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Published: Tuesday, 11/11/2003

Sled-dog trainer cleared in cruelty case

BOWLING GREEN - Shouts of “Yes!” rang out in the courtroom yesterday when Clayton “Tom” Sheperd was found not guilty of treating his 14 sled dogs inhumanely in an animal cruelty case.

The jury deliberated for four hours before deciding in favor of Mr. Sheperd, 62, who said the seven-month ordeal has taken its toll on him. The former Haskins man refers to the dogs as his children.

“I m too done right now to really put it all together. I ve kind of died inside right now,” the soft-spoken man said after the victory. “I ve won the battle but lost the war.”

The dogs have been ruined for racing, he said. When authorities seized the dogs, they were taken out of training and the culture needed to breed, raise, and prepare good sled dogs, he said. He plans to wait for more puppies and start from scratch.

“It will be three years before I m able to train to race again,” he said.

Authorities confiscated Mr. Sheperd s 14 dogs, including three pregnant females, and a homemade trailer April 10 after a citizen saw it parked outside Woodland Mall. The dogs were chained to plastic barrels that doubled as living and riding quarters. Karen Stanish, who saw the dogs that afternoon, called the Wood County Humane Society to report that the dogs did not have water or food and some seemed lethargic.

For seven months, the dogs, now totaling 31, were in the care of the Alaskan Rescue Coalition, a Michigan sledding organization, and the Wood County Humane Society. One dog was returned a few weeks ago to its owner, Mr. Sheperd s son. Twenty-three of the dogs are in Wood County either at the humane society or in foster homes. Seven 6-month-old puppies remain in Michigan.

After the verdict was read, visiting Judge Judson Spore told the courtroom to refrain from outbursts. He ordered the Humane Society to return the 23 dogs in its custody to Mr. Sheperd by 3 p.m. tomorrow. The court order includes the return of all 30 dogs.

Judge Spore warned the Humane Society to heed the order or face a contempt charge. He was displeased that Humane Society director Kay Chapman left the courtroom after the verdict was read and told the assistant shelter manager to take the news back to work.

Mr. Sheperd s attorney Scott Coon said the Humane Society was overzealous in this case. “Ninety percent of what they do is good stuff; the other 10 percent scares me,” he said after the trial. “We re very pleased that Clayton gets his dogs back and can do what he loves.”

City Prosecutor Matt Reger said he trusts in the jury s decision. “The jury had all the evidence before it. They saw what occurred. ... I have faith in the verdict.”

In his closing statement, Mr. Reger reviewed witness accounts of the trailer covered with feces and urine and told jurors Mr. Sheperd was reckless in his treatment of the dogs.

“We ve not said he s mean. We re saying he was reckless in the way he transported his dogs,” he said.

Mr. Coon told jurors appearances are deceiving, and the prosecution only wanted them to see the “veneer” - the dirty, weather-beaten trailer and the man who lives in his modified Jeep.

“They don t want you to know this case,” he said. “They want you to believe the dogs were suffering.”

Mr. Sheperd said losing his dogs was devastating. For the last 30 years, he s raised sled dogs. From the time he was in the ninth grade he trained attack dogs and sold them to the U.S. Army.

When the dogs are returned, it will be a bittersweet reunion. Those no longer suitable for racing will be given to good homes, he said. The others will be used to breed a new line of race dogs and help train them.

Mr. Sheperd said the memory of this case will haunt him.

“I m paranoid now. I used to love to stop and show my dogs to anyone who wanted to see them,” he said.

A battle could await him in Michigan if the housing agency chooses not to honor Judge Spore s order to return the dogs.

“They re my seven best dogs. I need them badly,” Mr. Sheperd said. “If I don t get those back, I won t live long enough” to pursue his dreams of racing in the Alaskan Iditarod.

He faces misdemeanor charges of inducing panic, obstructing official business, and resisting arrest. A pretrial hearing is scheduled Friday.



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