A man jailed for one of the worst cases of animal cruelty in the history of the State has moved to appeal against the severity of his three year prison sentence.
James Kavanagh (48) pleaded guilty to 30 counts of causing or allowing animal cruelty at his property at Raheenleigh, Myshall, Co Carlow, in April 2015.
Carlow Circuit Court heard that the charges related to 63 animals. Gardaí and animal welfare officers found a number of dead dogs and horses, as well as dogs feedings on the carcasses of horses, when they inspected Kavanagh’s dog breeding premises at Myshall.
The court heard that 340 dogs and 11 horses were removed from Kavanagh’s property after the inspection. Four horses and 20 dogs had to be euthanised due to their condition.
He was sentenced to three years imprisonment and ordered to pay €35,000 towards costs incurred by the Irish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ISPCA) by Judge James McCourt on February 22 last
His wife, Jennifer Kavanagh, was given a wholly suspended 12 months sentence on the same occasion after she admitted 30 counts of allowing animal cruelty.
Opening an appeal against sentence on Tuesday, Kavanagh’s barrister, Colman Cody SC, accepted that it was a serious case of neglect but there were no “overt acts of physical cruelty”.
Mr Cody said Kavanagh had a dog breeder’s license from Carlow County Council but claimed he “wasn’t breeding dogs”.
He claimed Kavanagh’s premises had been "mischaracterised" by the media as a puppy farm but it was “nothing of the sort”.
Mr Justice Patrick McCarthy said the claim that Kavanagh was not breeding dogs seemed “incompatible” with an objective view of footage from his premises, filmed by the ISPCA, which was played in court.
It was accepted that 114 puppies were found on his premises but Kavanagh claimed he “wasn’t aware some of the dogs were pregnant”.
Mr Cody said dog breeding had been Kavanagh’s previous business but the transportation of dogs was subsequently “generating more money for him”.
He said legislative changes in recent years had required that all dogs in Ireland obtain "puppy passports” which involved a cost to owners. He said “the market had become flooded” and people were “offloading dogs” onto Kavanagh because they didn’t want to pay for puppy passports.
Mr Cody said Kavanagh’s premises became “a dumping ground for all these animals” and a “holding premises” which Kavanagh allowed get out of hand.
The court heard that Kavanagh was being paid €40-€50 depending on the breed of dog he transported and that charitable organisations, mostly in the UK, covered the cost of transport.
President of the Court of Appeal Mr Justice George Birmingham said the issue was being presented as if changes in the legislation, concerning puppy passports, had caused problems for Kavanagh “but in truth it seems the changes in the legislation created a bonanza for him”.
Mr Cody said it was not a fair characterisation. He said a lot of people were “complicit in this”.
One of the judges commented that Kavanagh “wasn’t obliged to take them (the animals) in”.
“If you’re in the business of transporting dogs, the more dogs you can get your hands on the better,” Mr Justice Birmingham said, adding that Kavanagh had been looking to bring street dogs in from Romania.
Mr Cody said the sentencing judge was obliged to have regard to all of the background circumstances.
He said Kavanagh and his family had been subjected to the “most vitriolic campaign of hate and abuse online”. He said people were threatening to burn Kavanagh’s house down and to do violence to his family. “Even before he’s brought to court, he’s already suffered.”
Mr Cody said Kavanagh was the sole breadwinner in the family and not a man who lived a lavish lifestyle.
He said his client had been left with “shame and stigma” from adverse publicity.
He said Kavanagh had lost his business to which Mr Justice Patrick McCarthy added: “It was a criminal business; he hadn’t paid a penny in tax.”
Mr Cody submitted that the sentencing judge fell into error when he said Kavanagh had expressed no remorse. He said his client had expressed remorse to the ISPCA inspectors and had instructed his lawyers to express remorse on his behalf in court.
Mr Justice Edwards commented that “anyone can assert remorse” but there wasn’t a “scintilla of evidence to suggest he (Kavanagh) had any appreciation of what he was doing or regretted it in any way. He regretted that he was caught,” the judge commented.
Mr Cody said Kavanagh had acknowledged that the animals were neglected and had pleaded guilty in court.
Mr Justice Birmingham said Kavanagh presented as somebody deserving of little sympathy. He said Kavanagh had been asked to look after the animals during the 11 days that the removal operation was in progress but “didn’t do so”. During that period, he said Kavanagh continued to neglect the animals and failed to provide them with the most basic needs such as food and water.
The three-judge court was shown a 10-minute video from Kavanagh’s premises, which included footage of dogs eating the carcasses of horses.
Kavanagh’s explanation was that they were “not his horses” but had strayed onto his property, Mr Cody said.
After watching the video, Mr Justice Birmingham said horses were clearly shown in some form of paddock and he asked how they could have strayed into an enclosed area.
Mr Cody said they were originally “stray horses”, adding that Kavanagh had 15 of his own horses and efforts were made to get rid of the strays.
“The implication is they (the horses) were there to feed the dogs,” Mr Justice McCarthy commented.
Mr Cody said it was never suggested that horses were being brought onto Kavanagh’s property “for the express purpose of feeding the dogs”.
Mr Justice McCarthy said there may have been no evidence to suggest the horses were being fed to animals “but de facto they were being fed to dogs. He (Kavanagh) was allowing them to be fed to dogs.”
Mr Cody said it was a case of neglect rather than overt acts of animal cruelty.
Mr Justice Birmingham said it was a case of neglect on a massive, commercial scale. He said the Circuit Court judge may have considered consecutive sentences in respect of the dog offences and the horse offences.
Mr Cody said that would have been grossly disproportionate.
Counsel for the Director of Public Prosecutions, Conor O’Doherty BL, said it was one of the single biggest animal welfare prosecutions in the history of the State. “In terms of the scale of the offending, it has to be seen to be believed,” he said, referring to the video shown in court.
Mr O’Doherty said it wasn’t a case of others seeking Mr Kavanagh to “offload dogs” onto him, as had been suggested. There was evidence that Kavanagh had sought individuals out himself, he submitted.
He referred to a vet who outlined the conditions which animals suffered. The vet said it was one of the worst cases of animal cruelty he ever had the displeasure of dealing with. One dog in particular, photos of which were shown to the court, had to be euthanised.
Mr O’Doherty also referred to comments from an Inspector who said it was one of the worst cases of animal cruelty he had come across in his 20 years with the ISPCA.
Referring to Kavanagh’s previous convictions, Mr O’Doherty said the Carlow man had brought animals from the UK during the Foot and Mouth crisis and claimed subsidies he wasn’t entitled to.
He said a judge doesn’t have to accept somebody’s remorse at face value, just because their barrister asserts it.
The three-judge court reserved its judgment.
A fortnight earlier, Mr Cody sought “urgent” bail for Kavanagh pending his appeal. He was given an early date for hearing instead.
Mr Cody said Kavanagh’s teenage son was tragically killed in a road traffic accident shortly after his client went into custody.
Following the death of their son, he said Jennifer Kavanagh "had to be sedated" and admitted to hospital.
He said his client was on suicide watch in the Midlands Prison and had to be moved from his original cell to the sex offenders wing “for his own safety”.