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Judge likely to decide egg farm cruelty case in mid-April

ELIZABETHTOWN, Pa. -- A judge says she will likely decide next month on animal cruelty charges against officials of one of the state's largest egg production operations.

Esbenshade Farms owner and chief executive H. Glenn Esbenshade and farm manager Jay Musser each face 35 counts of animal cruelty for conditions at the Mount Joy farm. Each violation carries a potential fine of $50 to $750 and as much as 90 days in prison.

Authorities allege that birds were housed in cruel conditions, with the key evidence being a 19-minute video shot by an animal rights activist who worked undercover at the farm.

Humane Society police officer Johnna L. Seeton said the videotape shows dead birds left in cages with live hens so long the carcasses had disintegrated, and others impaled on or trapped by cage wires that kept them out of reach of food and water.

Seeton brought the charges following a viewing of the videotape in December 2005, after it was brought to her attention by Compassion Over Killing, a Washington, D.C.-based animal rights group.

Defense attorneys Chris Patterson and Michael T. Winters presented testimony Friday from several witnesses who inspected some areas of the farm more than a month after the videotape was shot.

University of Pennsylvania staff veterinarian Eric N. Gingerich said he didn't see any conditions like those on the videotape when he inspected Esbenshade Farms in January 2006.

Gingerich conceded, however, that some of the dead birds in the videotape appeared to have dehydrated and starved. He said farm workers should have freed the birds and agreed with prosecutor Dara Lovitz that those cases constitute neglect.

Esbenshade and Musser did not take the stand, but production manager Wayne Lehman testified that he did not know of any effort to improve conditions before the January 2006 inspection.

Lehman, who oversees poultry house workers maintaining the operation's 500,000 hens, said the industry's slim profit margins depend on proper care for hens.

"I don't think you'd save any money by mistreating the birds," he said.

Elizabethtown District Judge Jayne F. Duncan said she expects to decide the case in mid-April, after both sides submit final comments and she has reviewed court decisions cited during the trial.

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