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Ferndale cow cruelty case doomed by animal control missteps; farmer sues county

pdwyer@bhamherald.com

Animal control officers in Whatcom County worked without legal authority from 2010 to 2017, an oversight that crippled an animal neglect case against a Ferndale dairy farmer, who was accused of starving his cows.

All felony charges against Seth Daniel Snook were either dropped or deferred, and his attorney maintains the cows at Snook Brook Farms weren’t starving.

Snook’s lawyer, Emily Beschen, argues that the Whatcom Humane Society committed a series of blunders by failing to renew a Superior Court authorization to act as animal control, carrying out an illegal warrant, and destroying the living evidence – the cows, many of which were shot in the head based on one cow’s false-positive test for an infectious disease. Snook has filed a lawsuit against Whatcom County and the humane society in U.S. District Court for defamation and 18 other alleged injustices.

Public records obtained by The Bellingham Herald tell the story of how the case fell apart. Snook declined an interview for this article.

The Farm

Snook’s dairy came to the attention of animal control in late March, when a farm loan manager, Houston Bruck, tipped off an agriculture investigator in an email about conditions: “Poor feed, poor conditions, animals dying – not good,” Bruck wrote.

Snook, 35, said he fell on hard times when his wife underwent cranial surgery in summer 2016. He was left to care for her, their three daughters and the farm at 6804 Kickerville Road, where Snook’s mother makes cheese under the Pleasant Valley Dairy brand. Snook fell behind on debt payments. Animals died on the farm, and went weeks without getting buried. Records show Snook had been warned about the need to bury dead livestock, to prevent the spread of disease, when inspectors found “mortalities present” on the farm two years earlier. He was not cited then.

Bruck took photos of three fresh carcasses in Snook’s barn in March 2017.

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Philip A. Dwyer pdwyer@bhamherald.com

Other farmers also noticed the conditions on the farm, because its manure runoff was polluting ditches and Terrell Creek, a hazard to salmon, shellfish and beaches at a nearby state park. Some concerned farmers offered help, or even to buy the dairy. They noted the farm itself was in poor condition, but did not see any signs of outright animal cruelty, according to Whatcom Family Farmers, a farm advocacy group. Snook did not sell the farm.

By spring Snook’s cows lived in unsanitary conditions, on a barn floor of sawdust compacted with manure, according to reports by Dr. Amber Itle, a field veterinarian with the state Department of Agriculture. Cows could wander into an unfenced manure lagoon, a sanitation and safety concern, Itle wrote. All 25 cows – old and young, weak and strong – were mixed together, competing for low-quality, low-protein hay bales that seemed good enough for bedding, but not for a good diet. Dairy cows produce milk even if it harms their health, Itle wrote. Without a diet rich in fat and protein, they can starve on full stomachs.

Animal control officers stepped in to help feed the cows in April.

Itle said four of Snook’s cattle were in such poor shape they should be euthanized. Snook’s attorney doesn’t dispute that a few cows were too thin. Perhaps five had medical reasons that could justify euthanasia, Beschen said, but state law says the owner and a licensed veterinarian should be consulted, “whenever possible.”

Snook gave permission on April 17 for animal control to kill one cow, Babs, who couldn’t lift herself up. He surrendered another sick calf, Becky, who is still alive. Sixteen more were killed at the direction of the humane society without Snook’s input, and in most cases without an endorsement from the veterinarian who shot them.

Warrant Issues

Just before the cattle were seized by animal control, Itle gave Snook three options: sell them; gift the cows to another dairy; or allow routine check-ins from a nutritionist, a veterinarian and animal control. He agreed to sell. The cows were prized Jerseys and Holsteins with good genes, Beschen said.

“He would give them away before he would sell them for meat,” the attorney said.

Nonetheless, Itle advised the cows should go to slaughter.

Snook missed a beef cattle auction in Everson on a Monday in April. He messaged an animal control officer that he would go to the dairy auction that Wednesday so his cows could land in a dairy, and not in a hamburger. Text messages in the court record show animal control Sgt. Rebecca Crowley replied to Snook, “Yes that’s fine.”

Hours before the dairy auction, however, 23 cows were taken without warning, while Snook worked a graveyard shift at a new non-farming job.

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A cow on Seth Snook’s farm on March 29, 2017, in Ferndale. U.S. Department of Agriculture Courtesy to The Bellingham Herald

Asked why the deal was broken, humane society director Laura Clark said animal control “remained concerned about the fragile physical condition of the cow victims and their ability to be safely transported and housed at the auction.”

Crowley’s undated report cites anonymous sources who told her Snook planned to sell the cows at auction and buy them back. Crowley feared the cows wouldn’t survive being transported twice, she wrote, and returning the cows to the Snook farm would mean “sealing their fate to be starved to death.” She reported Snook later confirmed that was his plan. Beschen said he misinterpreted the reason he’d been told to sell. Snook thought it was about a lien, Beschen said, not law enforcement.

Records are scarce from the night Crowley executed the warrant. There were no reports from the Whatcom County Sheriff’s Office, because deputies were not present at the scene, a violation of the state law that spells out the powers of animal control officers. Animal control can serve warrants, the law says, but only if a sheriff’s deputy or a police officer is present. Snook wasn’t provided an evidence inventory receipt, unlike when the sheriff’s office, for example, processes an crash or crime scene. As a result, Snook had no documents to show the cows’ condition at the time of seizure.

“I have never (heard) of something like this done under cover of darkness,” Snook texted Crowley, after he came home to find his cows gone.

Starving, or ‘Arguably Perfect?’

Six of the cows were sent to Pasado’s Safe Haven in Monroe, an animal sanctuary. Two of those were the subject of animal cruelty charges. All six are still alive.

Videos of the cows were taken within two days of seizure. A veterinarian hired by Snook’s defense watched the footage, inspected the cows in person in June, and found they were in almost perfect condition both times.

Animal control officers painted a far different picture.

“At least 28 animals have been starved and some have starved to death by Mr. Snook,” charging papers state, based on Crowley’s report.

Dairy cows’ bodies are scored on a scale of 1 (emaciated) to 5 (obese), with 3 being a healthy medium. Bruck considered Snook’s cows to be “around a 1, some 2’s, maybe a 3 in there.” Itle said in April they looked to be in the 1 or 2 range – from “emaciated” to “poor” – but two weeks later said all could be classified as 1 to 1 ½. Based on footage, the defense’s veterinarian scored the cows in the 2 ½ to 3 range, “arguably perfect,” Beschen wrote. Another veterinarian at Pasado’s graded the cows at 2 or 3, but on the beef cattle scale, which goes to 9. Dairy cows aren’t supposed to look like beef cows. In court papers, Beschen pointed to a cow with a body score of 1 that won a dairy competition in Colorado, while Snook’s case was pending.

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Cows on Seth Snook’s farm on March 29, 2017, near Ferndale. U.S. Department of Agriculture Courtesy to The Bellingham Herald

“As dairy cows can be tricky to assess, I’m glad there will be multiple sets of eyes on this issue,” Bruck wrote when he first tipped off inspectors about the farm.

Snook kept cows that were well beyond their prime milking age, and according to his attorney, one of the less healthy cows, Trixie, belonged to someone else, who had entrusted her to Snook to nurse her back to health. Trixie and two others were killed at the humane society’s direction in April, because they couldn’t rise without great difficulty, if at all. Trixie appeared to be “particularly emaciated,” according to the humane society.

Ten more were euthanized by Dr. Robert Holt, a Whatcom County veterinarian, when a blood test on one cow in that group came up positive for Johne’s, an infectious chronic wasting disease present in an estimated 68 percent of U.S. dairy cattle herds. The disease can be fatal, eventually, but Holt wrote he saw no urgent need to kill these cows, or any of the dozen cows killed in May, according to court papers. He said he had been directed to do so by the humane society. Most of the cows were euthanized May 9, the same day Snook petitioned to keep the cows from being killed. He beat the deadline to make that request by a day, according to Beschen.

A fecal test on the supposedly infected cow later came back negative for Johne’s. Fecal tests are considered the gold standard to test for the disease. No necropsies were performed on any of the cows.

“The Whatcom Humane Society made the difficult decision to euthanize many of the cow victims in this case due to their physical and medical conditions as well as their exposure to a highly contagious disease,” Clark said via email.

“We made the difficult decision based on the information we had at the time,” she added.

Legal Hang-ups

Whatcom County contracts through the Whatcom Humane Society for animal control, as do about half such agencies in the state, said Brian Boman, the president of the Washington Animal Control Association based in Pierce County. Other counties, like Pierce, run an animal control unit through their respective sheriff’s offices.

Animal control agencies often have to go through extra steps to collect and store evidence in cases of alleged neglect, for obvious reasons.

“Our evidence is alive and breathing, it needs to eat. … We have to treat it as evidence, because if we don’t treat it properly, we’re going to ruin our case,” Boman said. “We’ve had some animals in custody for six months (in Pierce County), regardless of the funding aspects, because that’s what we need to do.”

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Roxy, a pregnant cow seized by the Whatcom Humane Society, on April 26, 2017. She was among 12 cows who underwent blood tests for Johne’s disease in early May. One test came up positive, but was later proven to be negative by a more reliable fecal test, court records show. In the meantime, the cows were euthanized. Butler Beschen Law Courtesy to The Bellingham Herald

Washington state law requires animal control officers to complete training that’s “satisfactory to a judge” – a program like the National Animal Control and Humane Officer Training Academy, better known as NACHO; or Animal Control Training Services, ACTS, or the training Boman leads through the state association.

Once the training is completed, a judge must reauthorize animal control officers every three years.

Whatcom Humane Society animal control officers received training, but missed deadlines to re-certify, starting in 2010. Earlier this month, Superior Court Judge Deborra Garrett ruled the officers were certified moving forward. But she did not give a retroactive approval to officers who missed their deadlines, including Crowley.

Meanwhile, other past or current animal cruelty cases shouldn’t be affected by the oversight, said Eric Richey, the chief criminal deputy prosecutor. Charges in Snook’s case were based on reports put together by the humane society and the state Department of Agriculture.

Seth Snook plead not guilty at his first appearance in Whatcom County Superior Court on Friday, May 12, in Bellingham. Snook is charged with five counts of first-degree animal cruelty after investigators found more than 20 emaciated cows and pigs

Whatcom’s animal control has made changes in its operations because of the Snook case, according to the humane society: updating training manuals, working more closely with law enforcement, and asking for more resources from the jurisdictions they work with.

Richey emphasized he has great respect for the humane society, and he would not hesitate to work with them again on a criminal case.

Snook was not convicted of any counts when the case resolved in July. Three counts were dismissed, and two more will be dismissed if the neglect concerns don’t reemerge. His six surviving cows were returned to him, in a deal where he agrees to monthly check-ins from a veterinarian.

In his lawsuit, Snook seeks three times the value of the cows, attorney’s fees, and damages for emotional distress and lost earnings. The humane society declined to comment on the civil case. The claim has been submitted to the U.S. District Court in Seattle.

Snook filed for bankruptcy in May in the same federal courthouse.

Caleb Hutton: 360-715-2276, @bhamcaleb

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