On a farm with so much death, it was a live goat that broke open the latest case against an Otoe County producer accused of slowly killing his animals.
A motorist had spotted it out of its pen April 21, wandering close to the traffic of Nebraska 2, and called the sheriff’s office. But no deputies were near Unadilla that afternoon, so he volunteered to return it to what should have been the safety of its enclosure.
“The motorist put the goat back in the pen, and observed some dead goats in that pen,” Chief Deputy Mike Holland said this week. “The call was made to the sheriff’s office about the dead animals, and deputies responded.”
Later, those deputies would be grateful for the cool temperatures that muted the smell. Because when they arrived, they found a familiar property with nearly 10 outbuildings, and they found dead and decaying pigs and goats in each.
Holland went down the list: A farrowing house on the west side of the land — each crate had sows that had given birth, and every animal inside was dead. A goat shed built onto another building and, again, all of the animals dead. Another shed, with a pile of at least 15 pig carcasses.
In all, more than 40 dead pigs and more than 15 dead goats, Holland said.
They found live hogs feeding on dead hogs. A veterinarian euthanized the animals that couldn’t be saved, opened their stomachs and found evidence they’d eaten their own feces.
Two weeks later, Holland — a 25-year law enforcement officer — was still moved by what he called “a disgusting scene” and the thought of the animals locked inside buildings, with no food or water or rescue.
“I don’t know if you’ve ever been around a hog farm,” he said. “But when those hogs are in distress, they just squeal and squeal and squeal. I can’t imagine what the sounds were like on that property.”
But the deputies searching the farm that day also found enough stacks of feed sacks to sustain the animals for some time, Holland said.
And while they were inventorying the scene, they found the landowner, 67-year-old John Maahs. He was returning home with another 21 feeder hogs on his trailer.
Maahs had been through this before, and he didn’t say much, the chief deputy said.
“So I don’t know why what happened, happened again.”
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Maahs was charged with 10 counts of felony animal cruelty and neglect -- just as he was in 2011, when deputies discovered as many as 1,000 dead hogs in a large farrowing house on the same property.
Holland was on vacation during that discovery, and he was grateful he was. The building was so contaminated with decomposing carcasses it was bulldozed and buried onsite.
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“It was a horrendous situation,” said Mark Langan, vice president of field operations for the Nebraska Humane Society. “Hundreds of dead hogs, one of the worst we’ve ever seen.”
In that case, Maahs pleaded no contest to one charge and the others were dropped. He spent more than a year in prison and paid more than $50,000 in fines, expenses and cleanup costs, said Otoe County Attorney David Partsch.
“He really didn’t have an excuse,” Partsch said. “He said he just got lazy.”
After Maahs was released in September 2013, deputies would make periodic visits to his farm. There was nothing in his punishment prohibiting him from owning livestock again — though there could have been.
“We have actually been out there a couple of times since he got out of prison and checked on things and the animals appeared to be healthy and taken care of,” Holland said.
Deputies were last there about a year ago, so he’s not sure when the animals started suffering.
“Where the carcasses were as far as decomposition, it looks to me it’s probably something that’s been going on the last six months,” Holland said.
It’s not clear how long it would take for a pig to starve. That would depend on its nutrition and condition before the feed ran out, said Thomas Burkey, an associate professor of animal science at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
It wouldn’t be unusual to find manure in their stomachs; pigs are known to root in the slop. Nor would it be unheard of to find evidence a pig had fed on the carcass of another.
“But they’d have to be hungry.”
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Most of the surviving animals -- 41 hogs and nine goats -- were taken to the Palmyra Livestock Market. The Nebraska Humane Society is caring for a dog, two adult goats and four baby goats.
At a hearing Thursday in Nebraska City, a judge ordered the surviving animals forfeited to the Otoe County Sheriff’s Office, which will likely sell them at auction to help pay for care and cleanup costs, Partsch said. Maahs didn’t show up for the hearing, even though he had been served.
Maahs didn’t return a call seeking comment, and he apparently doesn’t yet have a lawyer. He is scheduled to appear in court May 21 on the criminal cases. If convicted, he could face 20 years and $100,000 in fines. And he could be prohibited from owning animals again.
After Partsch prosecuted Maahs in 2012, he realized he and the judge had missed something -- a section in state law allowing judges to ban future animal ownership by those convicted in cruelty cases.
That provision wasn’t obvious at the time, because it was separated from the animal cruelty law -- 13 sections away in the statute books. So the next year, Partsch worked with the Nebraska Humane Society and Omaha Sen. Sara Howard on legislation that clarified the law and added references to it in other sections of state statute.