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Stuck in the doghouse

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In 2012, a Jefferson City dog breeder was convicted of 91 counts of animal cruelty after a law enforcement search of his property discovered malnourished malamutes crammed into feces-ridden kennels. The breeder is now appealing to the Montana Supreme Court, but the Humane Society of the United States asked last month that the judgment stand.

"There were animals who had no food, had no water," says Humane Society Staff Attorney Aaron Green.

On Oct. 12, 2011, Jefferson County Sheriff's Department deputies found Mike Chilinski's property littered with animals that were sick with Giardia and worms, and, according to legal filings, "suffered from wounds or other injuries, including missing or damaged ears ..."

The Fifth Judicial Court sentenced Chilinski in 2012 to five years in prison and required that he forfeit all of his 162 dogs. Chilinski's appeal asserts that his conviction should be vacated and Montana's animal cruelty law declared unconstitutional, because the statute's language, which criminalizes causing pain or suffering to animals "without justification," is vague.

Chilinski's attorneys attempted to justify the conditions his animals were subjected to, telling the court in legal filings that the breeder's business hit a slump and he found himself with more dogs than he could handle. "Chilinski continued to care for them as best he could," his attorneys argue, despite a "succession of economic, medical and kennel misfortunes."

In response, the Montana Attorney General's Office argues that the conditions on Chilinski's property can't be justified. In addition, the state says the law, which requires pet owners to provide sufficient food and water "to sustain the animal's normal health" and prevents owners from "confining the animal in a cruel manner," is not tough to grasp. "The animal cruelty statute provides a person of ordinary intelligence fair notice of the prohibited conduct," says the state.

As for Green, he believes that it's unlikely the Supreme Court will toss Montana's animal cruelty statute, or grant Chilinski's request to overturn the conviction. Rather, Green sees the appeal as a chance for justices to reinforce existing prohibitions.

"This is a great opportunity for the court to not only tell Mr. Chilinski but to tell any potential animal abuser in the state, that (they) will be punished," he says. "If you abuse an animal in Montana, you will pay."

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