‘Puppies aren’t people:’ Accused puppy dumper’s lawyer draws gasps in California court

Audible gasps filled a Southern California courtroom this week as an attorney for a woman accused of dumping seven newborn puppies at a Dumpster argued against a bail increase.

“As the law is written, puppies aren’t people,” lawyer Joe Cavanaugh said in Riverside County court as he defended Deborah Culwell, the 54-year-old Coachella woman facing felony animal cruelty charges in the case, video posted on Twitter by a KESQ reporter shows.

Cavanaugh made the comments Thursday morning while arguing against prosecutors’ ultimately successful request that his client’s bail — which was set at $10,000 in April — be raised to $50,000, the Desert Sun reports. His point was that the crime Culwell is accused of is different than being accused of harming another person, according to the newspaper.

I couldn’t believe that,” said Katie Phillips, vice president of animal rescue group S.O.A.R., according to KESQ. “Puppies are not people — well, they are living beings. I loved when the entire audience gasped. The gall to say that about these precious creatures of the earth.”

Culwell was taken back into custody after her bail was raised, NBC Los Angeles reports. She previously pleaded not guilty to the seven counts of felony animal cruelty and seven counts of misdemeanor animal abandonment she is charged with, according to the Desert Sun.

After making the remark, Cavanaugh said it “was taken out of context,” KESQ reports.

“On the surface, yes, it’s a callous statement and it’s not to say that I don’t care for animals — I’m actually a dog lover myself,” Cavanaugh said in a follow-up interview with the TV station. “The issue was just trying to make the distinction between how the law looks at an animal versus the law looking at a person.”

Culwell’s arrest came after surveillance video caught a woman dumping a bag of three-day-old terrier-mix puppies behind an auto parts shop in Coachella in April, according to the Riverside County Department of Animal Services.

The video showed a woman pulling up in a Jeep, getting out and leaving behind a bag that contained the animals. A passerby found the abandoned animals near the trash soon after, and then a worker at the Napa Auto Parts store called authorities, who arranged for the tiny animals to be bottle-fed, authorities said.

Temperatures were in the mid-90s that day, the Department of Animal Services said, adding that “if not for the Good Samaritan’s actions, the puppies may not have survived much longer.”

“There is no excuse for dumping puppies,” Commander Chris Mayer of the Department of Animal Services said, “especially in today’s age when we or other shelters would be willing to get these animals to foster parents or rescue partners. This was a shameful act.”

Culwell was arrested on April 22 at her Coachella home, where animal control officers discovered and seized 38 dogs that Culwell ultimately relinquished later that month, according to a department Facebook post.

Officers also provided an update on the puppies, which were from two different litters.

“Six of the seven puppies survived the dumping,” animal control officers wrote in the April update. “They are still being cared for by a foster volunteer.”

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Jared Gilmour is a McClatchy national reporter based in San Francisco. He covers everything from health and science to politics and crime. He studied journalism at Northwestern University and grew up in North Dakota.