Questions over how 206 dogs were left in shed

Last updated at 15:11 19 April 2006

The owner of 206 dogs found living in pitiful conditions in a shed was last checked up on by the authorities six years ago.

Mid Sussex District Council issued a breeder's licence to owner Elizabeth Stevens, which expired in 1998. On July 14 of that year she was asked to reduce the number of dogs she had, but no further action was taken.

The "appalling" treatment of the dogs only came to light following 73-year-old Mrs Stevens' death at the weekend.

The council denied it had failed in its duty.

The dogs, the vast majority of which were Yorkshire Terriers, were discovered by animal welfare rescuers on Sunday.

Rescuers were alerted by Mrs Stevens' son.

The dogs, including at least 20 pups, lived in a 40ft shed with no windows. They were crammed into tiny boxes and caked in their own excrement and urine. Their boxes were stuffed with urine-sodden newspapers leaving the dogs no leg room.

Six puppies were already dead when discovered by rescuers. There were also 39 cats found living in marginally better conditions at the property in Hurstpierpoint, West Sussex.

Animal charities branded the cramped conditions "appalling" and the "worst ever seen."

Rescuer Lisa Gooch of Brighton Animal Action said many of the animals were on "death's door."

She said: "The carry boxes were full of excrement with the dogs wedged in at the top. They were dripping from the urine they had been lying in for so long.

"They were all absolutely starving and thirsty.

"I've seen some awful things in my time but that was by far the worst. I will never forget it."

Mid Sussex District Council spokesman Martin Faulconbridge said: "A licence is required if an establishment is used for breeding dogs for commercial gain.

"Officers had monitored Elizabeth Stevens' situation and were satisfied that Miss Stevens did not fall into this category and therefore did not require a licence."

He confirmed no checks had been made on Miss Stevens since 1998. Mr Faulconbridge said this was because they had received no evidence that she was breeding dogs for commercial gain.

He said: "We couldn't knock on her door at random and raid her house. There needs to be reason to investigate her premises."

Colette Marshall, of the Kit Wilson Trust, which together with the Ceila Hammond Animal Trust and the Croydon Animal Samaritans has rescued 194 dogs, said the law failed to protect vulnerable animals.

She said: "This is where there's a loophole because it's not policed.

"If the licence expires and they're not going to breed anymore who is actually checking?

"It's a grey area and those dogs are living in that grey area."

Celia Hammond herself said: "If the lady had been alive she would almost certainly have been prosecuted.

"For people who keep and breed animals in conditions like that, of course they should be prosecuted and banned for life from keeping animals."

RSPCA spokeswoman Klare Kennett said the maximum penalties magistrates could impose for animal cruelty were six months in prison, a £20,000 fine, and a lifetime ban from keeping animals.

Offers to give a dog a home have flooded in from as far away as America and Canada. But potential owners will have to satisfy strict criteria and be prepared to be thoroughly vetted.

Miss Marshall said: "With these dogs the added problem is that they have never been out of that shed.

"They've got to go back to basics and be house trained and lead trained. None have ever had a collar on."

The dogs will be wormed, vaccinated and undergo veterinary checks.

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