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Dogs’ would-be rescuer held

Nobody doubts that Bonnie Sheehan loves dogs.

For the last 15 years, she has dedicated her life to finding homes for those that might otherwise be euthanized at local animal shelters.

But the economic downturn made her work more difficult, according to volunteers from her nonprofit operation, Hearts for Hounds. As Sheehan started taking in dogs faster than she could give them away, the number of animals grew at the Long Beach facility she used, often far beyond the 75 allowed by the city.

Sheehan’s solution was to move her operation to a farm she recently purchased near Roanoke, Va., where she believed the market for dogs would be better, said Jay Williams, one of her volunteers. Sheehan had planned a dog adoption fair there for last Saturday.

But it all fell apart last Tuesday near Memphis, Tenn., when a trooper pulled over her U-Haul truck for following too closely behind a tractor-trailer. The officer heard barking and found 140 dogs and one cat crammed into the U-Haul and the minivan being towed behind. Some dogs were in cages, while others were loose, the trooper said in an affidavit obtained by The Times. One dog was dead.

Sheehan, 55, and her passenger, Pamela King-McCracken, a 59-year-old volunteer with her rescue organization, were arrested, jailed and charged with felony animal cruelty.

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They appeared in court in Fayette County, Tenn., Tuesday and agreed to relinquish custody of the animals, according to local media reports. The preliminary hearing was continued until Feb. 21.

The women could face up to two years each if convicted. Other charges are still possible, according to WREG-TV in Memphis.

“That one count is essentially for the transportation of these 141 animals in an inhumane manner, which caused death to at least one animal and significant injury to others,” Dist. Atty. Gen. Mike Dunavant told the news station.

A spokesperson for the American Humane Assn., Debrah Schnackenberg, said late Tuesday that the organization would work to place the dogs in shelters around the country — with the aim of finding them homes.

The case has shocked the insular Southern California world of dog rescue, as Sheehan’s admirers struggled to reconcile the facts emerging from Tennessee with her reputation for kindness to animals and raised questions about whether Long Beach authorities bore some of the blame.

Williams, who has been speaking out in his friend’s defense, said an animal control officer visited Sheehan twice on Jan. 15 as she and two volunteers were loading dog crates into the U-Haul for the journey.

“They knew she was over her limit,” he said. “They knew she was relocating.”

Long Beach officials said Tuesday that they launched an independent investigation that will look at the entire incident, including why police officers and an animal control officer did nothing to stop the women from loading the vehicles.

Tom Modica, spokesman for the city manager’s office, said police and an animal control officer had responded to a call about the loading. They saw about 10 dogs in crates inside the truck but, because the animals appeared to be healthy, there was no obvious crime, he said.

One witness said she was concerned for the animals.

“Why were they going to keep them all cooped up?” asked Deayna Palumbo, 30, who took photographs of the police at the scene. “I’m a huge animal lover, and that didn’t seem right to me.”

The number of dogs at Sheehan’s facility, which she rents on Obispo Avenue, had been an issue before. In February 2010, the Animal Care Services department responded to a noise complaint and discovered about 150 dogs there, according to John Keisler, who was acting head of the department until this week.

He said the dogs were in good health and that the department worked with Sheehan for eight months to bring the number to 75.

One local animal welfare official, however, said he had developed concerns about Sheehan more than a year ago and expressed them to Keisler.

Dan Morrison, executive director of the Southeast Animal Control Authority, said workers at its animal shelter had become concerned by the number of dogs that Sheehan had been claiming from the Downey facility. “We found out she was overcrowding her kennels and stopped releasing animals to her,” Morrison said.

Madeline Bernstein, president of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in Los Angeles, said no one wants to see pets kept in inhumane conditions.

“If the quality of life of the animal is going to suffer and it is necessary to euthanize for humane reasons, we are not going to allow an animal to suffer,” she said. “The humane thing to do is to put them down.”

Several supporters of Sheehan concluded that the circumstances leading to her arrest last week were simply a case of good intentions being trumped by poor judgment.

“She was a fabulous rescuer,” said Jeanine Curcione, who runs another rescue group. “She was devoted to saving dogs.”

“The mode of transportation was just all wrong,” she said.

Julia Haberman, who had once been on the Hearts for Hounds board of directors, said that Sheehan became involved with rescuing dogs in the mid-1990s. The first dog she brought home became a source of great comfort for her sick mother, for whom she was caring at the time.

After her mother died, “it became her whole life,” Haberman said.

A local veterinarian offered free medical services to Sheehan’s nonprofit. Companies donated dog food. Still, Sheehan faced a constant financial strain of caring for so many animals while they waited for homes.

Haberman said she never saw conditions that were less than humane but had grown concerned about how many dogs were on site.

“She didn’t want to turn a dog away,” Williams said. “If she could save a dog from being euthanized, that was her mission.”

He said that a year ago Sheehan drove 30 dogs to Virginia without incident and quickly lined up owners for all but two, which she brought back to California.

She was optimistic that she could replicate her success once she arrived in Virginia, Williams said, but the U-Haul never made it.

alan.zarembo@latimes.com

robert.lopez@latimes.com

Los Angeles Times staff writer Ruben Vives contributed to this report.


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