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Latest animal cruelty case hits county docket

By Judith Pannebaker BCC Editor

It's become increasingly evident that Bandera County Attorney John Payne is taking complaints of animal cruelty seriously.

A Friday, Feb. 18, civil hearing was convened to determine the dogs' disposition. After Payne cited a trio of applicable government codes - along with appropriate evidence - Precinct 3 Justice of the Peace Eino Zapata ordered both dogs removed from their owner, Juan Leal, and awarded to Bandera County for adoption. Zapata determined that Leal had failed to provide the dogs with necessary food and water, appropriate shelter during adverse weather conditions and veterinary care, which according to the codes cited, is constituted as cruelty to animals.
The latest seizure occurred on Feb. 12, after a complaint was lodged on Feb. 9 with the Bandera County Sheriff's Office regarding the dogs' physical and living conditions. The dogs are a female black and tan beagle, and a male black and tan beagle mix.
Texas Randall, who works as an EMT with Bandera County EMS, filed the complaint after responding to a 9-1-1 call to Leal's residence.
"I noticed one dog chained outside in front of the door we entered just before midnight," she said. "I think the temperature was in the 20s. I filed a complaint the next day because I was concerned about the overall welfare and well being of the dog."
During the hearing, Payne introduced into evidence the frigid temperatures that had ranged from 15º F to 17º F during the week the dogs went without adequate shelter while the animal cruelty investigation was being undertaken.
Jennifer Moore, animal liaison for animal control issues in Bandera County, testified that Leal lives behind her in Lakehills. Although she immediately investigated the complaint about the dogs' conditions, Moore was unable to contact Leal personally. However, from telephone conversations, Moore ascertained that he was aware of the type of environment - garbage and debris - and the freezing temperatures in which the dogs were existing.
"I also asked Dr. Sheridan Sloan of the Pipe Creek Veterinary Clinic to make a farm call to assess the conditions of the animals," Moore said. Senior Animal Control Officer Rick Neeley also arrived at the scene at which time photos were taken to document the conditions.
Returning to Leal's residence on Feb. 12, Moore said one dog had a shelter of sorts under a rug but "couldn't get into the shelter." The male beagle mix was chained to a tree and was unable to access a small amount of food in one of his bowls. "There was a cord wrapped around his right hind leg and he literally couldn't move," Moore said. "We feared the cord had become embedded in his skin."
After a warrant was obtained, the dogs were seized Saturday, Feb. 12 after Sheridan advised law enforcement officers that the poor condition of the animals warranted their removal from Leal's property.
Photos showing the condition of the dogs' bodies taken at Sheridan's clinic were introduced into evidence.
Dr. Elissa Jackson, who works with Sheridan, handled the initial care of the dogs after their arrival at the Pipe Creek clinic, noting that both presented with poor body conditions and were underweight.
"In my personal observations, I noted that the male dog had trouble standing and had a body temperature of 94º," she said. Normal body temperature for a dog is 100º. "He was very sick and I gave him a 'guarded' chance for survival. He could easily have died." She said the dog was also suffering from dehydration and severe hookworm and heartworm infestations, as well.
Jackson told the court that the male dog vomited up partially digested food after being given water. "He couldn't hold any food down."
Payne recalled Moore to the stand. She said that just one week after being seized, the dogs were responding well to treatment. She described the female beagle as "bouncing and barking," and said the male beagle mix had gained 1.7 pounds.
Moore recommended that the animals be awarded to Bandera County for rescue and adoption, adding, "Neither should be destroyed."
In addition, while the were at the vet clinic, Moore learned that for the last year, Leal's ex-wife had been attempting to get custody of the female dog that was named "Baby." According to Moore's testimony, Tiffany Leal had been feeding both dogs until Juan Leal told her he would file a complaint against her for trespassing. "She was denied access to the property to give the dogs' food," Moore said.
Leal attended the civil hearing without benefit of counsel. He failed to ask questions of any witnesses called by Payne. Early in the proceedings, Zapata informed Leal that after the state rested its case, he could call himself as a witness and make a statement.
While declining to testify in his behalf, as reasons for neglecting the animals, he cited being out of work, which left him with little money to feed his animals. "Sometimes neighbors gave me food for the dogs. Before, I fed them once or twice a day," Leal said.
His plea to the court for "an opportunity to take care of my animals" failed to move Zapata, who ordered the dogs to be turned over to Bandera County.
Additionally, Leal must make restitution for the animals' care, as well as court costs, in the amount of $1,262.50. He can no longer have animals at his address.
In an interview, Moore said that had Leal willingly turned the dogs over to the county, he could have avoided the court hearing and costs associated with the proceedings and vet care for his animals. "However, he told us he loved his animals and wanted them home," she said. Moore anticipated that Baby, the female beagle, would be reunited with her former owner.
As for Randall, when asked about her decision to file a formal complaint about the dogs, she replied, "It was a must. It was a must."

Pictured: BCC Staff Photo by Judith Pannebaker

Local veterinarians feared that this male beagle mix, recently seized by deputies with the Bandera County Sheriff's Office, would not survive.