The Whatcom Humane Society settled three federal lawsuits, and here’s what they cost

Cows as they appeared when photographed by the Department of Agriculture on Seth Snook’s farm near Ferndale on March 29, 2017. The Whatcom Humane Society settled a federal civil case filed by Snook in October 2018 by agreeing to pay him $62,500.
Cows as they appeared when photographed by the Department of Agriculture on Seth Snook’s farm near Ferndale on March 29, 2017. The Whatcom Humane Society settled a federal civil case filed by Snook in October 2018 by agreeing to pay him $62,500. Courtesy to The Bellingham Herald

The Whatcom Humane Society has settled three federal lawsuits for more than $400,000 related to its animal control officers working without legal authority from 2010 to 2017, according to federal court records.

The lawsuits, filed within two days in late February 2018 against the Whatcom Humane Society, were settled within the past five months. Judgments were entered in favor of the plaintiffs and against the humane society in all three cases, records show.

Each of the cases related to alleged civil rights violations and included claims of negligent training and supervision, unlawful seizure of animals and trespass by Whatcom Humane Society employees, according to the lawsuits and Emily Beschen, the attorney who filed the three lawsuits on behalf of her clients.

In total, the humane society paid $409,500 to close the cases, records state.

“We are pleased with the entry of the judgments in each of these unique cases,” Beschen said in a prepared statement. “Positive changes have been made as a result of issues brought to light during the course of litigation.

“We are hopeful that Whatcom Humane Society will continue to evaluate improvements that can be made with regards to training in the future, and appreciative of the manner in which the Whatcom County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office approached the matters brought to their attention.”

Executive Director Laura Clark said the Whatcom Humane Society does not comment on legal matters, but did say in a prepared statement that the humane society “is always working to improve our policies, procedures, processes and training for all of our staff and departments in all three of our shelter facilities in order to provide the best service possible to both the animals and people we serve.”

“We are so humbled and grateful for the outpouring of support that we have received from the community and our supporters,” Clark added. “It’s been extremely inspiring to see and hear from so many people who believe deeply in our mission and have confidence in our work.”

Beschen said that “in each case, plaintiffs resolved claims filed against Whatcom Humane Society after making the decision to accept offers for entry of a judgment in favor of each plaintiff. Needed reform was made at Whatcom Humane Society during the course of litigation.”

Beschen declined to elaborate on the circumstances leading to the settlements.

The humane society currently employs seven animal control officers and provides services for Bellingham, Ferndale, Blaine, Sumas and Everson, Clark said. The officers receive in-house training, as well as attend local, regional and national training workshops and opportunities, she said. Training also includes attendance at a state or national Animal Control Academy and continued education in topics such as animal behavior, conflict resolution, best practices, disaster response, field investigations and evidence collection, Clark said.

“The Whatcom Humane Society has a very positive, working relationship with the county and we do not expect that to change,” Clark said. “There is currently an animal control contract in place and we will continue to work with the county to negotiate a new contract that will best serve the animals in our community.

“Our animal control staff have always been and continue to be highly trained and professional men and women who tirelessly dedicate their time and efforts to providing services to animals in need.”

Humane society seizes a dog

Kendra Bostwick and her husband filed a federal civil lawsuit Feb. 27, 2018, against Whatcom County, Clark and the humane society alleging that the humane society violated the family’s civil rights by seizing their dog and ultimately causing its death, according to federal court records.

The complaint states that in August 2016, animal control officers with the humane society provided a warrant to seize the family’s dog, Bosco, as evidence. At the time, the humane society employees were not authorized by a judge to work as animal control officers, the records state. The lawsuit claims that Bosco was provided inadequate care by the humane society. A hearing was set before a judge to determine whether Bosco could be returned to the Bostwicks, but Bosco was euthanized prior to the hearing, the records state.

In response, the Whatcom Humane Society stated that its animal control officers could see Bosco, who they said was emaciated, through a garage door window of the Bostwick’s residence. They then seized the dog, records state. The agency also denied that Bosco was provided inadequate care.

Bostwick was charged with second-degree animal cruelty in August 2016 in relation to the case. Her case was dismissed in September 2017, according to Whatcom County District Court records.

The humane society paid the Bostwicks $47,000 in January 2019 to settle the federal lawsuit, records show. A judgment was also entered in favor of the Bostwicks.

Whatcom County pigs euthanized

Also on Feb. 27, 2018, Kellie Deeter-Larsen and her husband filed a federal civil lawsuit against Whatcom County, the humane society, Clark, animal control officer Rebecca Crowley, veterinarian Amber Itle and the Washington State Department of Agriculture.

In the lawsuit, Deeter-Larsen stated that she and her husband operated a pig farm for profit in Whatcom County after they purchased 100 pigs from Iowa in 2010. In December 2015, Deeter-Larsen bred more than 14 sows with the expectation that they’d have pigs that could be sold to children participating in 4-H clubs in several counties. Deeter-Larsen and her husband also had other animals, including a dog named Zip, records state.

In late 2015 and early 2016, Crowley, the animal control officer with the humane society, came onto their property without consent and took photos, the lawsuit alleges. In March 2017, the humane society seized all the animals from Deeter-Larsen after the humane society learned she “had utilized normal farming practices that did not align with the Whatcom Humane Society’s beliefs on what feed was appropriate for animals to consume,” records state.

The humane society directed all the pigs be euthanized, but the veterinarian consulted refused to euthanize them, records state. Because of a lack of adequate care, some of the pigs died, records state. Crowley also adopted the family’s dog, Zip, to be her personal companion, the records show.

In its response to the lawsuit, the humane society stated that Crowley had prior contacts with Deeter-Larsen and had ongoing permission and consent to monitor the animals on the farm, records state.

The humane society did intend to euthanize the pigs due to their physical condition and a lack of resources to care for them. A veterinarian consulted declined to euthanize them because they could proceed through an auction to be slaughtered for food, but this was against the humane society’s mission, records state. Some of the piglets born were euthanized, the records state.

The humane society admitted that Crowley adopted Deeter-Larsen’s dog Zip, but after protocols and an appropriate waiting period were followed, the records show.

Deeter-Larsen was charged with 30 counts of second-degree animal cruelty, but 29 of the counts were dismissed in 2016, and the final count was dismissed on March 1, 2019, according to district court records.

A judgment was entered in the federal case in late February 2019 in favor of Deeter-Larsen. The humane society also agreed to pay Deeter-Larsen and her husband $300,000 as part of the judgment, records state. They received the money in late March, records show.

Snook Brook Farms, north of Ferndale, July 19, 2017. Staff The Bellingham Herald file

Settlement after dairy cows seized

On Feb. 28, 2018, Seth Snook, owner of Snook Brook Farms, filed a federal civil lawsuit against the Whatcom Humane Society, Clark, and Whatcom County alleging that the humane society entered his property without consent and took and euthanized his dairy cows without legal authority, records state.

Snook was accused of starving the cows, some to death, but all felony charges against him were dropped in July 2017, as previously reported by The Bellingham Herald. Remaining charges were converted to misdemeanors and those were dismissed in June 2018, court records show.

The humane society settled the federal civil case in October 2018 by agreeing to pay Snook $62,500. He received the money in November 2018, federal court records state. A judgment was also entered in favor of Snook in the case.

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

Animal control authority

The settlements come at a time when changes to the Whatcom County Code adopted by the Whatcom County Council recognize the humane society as a designated animal control agency for the unincorporated parts of the county.

At its meeting Tuesday, the council amended the county code involving animal control and enforcement to recognize the contractual relationship between the county and the Whatcom Humane Society.

Whatcom County has contracted with the humane society for animal control services since 2007, similar to the way other agencies in the state do it, according to Clark. Counties that don’t contract through a humane society run an animal control unit through their sheriff’s offices, president of the Washington Animal Control Association Brian Boman previously told The Herald.

The Whatcom County Code was written to indicate animal control services could be provided by an agency designated by the County Council or by those deputized by the Whatcom County Sheriff’s Office, according to council documents.

The code changes were supposed to clarify the agencies authorized to conduct animal control services in the unincorporated parts of Whatcom County, update definitions to include humane societies as animal control authorities and define what an animal control officer is, according to Deputy County Executive Tyler Schroeder and a memo filed with the council.

“This ordinance change is just really recognizing how the county has accomplished it for many years. It really is just a code clarification,” said Schroeder, who added the changes were not a result of the federal lawsuits.

Schroeder and Clark said the code was looked at while the county was in contract negotiations with the humane society. The contract will be valid for two years and is expected to be presented to the council within the next two months, Schroeder said.

The new code language adds that a county department or humane society can handle animal care and control for the county if designated by the County Council. It also adds that any animal control officer can be an employee of an animal control authority or humane society, as long as they comply with the state statute, or are deputized by the sheriff, according to council records.

This story has been updated to include that judgments were entered in favor of the plaintiffs in all three cases.

Reporter Denver Pratt joined The Bellingham Herald in 2017 and covers courts and criminal and social justice. She has worked in Montana, Florida and Virginia.