision: “After defendant Loller informed Miss Willard that she would be seizing 10 of her dogs because she was violating the law, she directed Miss Willard to choose the dogs that would be seized.”
Tearful pleading didn’t sway Loller: “As night fell, Miss Willard was forced to undertake the traumatic task of choosing which of her dogs – most of which had been whelped in her home and spent every day of their lives with her – to hand over to the PSPCA.
“As Miss Willard tearfully decided which of her dogs to part with, defendant Bengal threatened her that defendants could give her enough citations to take her house,” the complaint states.
Willard says the officers’ heartless behavior continued. She says Bengal scoured her house with a flashlight until he found Hansel, Willard’s 12-year-old “house hound.”
“Defendant Bengal then demanded that Miss Willard surrender yet another of her dogs. Miss Willard was then forced to say a hysterical goodbye to the other dog who lived in the house with her, taking off the dog’s identification collar and Invisible Fence collar as defendants Loller and Bengal pulled her away.
The complaint continues: “Incredibly, although defendant Loller had previously stated to Miss Willard that Nellie, one of the hounds, would be seized because of the length of her toenails, while Miss Willard stood beside the impound truck while Nellie was being loaded and promised the dog she would do whatever she could to get her back, defendant Loller relented and permitted Miss Willard to choose any other dog to ‘swap’ for Nellie.”
Willard adds: “While in Miss Willard’s kitchen, defendant Bengal began to look through Miss Willard’s mail. When Miss Willard asked defendant Bengal to stop reading her mail, he retorted, ‘We got a warrant. We can look through anything we want.'”
The arbitrary abuses did not stop with the seizures, Willard says. She claims that for months, PSPCA acted as if all the seized dogs were still alive, though it knew that one had been euthanized after a botched surgical procedure.
And “Incredibly, defendant PSPCA records list 11 hounds being spayed or neutered in its facility, despite the fact that two of those seized hounds had previously been spayed,” Willard says.
“Not content to destroy Miss Willard’s pack of hounds and steal her animals, the PSPCA began a campaign of harassment by irrelevant ordinance,” slapping Willard with multiple code-violation notices for alleged “animal sounds,” which were later dismissed, she says.
Those citations were followed by a barrage of 22 citations concerning animal welfare, none of which resulted in conviction, Willard says.
Willard says her “pack of hounds was irreplaceable and her loss was tremendous.”
She adds: “The loss of genetic material is significant because those particular hounds had participated in recognized hunts, been bred with hounds of other packs and traded for generic diversity.”
The PSPCA did not return a phone calling seeking comment.
Attorney Bell told Courthouse News that nearly 2 years after her client’s ordeal, “We are not sure where these dogs are,” a painful uncertainty “that Ms. Willard faces every day.”
Willard seeks compensatory and punitive damages for constitutional violations.