Judge Orders Unlicensed Kennel Shut Down

By Beacon Staff

The Flathead County Animal Control staff is preparing for the possibility of having to take custody of as many as 40 additional dogs at once, after the sentencing of a Haywire Gulch man required that they be removed from his unlicensed kennel.

“We are obligated to take them,” said Joe Russell, public health officer for the Flathead City-County Health Department. “He may be losing his animals, but we’re getting them and we have a mission to treat these animals humanely.”

On Dec. 12, Christopher Erickson was found guilty of violating the county’s barking dogs ordinance numerous times. He has been ordered to reduce the number of dogs in his possession to 20 within 30 days of sentencing, and down to four dogs within 60 days of sentencing, or he can apply for kennel license. Animal control authorities interviewed say it is unlikely Erickson will be granted a license without full-time supervision of that many dogs. Erickson was also sentenced to a year of jail and fined $200, both of which were suspended.

The dogs’ removal is the culmination of repeated complaints and incidents this year involving noise and smell from the kennel that has soured relations among many neighbors in Haywire Gulch. Accounts conflict as to the breed of the dogs, with Erickson saying he has Labradors, Malamutes, Huskies and some mixed breeds. His neighbors and authorities say they have also seen Rottweilers, pit bulls, and wolf-hybrids on his property.

Erickson was found guilty Nov. 26 of a misdemeanor for having barking dogs after neighbors complained in June of this year. Sentencing in that case is scheduled for Dec. 12. He was also charged Nov. 29 with 40 counts of keepings dogs without licenses and failing to obtain a kennel license, with an initial hearing scheduled for Feb. 19.

Erickson, who did not appear at the Nov. 26 trial and had a warrant issued against him as a result, says he does not neglect his dogs and is the victim of overzealous neighbors and vague county animal regulations.

“I think that it’s just completely ridiculous and blown out of proportion,” Erickson said. “My dogs are well taken care of.”

Russell and Animal Control Officer Paul Charbonneau both questioned how Erickson and his girlfriend, with whom he lives, could be taking adequate care of the dogs while holding down jobs.

“Caring for that many animals is a full-time job, every day,” Charbonneau said. “We’re willing to work with Mr. Erickson in reducing the number of dogs that he has.”

Charbonneau said he has been helping Erickson by putting collars on the dogs in order to determine their sex and breed, and to ensure they have received proper vaccinations. But if there are wolf-hybrids in the kennel, more extensive vaccinations are required, Russell said.

While the complaints in Haywire Gulch were frequent, it wasn’t until June 2 that a sheriff’s deputy and animal control officer got a firsthand look at Erickson’s kennel. Neighbors having a birthday party called the police after, they said, staying outside became impossible due to Erickson’s barking dogs, a quarter of a mile away. At the trial, authorities testified that upon arriving on the scene, they found the dogs in three kennels, in three inches of their own feces. The smell was detectable from the road.

Elizabeth Carhart and her husband, William Zubrod, are the neighbors who testified against Erickson and filed the June 2 complaint. Many of Erickson’s dogs roam free throughout Haywire Gulch, they said, and bark for hours every day.

“Your life is constantly interrupted by the barking; anything will set them off,” Carhart said. “I’ve had some of their large dogs on my porch intimidating my dog.”

Zubrod has installed extra insulation in their bedroom, and said they must wear earplugs and play a recording of ocean waves in order to sleep. Carhart said she is nervous about walking down the road and fears the smell and noise of the kennel is lowering property values.

Erickson, however, said other neighbors tell him that his dogs don’t bark much, but he has been working toward a solution to the problem – giving puppies away and trying to meet kennel license requirements.

“We can’t have kids; these are our kids,” Erickson said of the dogs. “They get a lot of attention.”

A local store manager, Erickson said he alternates his work schedule with his girlfriend so the dogs are rarely left unattended more than a few hours a day. The three inches of feces reported by authorities looked that way because he put hay down in the kennels, he said, which he no longer uses. Erickson takes the dogs hiking and swimming, cleans them daily and makes sure they are well fed and watered, he said. He added that he has 25 collars that give the dogs a small shock to cut down on barking, and an ultrasonic device that reduces barking.

Interviewed prior to sentencing, Erickson said he was concerned: “If a person is trying to work with county animal control, that should at least go somewhere.”

If the county has to take responsibility for the dogs, it will look into finding an off-site facility for them, since the Flathead Animal Shelter is usually filled to capacity. Should it become necessary, animal control authorities will be looking for volunteers to help care for the dogs until homes can be found.

“We are going to be asking for help from the community,” Russell added. “There’s no way we can deal with it if we don’t.”