BOZEMAN, Mont. (AP) _ A district judge has ruled that 33 sled dogs found abandoned without food, water or shelter can be released to the owner's father while a criminal case is pending.
John T. Hessert, 24, has pleaded not guilty to one felony count of aggravated animal cruelty and 33 misdemeanor counts of animal cruelty. His father, 56-year-old Stephen Hessert, said he would be willing to keep the animals at his home in Maine.
Judge Holly Brown ruled this week that the dogs could be moved to Maine because they're not needed as evidence and the elder Hessert is willing to bring the dogs back to Bozeman if they are needed. She also said Hessert's father would follow court orders, including caring for the dogs and keeping his son away from the animals.
But the decision angered some volunteers who have been taking care of the dogs since they were seized earlier this year.
"I'm shocked," volunteer caretaker Laura Cunningham said. "To think that they have to be sent back to the great unknown is sad and ridiculous."
According to court records, a man called animal control Jan. 30 to report that the dogs were being kept in an unsafe environment outside West Yellowstone near Targhee Pass.
The man said he hadn't seen the dogs' owner in several days and the dogs were emaciated and in poor condition.
A veterinarian examined the dogs on Feb. 2 and determined that they were all "well below normal health and had not been being fed enough food," according to court records. One of the dogs had a collar embedded in its neck and other dogs had frostbite.