A man suspected of running a dogfighting ring in Pierce County who petitioned to get his dogs back will not, a Pierce County District Court judge ordered Thursday.
Judge Jeanette Lineberry declined to return the 48 pit bulls the county seized from 40-year-old Elmer James Givens Jr.
“Based on the testimony, the living conditions were deplorable,” Lineberry said. “The court has serious concerns about them suffering future neglect or abuse.”
Givens has not been charged with a crime. The Pierce County Sheriff’s Department has said the investigation is ongoing.
He was arrested Dec. 18 on suspicion of animal cruelty and animal fighting and later was released.
Givens filed a petition Dec. 26 to have “multiple pit bull terriers” returned, according to court records.
He told the court Thursday that he shows the dogs and that they’re pets.
“I’m not involved with any dogfighting or anything,” he said.
Givens noted he’s gotten death threats and has been harassed at his home since the allegations.
The Sheriff’s Department said a tip led animal control officers to the Midland property, where they found dogs that allegedly were malnourished, injured, scared and afraid of the owner.
Dozens were locked in crates with their own waste in a garage, and investigators found materials related to dogfighting and breeding, the Sheriff’s Department said.
Some of the dogs went to a veterinarian for treatment, and some went to the Tacoma-Pierce County Humane Society.
Givens, representing himself, gave the court photos of his property and some of the dogs, and letters of support from friends and family. Some were willing to help care for the dogs, he said.
He said 12 of the animals belonged to a friend and that he had been boarding them.
Givens told the judge that he did not understand until recently the restrictions on how many dogs he was allowed to have on his property. He said his hope was to get a breeder’s license and to get money for further infrastructure.
“I was under the impression that I could have a kennel,” he said. “… I was truly under the impression that I was doing the right thing.”
He’s had pit bulls his whole life and loves the breed, he said. His family moved from Seattle to the Midland area, where he said everyone has dogs.
“Taking care of dogs all day, that’s what I want to do,” he said. “It’s my passion. … I just want a chance to get everything up to code.”
Givens argued that the dogs got plenty of exercise, and “the best dog food.”
“I take pictures of my dogs all the time,” he said. “It’s just hard for me to believe that every dog was in bad shape.”
He said he put some of them in kennels before officials investigated, because he didn’t think they should be running free when the officers were there.
“The dogs were not living in these conditions,” he said.
Givens said he wanted to keep as many dogs as he legally can, and that he wanted to make sure the rest go to good homes.
He also noted that he has a significant amount of money wrapped up in the animals.
Animal Control Officer Kerry Bayliss testified that some of the dogs had scarring on their faces and hind ends that suggested they’d been in a dogfight or more than one dogfight.
The initial report was that the county seized 49 animals, but Bayliss said that number was later corrected to 48 — of which five were in decent condition.
She noted that some of the dogs cowered and would not come out of the crates and that some were frantic to get out.
Bayliss said the veterinarian noted symmetrical marks that are consistent with a pellet gun or cigarette burns.
Some animals had indications of early or overbreeding, Bayliss said, and some exhibited behaviors not typical of family dogs.
She also said the animals have parasites that require continuing care.
One dog was euthanized after it was seized, Bayliss said, because it ate part of a blanket overnight.
Deputy prosecutor David Owen told the court that only five of the animals could be returned to Givens, because that is how many he’s allowed to have. Owen argued the court shouldn’t order that.
“Even five dogs would be five too many,” he said.
Lineberry noted that scarring and wounds on some of the animals suggest they weren’t properly cared for.
She said she believed some of the dogs were family pets. She did not see how someone accumulates 48 pets, she told Givens.
“I think by your own admission you got overwhelmed by  dogs,” she said. “… I am not going to return the dogs to your care.”