Peter and Judith Chernecki claim to love animals to the point they just can't say no to wanting to help the ones they find in distress, lost or abandoned.
And it's precisely this claim that has a judge scratching her head, trying to sort out a fit punishment for the Gull Lake couple after they pleaded guilty to a list of Animal Care Act violations in what's been described as the worst case of animal hoarding ever uncovered in Manitoba.
Sixty-four dogs discovered living in atrocious conditions were seized from the Cherneckis' property in July 2010 after provincial animal protection officers and RCMP arrived to investigate an animal welfare complaint, provincial court Judge Carena Roller was told Tuesday.
Virtually all the hoarded canines were found living in darkness in a 672-square-foot cabin, its floor covered in a "wet paste" of straw, mud and excrement. Investigators also uncovered a live nest of about 30 to 40 rats the dogs lived with.
"All the dogs smelled intensively of urine and feces and were markedly dirty," Crown attorney Shaun Sass said.
The waft of ammonia in the air required an assisting fire crew to wear full protective gear and oxygen masks when first entering the rotting cabin, Roller was told. The dogs had chewed out parts of walls, the floorboards were rotting and some of the dogs were hiding in a small crawl space underneath. Others tucked themselves into shelves to get off the floor.
Some of the dogs were "severely" matted in feces and muck and many had suffered facial wounds and scars, eye infections and other ailments, court heard. "The state of the dogs was the worst that I know of in this province," said Sass.
Of the 64 dogs seized, 34 had to be euthanized, Sass said. Seven -- dubbed the "Lucky Seven" -- were sent to the Dogtown USA dog rescue and rehabilitation facility in Utah because of the severity of their behavioural and cognitive problems.
Roller was presented with an extensive amount of photographic evidence of the canines' living conditions, as well as a DVD portraying the behavioural difficulties the Winnipeg Humane Society encountered after many of the dogs were placed at the shelter after they were rescued.
The Crown is seeking jail time of four months for Peter Chernecki, 63, plus thousands in fines and a lengthy period of probation.
While it is not seeking jail for Judith Chernecki, 62, it wants her to pay $26,500 in fines and also serve probation.
Sass also asked Roller to impose a $26,750 restitution order for the couple to repay costs of seizing and caring for the dogs along with a five-year ban on owning, caring for or possessing dogs.
The couple currently have 42 cats in their care and have recently complied with demands from animal welfare officials regarding their veterinary needs, Roller heard.
Defence lawyer Jay Prober said the request for Peter Chernecki to go to jail was "unfit, unjust and unreasonable." There should be probation and ongoing monitoring but not jail, he said.
The couple were acting out of the goodness of their hearts by trying to help the dogs and got in over their heads, he said. Unlike puppy mill cases, there was no profit motive, said Prober.
"Judy and Peter Chernecki are not criminals," said Prober. "They appeared to be trying to rescue the dogs... (the Crown) wants them treated as criminals," he said.
The couple presented a sheath of more than a dozen character-reference letters from neighbours, friends and others, many speaking of them as kind and caring people with "hearts of gold," people unable to "say no" to any animal in need.
"The only motive... was to provide a home for animals that they saw were abused or abandoned or running wild and needed food," said Prober. (Judith Chernecki) believed that ignoring an abandoned animal was just as bad as the person who had dumped it out. She acknowledges that her place became a dumping place for unwanted pets."
"One can't view the photographs that I've viewed and not wonder about a mental health issue," Roller said. "There's such a disconnect from someone who professes to be an animal lover to the person who would allow any living creature to live in (these) conditions," she said.
"Do they offer any explanation to the court of why it got like this?" she asked Prober. "I keep hearing from you that it went awry... but why?"
"They couldn't say no," Prober emphatically replied.
"But that doesn't explain why they didn't clean the feces out of the room -- that doesn't explain why they didn't have the windows open... I don't understand why they say they weren't capable of doing what they say they would want to have done, and that's what I'm struggling with," Roller said.
She ultimately declined to order a psychological assessment and reserved her decision until early next year.