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Four agencies probe truck fire that killed 60 puppies
Dogs were caged on trip from Mo.
By Emma G. Fitzsimmons, Globe Correspondent | August 16, 2006
The US Department of Agriculture joined state and local authorities yesterday in probing a tractor-trailer fire that killed dozens of puppies in Lowell on Monday afternoon after a thousand-mile journey from the Midwest to New England pet stores.
Investigators searching the charred 40-foot trailer said the fire, which suffocated some 60 puppies before firefighters arrived, was probably sparked by an overheated ceiling fan.
When Deputy Lowell Fire Chief Patrick McCabe arrived at the truck, he said, the flames had burned through the roof.
``We got the fire knocked down," he said. ``But it was already too late -- there was no hope for saving the puppies."
State Police spokesman Robert Bousquet said no charges had been filed yesterday, but his department planned an ``involved investigation to make sure that there was nothing that was inappropriate." The state fire marshal's office and the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals are also investigating.
The USDA is looking into whether the death of the puppies, being delivered from Hunte Corp. of Goodman, Mo., violated the federal Animal Welfare Act. USDA spokesman Darby Holladay said the department had no ``prior enforcement" against Hunte Corp.
Officials with the company, one of the nation's largest brokers of puppies , did not return repeated calls yesterday seeking comment.
About five dozen puppies from 8 to 12 weeks old were housed in cages inside the air-conditioned aluminum trailer that caught fire. All of them perished. The vehicle was traveling on the access road from Interstate 495 south to Route 3 when the driver, Joseph Price, 40, of Joplin, Mo., received a radio call from another truck driver alerting him that flames had broken out in the back of his tractor-trailer.
Price and another driver traveling with him, William Iriarte, 50, of Nesho, Mo., were delivering the puppies for Hunte Corp. State Police cited the driver and Hunte with three violations unrelated to the fire, for having defective brakes and an expired inspection. The vehicle was held in police custody as part of the investigation.
The truck had made a stop about 4:15 p.m. at a pet store in Salem, N.H., and was headed to Debby's Pet Land & Aquarium in Nashua. The Nashua store's owner, New England Pet Centers, receives 30 to 50 puppies a week from Hunte Corp. for the chain's 10 stores, according to a company spokeswoman.
Hunte is ``a very upstanding company," said New England Pet Centers spokeswoman Kim DuRoss. ``The cages are beautiful. They're ventilated and clean -- it's like a puppy hotel."
But the Humane Society of the United States said the dogs' deaths highlight a widespread problem with the national puppy trade that connects dog breeders with pet stores.
``There might not have been anything they could have knowingly done to prevent this -- that will be determined by the police -- but the way to prevent a similar incident like this from happening again is to quit carting thousands of puppies around the country in tractor-trailers every day," said Stephanie Shain, the society's director of outreach.``The journey is too long, and they're moving them like they're cartons of toasters."
The Missouri Department of Natural Resources investigated a Hunte kennel facility in 2003 after receiving complaints about how the site disposed of dead animals. Inspectors cited the company for violating state clean water and waste laws. They called the trenches of dead canines they discovered ``marginally compliant."
The kennel was close to violating the state's dead animal disposal laws, which allow no more than 1,000 pounds of dead animals to be buried per acre, said Mark Rader, water and land section chief for the department. He said that most facilities bury dogs in landfills and that it is rare for a kennel to bury so many dogs on site. Radar said he did not know how the dogs died.
``As far as I know, they did respond to making changes and are in compliance," he said. 

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