Saturday, March 25, 2023

DA quiet on felony charges in wake of mass dog deaths on local farm

The Pender County Courthouse. District Attorney Ben David declined to comment on the animal cruelty case in Currie, citing an ongoing investigation. (Port City Daily/File)

PENDER COUNTY — The area’s lead prosecutor has been silent on if a woman accused of animal cruelty will face felony charges.

Manuela Strand, 40, was charged with eight counts of misdemeanor animal cruelty and one count of failing to bury eight dogs within 24 hours of their death, as required by North Carolina statute. She was charged Jan. 18, served Jan. 27 and has already been released from jail.

Joshua Strand, Manuela’s estranged husband, told Port City Daily he voluntarily left the family farm in Currie in July. He was not allowed to return until Jan. 11, when Manuela testified in court that more than a dozen dogs had died on the farm.

The couple ran a sanctuary and breeding program together and the farm was home to 23 dogs, mostly of large cane corso breed.

Joshua described to PCD that when he arrived at the farm with Pender County Sheriff’s Office animal control deputies, they found the eight dogs in various states of decay. They had allegedly been denied food and water.

As listed on the warrant for Manuela’s arrest, the dogs names were Fall, Danney, Beast, Crom, Vera, Dot, one unidentified cane corso and Max, a bulldog.

Joshua said six of the seven left alive on the farm were cane corso as well, with the exception of a French bulldog. Joshua has accounted for at least two more bodies since the eight were discovered.

He said Manuela, who used to work as a veterinary technician and with his breeding program with him, was well-equipped to care for the dogs.

The warrant for Manuela’s arrest, for each count of cruelty, accuses her of intentionally depriving the dogs of “necessary sustenance.” Joshua said she should face felony charges.

Animal cruelty, in some cases, may be charged as a felony in North Carolina. 

“If any person shall maliciously kill, or cause or procure to be killed, any animal by intentional deprivation of necessary sustenance, that person shall be guilty of a Class H felony,” according to statute § 14-360 (b).

District Attorney Ben David declined to comment on whether his office plans to pursue more charges in this case, citing it is an ongoing investigation.

Joshua, who owns a landscaping company, told PCD the deaths are unprecedented on the farm. One dog had died from old age in the past and two were euthanized in old age due to poor quality of life. 

He said the family occasionally sold puppies from the breeding program, but it did not cover the costs of care, including routine checkups, health testing, surgeries and $1,000 per month spent on food.

Joshua grew up with dogs and first became interested in the American bulldog in his youth, but realized the breed as it exists today is not the farm breed it was developed to be. He said a good farm dog is calm, does not create stress for farm animals or wear itself out, so it is ready if it needs to herd or protect the animals.

In the case of the bulldog, he said it started to be bred for hog hunting and those traits were eliminated to the point the magnanimous spirit of the farm dog wasn’t detectable.

Twenty years ago, while in the Army, Joshua learned about the cane corso, an Italian mastiff breed, which can easily reach more than 100 pounds. An all-purpose farm dog capable of herding, retrieving and guarding livestock, he said preserving the breed has become his life’s work.

“Cane Corso Project was more about returning to the roots of the dog and returning the dog to what its state was in Italy,” Joshua said. “A lot of the dogs in the United States are bred just to be a happy dog that likes everybody, just to be big dogs.”

He traced the history of the bulldog and some mastiff breeds back to the cane corso and found a breed he could realistically conserve. There was existing lineage still in Italy and Joshua was facing down the issue of an American market determined to breed mastiffs for puppy sales rather than utility.

“It took me a while to find any breeders in the United States that I thought knew what they were talking about,” Joshua said.

After locating a breeder with dogs that met the criteria, he set out to create a healthy line, revive the breed and left his federal job to set up shop in Currie.

The 17-acre farm was created with goats, pigs and open space to test the abilities of the dogs and give them an outlet to expend energy.

He also started occasionally taking in dogs some people saw as dangerous. Joshua would attempt to adopt out the animals or give them a good life on the farm. He attributed their behavior to a lack of socialization with people and other animals.

Each litter of cane corso, over the years produced a couple dogs with the good working traits Joshua was trying to develop, he said; the rest were good pets. The successful workers were health-tested at three years old and used for breeding.

He said massive dogs may be desirable for some families, but that was not the typical outlook for ancient Italian farmers, who had to feed their dogs and support their families. Concerns with the cane corso, Joshua explained, are how it’s being bred for traits like size and, effectively, becoming a different altogether.

Despite the tragedy of losing his dogs, he doesn’t want to give up on the project. He has been granted control of the farm via emergency sequestration and full custody of his children, which was split in the past.

Joshua is building new enclosures and repairing the farm himself. His family has started a fundraising campaign to help as well.

“A lot of people that have come to the farm have been like ‘How can you be here? I don’t even want to be in this house knowing the evil that happened here,’” Joshua said. “For me, when I walk out there, it’s still a happy place, man. I have always believed that when you lose a pet, that pet is still near you, it’s still around you and you see that pet in future dogs that you have. You’ll see a little characteristic or something from a past dog, and I feel like you keep those animals with you. When I’m out there I feel like my family is here.”

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