Kokomo Tribune; Kokomo, Indiana

February 12, 2013

Local dog rescuer gets his animal cruelty plea deferred

69-year-old talks about life after raid

By Scott Smith
Tribune staff writer

— After Kokomo police and Kokomo Humane Society workers removed 109 small dogs from his property in September 2011, Don Lambert was clearly upset.

But after the initial shock wore off, the 69-year-old dog rescuer said he and his wife, Brenda, began to have different feelings.

“To be honest with you, it was a godsend,” Lambert said. “You cannot think how much stress it was for us, and how much time it took, and how much time we spent.

“If we could have done anything different, we would have cut the numbers we were taking in.”

Tuesday, Lambert pleaded guilty to one misdemeanor count of animal cruelty. Howard Superior Court 3 Judge Doug Tate accepted the plea and found Lambert guilty, but also agreed to withhold the judgment. If Lambert avoids breaking any laws — including local animal ordinances — for the next year, the case will be dismissed.

Prosecutors are satisfied Lambert wasn’t running an illegal dog selling business.

Rather, they think his altruistic impulses got the better of him, and that he simply had a hard time saying “no” to rescue opportunities.

Lambert said Tuesday he let his rescue operations “get out of control,” but vehemently disagreed with the assessments of veterinarians and humane society workers, who accused him of neglecting the animals.

Immediately after the Sept. 2, 2011, raid of Lambert’s North Apperson Way home, Melissa Justice, a field veterinarian from the Indiana State Board of Animal Health, examined all of the dogs and said seven of the animals were in significant pain from poor health conditions. All seven of the animals were later euthanized, after prosecutors asked Tate for permission.

The vet ranked all seven of the dogs 4 or less on a 9-point scale for body condition. She said it was unlikely any of the seven would recover “in a timely manner and without significant pain ...”

“This is by far the worst animal hoarding situation I have seen in over 25 years of veterinary practice, and I am glad to see the animals being freed from these awful conditions,” Kokomo vet Todd Cooney said in a statement written the day of the raid.

Both Cooney and Kokomo vet Robert Mason said the ammonia levels inside Lambert’s home — the byproduct of urine and feces — were so high that people entering the house experienced burning of the eyes and throat.

Lambert said the urine odor was because he and his wife hadn’t had time to wash laundry that day, but admitted that he shouldn’t have had dogs kept two or more to a cage, with cages stacked three high in a garage. Contrary to what was reported at the time of the raid, Lambert said the garage was air-conditioned.

“We were absolutely not hoarding. We took dogs and found places for them. We became known as people who had a very sweet idea in mind,” he said.

He said he respects the state’s field vet, but said he thought some of the dogs that were euthanized could have been saved. He said he only took dogs that would have been in danger of being euthanized if sent to a shelter.

Lambert said his rescue activities started in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, when he went to New Orleans and picked up “orphaned” dogs and delivered dog feed.

In the three years prior to the 2011 raid, Lambert said he was moving up to 50 dogs a week through his operation, which used pet stores and the Petfinder website to find adoptive owners.

In that time, he said he estimated he spent more than $117,000 on animal care, and recouped about $92,000 in adoption fees. In deciding whether to press for more serious penalties, prosecutors looked over Lambert’s financial information and became convinced he wasn’t operating a for-profit business.

The Lamberts were allowed to keep their four personal dogs, and Don said he won’t go back into rescuing dogs.

“Our hearts were totally in saving these dogs. We had no financial aspirations. All we wanted to do was save these babies,” he said.

He still doesn’t trust the humane society, which he says euthanizes too many dogs.

“They want you to be like them and they want you to play by their rules. And their rules kill,” Lambert said.

Scott Smith can be reached at 765-454-8569 or at scott.smith@kokomotribune.com.

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