A Chester County veterinarian was found guilty of animal cruelty yesterday for cutting off part of a puppy's tail without anesthesia while holding it under scalding water.
Lancaster County Magisterial District Judge Stuart Mylin said Tom Stevenson, of Honey Brook, neglected an animal he had a duty to care for when he performed the procedure on the 9-week-old puppy in the wash room of a kennel.
Stevenson's attorney said he would appeal the decision.
The case has broad implications for the commercial puppy breeding industry in Pennsylvania because Stevenson was the veterinarian of record for dozens of the largest kennels in the state, responsible for thousands of dogs sold throughout the region.
Stevenson's license was suspended by the state Board of Veterinary Medicine in May as a result of the cruelty charge and last week the board met to determine whether Stevenson's license should be revoked.
During the two-and-a-half hour trial, witnesses for the state told of filthy conditions under which Stevenson performed the surgical procedure and said he failed to follow basic veterinary protocols for surgery and wound care.
Pennsylvania SPCA officer Tara Loller who was conducting an unrelated undercover operation looking for sick puppies and illegal drug sales at the Country Lane kennel in New Providence, said she saw Stevenson put the poodle mix puppy under steaming water and use a type of industrial scissors to cut off a piece of the tail.
"The puppy was yelping and screaming, obviously in pain and trying to get away," said Loller. "It was one of the worst things I've ever seen in terms of an animal being in pain."
Loller said kennel owner Sam King told her he had accidentally severed the tail during a grooming procedure.
She said she saw Stevenson plunge the puppy's feces-covered rear end under hot water, and using a dirty scissors snip the remaining piece of tail. She said she did not see him nor give the dog anesthesia or pain medications or bandage the wound afterward.
Loller said Stevenson provided a health certificate before she purchased the puppy for $200 and took it to the PSPCA in Philadelphia where it was treated and its condition documented.
Rachel Lee, former medical director for the PSPCA, said the puppy was placed in intensive care, where it was given antibiotics and pain medication before having the tail properly amputated the following day. "Tail amputation is extremely painful," Lee said, adding that it is only proper if there is a medical reason for it.
Lancaster County Assistant District Attorney Christine Wilson asked Lee whether she believed any proper veterinary procedures were followed. "No," replied Lee, adding the open wound Stevenson left on the puppy "predisposed it to infection." Lee also questioned how Stevenson could sign a health certificate and at the same time instruct a buyer to take the dog immediately to a vet.
Michael Goldschmidt, head of surgical pathology at the University of Pennsylvania veterinary school, testified that he examined a piece of tail tissue that appeared to show evidence of "thermal injury," or burns, consistent with extremely hot water, but not more severe caustic agents that may be applied to a wound to stop bleeding.
Stevenson, the only witness called by the defense, testified that he was performing first aid on a previously injured dog and felt he had to remove the remaining flap of tail in order to prevent further injury that could occur in a wire cage.
"I was relieving a potential hazard to the puppy," he said.
Stevenson said he washed his hands and the puppy using antiseptic soap and used the only tool he had on hand, a pair of sewing scissors. He said the water was not scalding hot, nor was the puppy crying.
"I'm saying the screaming of the dog did not occur," said Stevenson. "The puppy did not make a sound."
He said the puppy was covered in a salve applied by the kennel owner to stop bleeding from the tail wound the day before.
Stevenson said the nerve in the tail had already been severed during the accident and he did not believe removing a piece of tail tissue constituted surgery, rather he compared it to cutting toe nails. But under cross examination Stevenson admitted that he would have used anesthesia had he performed the procedure in his clinic.
About 50 breeders – most of them Amish and Mennonite - and others crammed into the small courtroom to support Stevenson. One man stood up in the middle of the trial to demand the judge remove the weapon carried by Loller, who as an SPCA agent is a licensed law enforcement officer. Mylin refused.
There is an enormous amount of money riding on Stevenson's ability to practice in Pennsylvania. In his role as veterinarian of record for dozens of large kennels, Stevenson conducts exams and signs health certificates for thousands of puppies sold to pet stores throughout the region and to the public through classified ads. He also conducts inspections and writes veterinary plans for commercial kennels with federal U.S. Department of Agriculture licenses allowing them to wholesale puppies to pet stores.
In closing arguments Lancaster County assistant district attorney Christine Wilson said Stevenson acted against all "reasonable veterinary judgment" during the March incident when he used unsterilized scissors in an unsanitary setting and failed to give the animal pain medication or proper treatment for the wound.
She said Stevenson could have refused to perform the procedure in that setting but went ahead anyway. "He had no concern for the health and well being of the dog," said Wilson, adding he "grossly neglected" his duty to the dog by signing a health certificate and then handing off an injured dog to a customer.
Stevenson's attorney, Joshua Autry, contended that the Commonwealth had failed to prove its case and that it boiled down to a "he said, she said" between Stevenson and Loller as to whether the puppy was in pain during the procedure.
"The Commonwealth has not proved beyond a reasonable doubt that the puppy was screaming as Tom Stevenson performed the operation," he said.
Autry said there was no evidence that Stevenson acted cruelly or with "wanton intent and there was no evidence of negligence. "All the pain was caused the day before by Sam King not Tom Stevenson."
But Mylin said "nothing has discredited" the testimony of prosecution witnesses. He said Stevenson, as a veterinarian is in a "unique category," when considering cruelty charges.
"I think Tom Stevenson neglected the animal he had a duty of care for," Mylin said, before finding him guilty and imposing a $750 fine.
After the trial, one Stevenson supporter stormed up to Loller, saying one day her children would "eat dogs." Stevenson hugged his family and offered only this holiday message to reporters: "Peace on Earth, good will to men."
At a hearing in July, Mylin found enough evidence to send the case to trial in Lancaster Court of Common Pleas, but county prosecutors requested the charge be reduced to a summary offense and the case was remanded back to Mylin's court. Wilson said yesterday that they felt they could prove the threshold for neglect needed for a summary charge, but not the higher level for malicious intent required to win a misdemeanor conviction.
Stevenson was named in a 2007 New Jersey consumer law suit against Lancaster County puppy brokers Joyce and Raymond Stoltzfus of CC Pets LLC, alleging he provided them with false health certificates. That case was settled for an undisclosed amount in July. Stevenson also is the subject of federal litigation by the Internal Revenue Service, which is seeking $500,000 in unpaid federal taxes.