The co-owner of 19 Chihuahuas seized by Chattanooga animal control officers on Valentine's Day had a tough choice Thursday to make after an hour in City Court.
After hearing testimony about "very neglectful" conditions in a trailer with blacked-out windows, no electricity and a kerosene heater pushing temperatures to 101 degrees, City Court Judge Russell Bean gave Winston Andrew O'Dell Jr. a choice.
"I believe you love dogs, but I'm having a big-time problem with 19 dogs in a trailer," Bean said. "Which two dogs are your favorite?"
O'Dell hesitated for a moment, looking down as he stood before the judge, then said in a wavering voice, "I'd about rather be shot than make that decision."
Bean ordered 16 of the dogs to remain in the custody of the McKamey Animal Care and Adoption Center, which has treated and housed the pets since they were seized.
A 14-year-old dog named Miss Brownie will go to Britt Middleton, ex-husband of Tonya Middleton, who was O'Dell's live-in girlfriend and co-owner of the dogs.
Britt Middleton told Bean that he and his ex-wife have a "shared custody" agreement for Miss Brownie. The dog spends six months with each of the them.
O'Dell told Bean he wanted a dog named Peanut, but hadn't decided by the end of the hearing which of the other dogs to keep.
He' will have to pay care fees to McKamey for Miss Brownie, and both medical and care costs for the two dogs he'll keep, amounting to nearly $600.
Court documents show that O'Dell was convicted on 76 of the original 96 charges -- 19 animal neglect, 19 city license requirement, 19 inoculation requirement, plus 19 previous counts for barking dogs. Nineteen charges of unsanitary conditions were dismissed.
His total fines amounted to more than $6,400.
The barking dog complaints a neighbor made are what first brought animal control officers to O'Dell's trailer off Hixson Pike in May. Officers returned multiple times, warned O'Dell, then cited him for ordinance violations until the Feb. 14 visit to remove the animals.
O'Dell said at the time he was trying to find another place to live and would visit the dogs every day to feed and water them and clean the trailer.
"They didn't show you that the dogs had food, the dogs had water," he said to Bean.
Animal control officer Jay Nicholson told Bean that O'Dell had been offered free services by Wally's Friends to spay or neuter and vaccinate the dogs, but he only managed to get three treated over the past nine months.
Flipping through photographs of the trailer, Nicholson described the conditions to Bean.
"There was feces and urine all over the trailer," Nicholson said.
The combination of ammonia from urine and kerosene left McKamey Executive Director Karen Walsh worried about what might have happened.
"We're very fortunate that we're not here talking about 19 dogs burned to death," she told Bean.
Pacing between Sessions and City Court for nearly two hours Wednesday morning on separate incidents, O'Dell took cigarette breaks to calm his nerves. In Sessions Court, he faced a domestic assault charge lodged by Tonya Middleton. He was jailed from Jan. 29 until Feb. 4 on that arrest.
Because Middleton is jailed in DeKalb County, Ala., for failure to appear on a drug possession charge, O'Dell's court date for the assault charge was moved to March 10.
As he walked into City Court afterward to face charges related to his dogs, O'Dell said, "This is the one I dread going to."