GULL LAKE -- The couple at the centre of one of the most disturbing animal neglect cases the Winnipeg Humane Society has seen in recent history say they're actually Good Samaritans who saved the animals from uncaring people who dumped the dogs with them.
Saturday afternoon, Judy and Peter Chernecki stood outside a feces-encrusted Gull Lake garage where they kept some of their 44 dogs.
On Friday, officials seized the dogs from their crowded property, located about 90 kilometres northeast of Winnipeg.
The couple said they saved animals that had nowhere else to live, and their canine population grew rapidly over the last five years.
"What they're doing is dropping off animals here... We can't say no," said Judy Chernecki, a homemaker.
"I wish I could say no, then I wouldn't have this problem... but why are they dumping them off? That's what I'd like to know."
Judy Chernecki also said the accusations they mistreated the dogs weren't true.
"You mean, giving them hugs and kisses is mistreating them?" she said.
"If people would learn how to take care of their animals, we wouldn't have this problem," said her husband Peter.
At the Winnipeg Humane Society, the dogs were whimpering and filthy, and appeared to be confused by human contact.
Humane society executive director Bill McDonald said he was appalled by the condition of the dogs, who he said were deprived of human contact and kept inhumanely.
The dogs were in individual kennels at the Hurst Way facility Saturday morning, crying softly as strangers walked by, many encrusted in their own filth.
McDonald said three of 44 dogs the WHS took in were euthanized, one due to a head wound and two who were so aggressive they posed a "dangerous" risk to staff.
One pale dog had a collection of small black scars on his face, another had a nasty wound above his ear, with bloodied skin peeking out from matted fur.
McDonald said most of the dogs had urine burns on their paws from standing in their own excrement.
"This is one of the worst (cases) we've seen in recent memory," said McDonald.
He said later: "They're obviously not used to people."
More than 40 people -- including veterinarians from the humane society and the Office of the Chief Veterinarian -- worked for hours Friday night as crates of the dogs poured into the facility. They catalogued damage to the animals' bodies to determine if the animals were mistreated.
McDonald said the dogs were isolated from social contact and didn't receive proper medical attention.
While they weren't starving, as some were well fed or even obese, he said the dogs, which included border collies, Labrador retrievers, German shepherds, and cross-breeds -- will likely suffer intestinal problems.
McDonald said the couple were hoarders, not puppy-mill breeders looking for a profit.
Saturday, cans spitting small fires were spewing a pungent odour on the Cherneckis' property, with piles of machinery, wood and junk standing around the garage and cabin where the dogs had lived.
Nearby were two small cabins where the Cherneckis live with their adult son.
Peter Chernecki opened the garage where his wife said half of the dogs lived; it was pitch black and windowless except for light from the doorway. A small, fenced-in play area was outside.
A plastic bin containing bits of food sat within. The couple said they're not hoarders, and they consider the dogs as family members.
Judy Chernecki said the dogs were let out early in the morning for exercise, and they weren't imprisoned inside.
"It's just like part of the family is missing already," said Peter Chernicki, who said he's been on disability assistance for years after working at a mill. He said they've kept dogs for more than 10 years and he is heartbroken by the seizure.
"Last night, I never slept at all. It bothered me so much," he said.
The couple had fewer than a dozen dogs until about five years ago, when Judy Chernecki said people began regularly dropping off animals on the couple's driveway because they knew they'd take them in.
Residents of the area said they're grateful the dogs are in a safe place.
Some disputed the couple's claims they were attentive owners to the animals.
"All you could hear was dogs barking, day in and day out," said Theresa Wyatt, whose grandmother used to own one of the cabins the Cherneckis now live in.
The 23-year-old had driven from Winnipeg to Gull Lake with her family after hearing reports about the seizure.
Wyatt said while the sound of animals coming from the area was constant since she began visiting there as a child, she rarely saw the animals outside.
Another set of neighbours, Jim and Betty Ritchie, said they're happy to hear the dogs were taken away. They've had ongoing problems with their neighbours, but said the sound of barking had died down recently.
"This is sickening," said Jim Ritchie.
Officials from the province were not available Saturday to comment on the seizure.
RCMP D Division spokesman Const. Miles Hiebert confirmed members from the Grand Marais detachment were on hand to assist officials with the province's Office of the Chief Veterinarian as they pulled the dogs off the property. The RCMP have not announced any charges against the Cherneckis.
"The file is ongoing, and will be reviewed as to any charges, criminal or provincial.
"There is a lot of work to be done, and (that) will take some time," Hiebert said in an e-mail.
What the law says
The Manitoba Animal Care Act says that anyone who owns or has control of an animal has certain responsibilities under the law. Those include making sure the animal:
-- has an adequate source of food and water;
-- is provided with adequate medical attention when the animal is wounded or ill;
-- has reasonable protection from injurious heat or cold;
-- is not confined to an enclosure or area with inadequate space, unsanitary conditions, inadequate ventilation or without an opportunity for exercise so as to significantly impair the animal's health or well-being.
As well, no person is allowed "to inflict upon an animal acute suffering, serious injury or harm, or extreme anxiety or distress that significantly impairs its health or well-being."
Who to Call
If you think someone is violating the Animal Care Act, there are several places you can call:
The Winnipeg Humane Society has a cruelty and abuse complaints line at 982-2028. They also have an emergency line for animals in distress at 982-2020.
The City of Winnipeg animal services agency responds to citizen complaints and inquiries, and enforces animal-related bylaws. To register a complaint call 311.
The Provincial Veterinarian's Office upholds the Manitoba Animal Care Act and can assign an investigator to look into complaints. Even if you've already called your local animal control unit, you can also notify the provincial vet of any suspected cases of abuse anywhere in Manitoba. Call 945-8000.