188 sickly dogs are rescued from breeders whose 'hobby turned bad'

A “small number” of dogs were found dead on the 10-acre farm, according to an animal welfare official involved in the rescue.

188 sickly dogs are rescued from breeders whose 'hobby turned bad'

There was a time when the mention of the two high-end dog breeders came with a shower of praise and admiration.

The New Jersey couple at the helm of Rocky Ridge Russells kennel could proudly boast of dozens of American Kennel Club winners and a 2009 Westminster Kennel Club best in breed champion.

But neighbors near their farm in rural Stockton, New Jersey, had warned of a far less illustrious operation. And Tuesday, authorities revealed the scope of the kennel’s troubling truth: Nearly 200 unkempt dogs — some of them pregnant and many that appeared visibly sick — were removed from the home on County Route 519.

A “small number” of dogs were found dead on the 10-acre farm, according to an animal welfare official involved in the rescue.

The Hunterdon County prosecutor’s office has begun an animal cruelty investigation, and authorities said charges were pending against the homeowners.

“It all just got out of hand,” said Martin Strozenski, one of the breeders who lived at the home with his companion and business partner, Marcia Knoster, 70.

“This wasn’t backyard breeding,” he added. “Things just went sideways.”

About 8 a.m. Tuesday, a coalition of animal welfare and law enforcement agencies — including the prosecutor’s office, the state police, St. Hubert’s Animal Welfare Center and the Monmouth County Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals — descended on the property.

They reported finding at least 188 Parson Russell terriers and dachshunds. The rescue came after the couple had previously surrendered 30 terriers to local authorities, prosecutors said.

A decade ago, Rocky Ridge was a well-known and respected kennel. In 2009, a Parson Russell terrier bred by Knoster (“Keenan”) would win best in breed at the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show, the world’s oldest and perhaps most respected breed competition. The victory made Keenan the No. 2 Parson Russell terrier in the United States.

Yet even amid that victory, the financial crisis of 2008 had already begun to spell doom for Rocky Ridge, Strozenski said.

“The economy fell out,” he said. “We were in the process of breeding. We were putting people on waiting lists. Then all of a sudden the economy crashed, and all of the people just went away.”

The lack of interest in terriers created an overflow of dogs, Strozenski said. Over time, a couple dozen terriers grew to nearly 50. Then 100. Then 150. “We couldn’t give them away,” Strozenski said. “It was a hobby turned bad.”

Strozenski said the dead dogs were “in the process of being buried.”

Some of the rescued dogs were pregnant. Others were suffering from physical wounds, skin conditions and external parasites. Nearly all were scruffy, covered in dirt and showing signs of physical neglect, according to officials with St. Hubert’s Animal Welfare Center.

As news of the rescue spread, many social media users reacted with anger and sadness and accused the owners of being hoarders.

Strozenski admitted to being partially responsible for the poor upkeep of the animals but said the media reports of the rescue had grossly exaggerated the dogs’ living conditions.

“They weren’t well cared for, but they had their primary needs — food and water, and I changed their bed every day,” he said. “I was spending 12 hours a day with these dogs.”

A lawyer for the couple, Dante DiPirro, did not return calls for comment.

Nora Parker, who works with St. Hubert’s, said the dogs were in neither optimal or life-threatening conditions.

“No dogs needed emergency care or were in dire straits,” she said. “They appeared, most of them, to be well fed. But that’s not all a dog needs. They need space and socialization and human contact, and it appeared they were not getting enough of that.”

Most of the dogs are being temporarily housed at St. Hubert’s and are being treated by a staff of veterinarians and behavioral therapists, Parker said. They will be restored to full health before being placed for adoption, which for some dogs could come as early as next week.

Officials with the Westminster Kennel Club would not comment on Knoster or Strozenski directly, but they released a statement expressing sadness at the Rocky Ridge rescue.

“Supporting and promoting responsible dog breeding and ownership has been a key core value of the Westminster Kennel Club for over 140 years,” the statement read. “We are saddened to learn of this unfortunate situation and are grateful for the care being provided to the affected dogs.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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