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Pair charged in deaths of nine puppies

A Chesilhurst councilman and his mother denied guilt.

A borough councilman in Chesilhurst, Camden County, and his mother have been charged with animal cruelty after nine of their newborn puppies died in last winter's cold.

Councilman Robert McCann, 50, and his mother, Rita Dickerson, 67, were accused in an SPCA summons that was served Tuesday with nine counts of failure to provide proper shelter for the family dog, a chocolate Labrador retriever named Coco, and her newborn puppies.

The charges are disorderly persons offenses, with a maximum penalty of 30 days' imprisonment and a $1,000 fine for each count. A court date has been set for May 16 in Berlin Municipal Court.

McCann and his mother said the charges were part of a political plot that began with his recent campaign for Chesilhurst borough mayor.

"Since I've decided to run for mayor, my opponent has been attacking me through my mother, which is shameless," McCann said. "We're not guilty of anything. It's an attempt at political assassination by my opponents. . . . We'll have our day in court."

His mother also denied the cruelty allegations. Dickerson said the family has been cited several times recently by various agencies, in one case for a picnic table infraction, another for a portable toilet breach. Yesterday, she said, a forest ranger showed up and cited her for a smoky barbecue pit.

New Jersey SPCA Sgt. Jane Donoghue said McCann's dog had been left outside in February's "incredibly cold" weather to give birth to 15 puppies in a doghouse. Nine of the 15 puppies died, she said, of complications from hypothermia. One other, she said, was born dead.

The five surviving puppies have since been adopted by other families.

Animal activist Kathy McGuire said her organization, New Jersey Aid for Animals, had reported Coco's plight to the SPCA after a receiving a tip. McGuire said her organization had purchased the surviving puppies from McCann for $250 and borrowed the 9-year-old mother dog until the puppies were weaned.

An additional charge of neglect accuses McCann of failing to provide Coco with necessary veterinary care.

Dickerson said Coco was kept in a doghouse and was well cared for. None of the puppies died, she said, until they were taken by the SPCA.

"How do we know they died?" she said. "If they died, it was after they took them and separated the pups from their mother."

Donoghue said the puppies died after the SPCA took them because of an infection caused by the cold.