Canine tragedy

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Three dozen dogs perished in two fires at this property on Chestnut Street in Bristol. Seven died during a fire in the main house on Nov. 22 and another 29 died in Wednesday's fire at the cottage on the left. (Tom Caldwell/Laconia Daily Sun)

Owner: Dogs killed in fire were only there overnight


BRISTOL — The woman who owned the 29 dogs that perished in a fire on Wednesday morning said she was not ignoring an agreement to relocate them after an initial fire killed seven other dogs in November.

“I have not disregarded the town’s order,” said Jennifer “Bobbi” Choate. “It was an emergency situation. They were only here for the night.”

Speaking from her driveway on Thursday morning, in front of the charred remains of her Chestnut Street home, Choate said she was devoted to her animals but, after town officials had given her a deadline of Dec. 8 to remove the dogs from her property, she arranged to board them elsewhere.

She said the woman who had taken the dogs was not able to properly care for them, so Choate made new arrangements with a friend in Massachusetts to take them in. She brought the dogs to Bristol on Tuesday, intending to continue to Massachusetts on Wednesday.

Early Wednesday morning, a fire broke out in the cottage behind the main home where the majority of the dogs had been housed. By the time firefighters arrived, there was heavy smoke and fire coming from the cottage and three adult dogs and 26 puppies lay dead inside.

Lt. Kris Bean said police are still investigating Wednesday’s fire and that charges may result.

Bean said police had been monitoring the property for two months after having received complaints that the animals were not being fed and cared for properly. Accompanied by officers from the Alexandria and Danbury police departments, as well as the SPCA, the New Hampshire Humane Society, and some volunteers, they executed a search warrant and found there were 26 dogs and three horses on the premises.

Apart from a recommendation for veterinary care for one dog, they found no major violations, Bean said, but the town remained concerned about the number of dogs on the property.

Alexandria police executed a search warrant for another property where Choate kept dogs, on Burns Hill Road in that town, and found about 30 dogs. That investigation and several followup visits to the Chestnut Street property found “the conditions were not horrible enough to take the dogs,” Bean said.

Land Use Manager Christina Goodwin said Choate, also known as Jennifer Harlfinger, originally had six dogs as pets, but the number grew as she began selling the German shepherds as a business. While Choate denies she was operating a kennel on the property she inherited from her parents, the town defined it as such and told her that, if she wanted to operate such a business, she had to go through the required steps for approval.

Goodwin said the town informed Choate that she could keep her original six dogs, but to keep more, she would need a variance from the Bristol Zoning Board of Adjustment.


First loss

A fire broke out at the three-bedroom Chestnut Street residence on Nov. 22, killing seven dogs. Bean said Choate was able to remove several dogs from the basement but those in a breezeway perished in the fire. An investigation by the State Fire Marshal attributed the cause to a heat lamp in the breezeway that may have been knocked over.

The discovery that there were other dogs in the house, as well as three horses in the barn, led Bristol land use officials to order Choate to get rid of the animals. Town tax maps showed the property to be less than an acre and the zoning ordinance requires at least an acre to keep horses.

Choate produced a survey that proved the property was 1.01 acres in size, sufficient to keep horses, but the town gave her until Dec. 8 to find other accommodations for the dogs.

Town officials did not learn that any dogs remained on the property until firefighters had put out the cottage blaze. When the fire department reported finding them, police obtained a search warrant for the entire premises.

Bean said two adult dogs and 26 puppies had perished inside, and one dog who may have escaped the burning building was found dead outside.

“We could hear dogs barking and we found nine of them alive inside the main building,” Bean said. Based on the conditions, they seized the dogs and turned them over to the SPCA.


No reason?

A distressed Choate said, “I don’t understand how I can have this kind of loss, and then they take the other dogs from me for no reason.”

She maintains that her dogs have been kept clean and well cared for. “They’re up to date on their shots, they’re well-socialized, microchipped, DNA tested and have their health certificates. I did have one with an injury, and it was treated with antibiotics. It was doing well.”

She said that, since the first fire, she has been living in a pet-friendly hotel so she is able to have one of her dogs with her.

“There are so many misconceptions, and people jumping to conclusions,” she said. “My life’s been devoted to them; this is what I do. I don’t understand how they could take dogs that are obviously well cared for.”

Choate said she has a great deal of support from people who have past experience with her.

“Integrity’s got me this far, and it will take me where I need to go,” Choate said. “If people come and ask directly, I’ll be happy to tell my story.”

Firefighters had found a charred heat lamp on the floor of the outbuilding, leading them to think Wednesday’s fire may have had the same cause as the Nov. 22 fire.

Choate believes otherwise.

“I don’t believe the heat lamp was the cause of fire,” she said. “I think it was the old electrical.”

The cottage was an aging structure that Bean said was not suitable for habitation. He said dogs had been kept there in the past, but because of the land use order, they did not expect to find dogs there now.

The fact that dogs were on the property after the Dec. 8 deadline for their removal triggered the next step in the administrative process.

“She came in a week after discussing the deadline,” said Goodwin. “There was no mention of dogs in the cottage.”

Choate bristles at the description of her business as a “puppy mill.”

“This is not a puppy mill,” she said. “You need to visit one to see what it’s like. These are well-socialized, cared-for dogs.”


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Twenty-nine dogs perished inside this cottage on Chestnut Street in Bristol on Wednesday. It was the second fire on the property, with seven dogs killed in a blaze on Nov. 22. (Tom Caldwell/Laconia Daily Sun)

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This house on Chestnut Street in Bristol was the scene of a fire on Nov. 22 that killed seven dogs, and the cottage behind it burned Wednesday, killing 29 more dogs that the owner says were housed overnight in preparation for a planned move to Massachusetts that day. (Tom Caldwell/Laconia Daily Sun)

  • Written by Tom Caldwell
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A powerhouse Christmas

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Belknap Mill Society Vice Chairman Jared Guilmett readies decorations for the annual Christmas event happening tomorrow from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.  (Alan MacRae/for The Laconia Daily Sun)

Belknap Mill to be transformed for a new Yuletide tradition


LACONIA — Santa Claus will be in the powerhouse of the Belknap Mill on Saturday as part of "Yuletide Traditions," a celebration of the season and an opportunity to enhance community engagement with the historic structure.

Mrs. Claus will be there, too.

Larry Frates, the mill’s artist in residence, will help with arts and crafts, including the making of Christmas ornaments. He will also be doing caricatures.

There will be cookies and milk, snacks, photo booths, a magic show, and storytelling, and every child will get a small gift.

The event will run from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. and costs $10 per family, said Jared Guilmett, vice chairman of the Belknap Mill Society. Santa, who will be available for pictures and chats with young ones, leaves at noon.

“The Powerhouse has been completely transformed and the building will be full of great community spirit and holiday cheer,” Guilmett said.

“We’re excited  to offer this to the community. It is really a unique setting; it’s not the typical mall or Christmas village. This is a very industrial, community-driven building that lends itself to a fun holiday environment.”

Everyone who comes will be entered in a drawing for a door prize of a family gift basket that will include treats and gift cards.

“The mill’s membership committee has been spearheading this event,” Guilmett said. “We want to raise awareness and bring membership to new levels.”

Belknap Mill Society membership documents and information about the mill will be available at the event.

“If you become a member of the Belknap Mill Society on that day, you will not only get free admission to the event, along with the new benefits of our membership, but you and your family will also be able to ring the historic Belknap Mill bell. We are hoping to hear the bell ring quite a few times on Saturday and spread the holiday cheer around the city.”

He said children also will have a chance to search for Socks, the Belknap Mill Christmas elf, and to learn his story.

“We want to engage the community in ways beyond weddings and business meetings,” Guilmett said. “This can be a place for family and community, along with education and civil engagement.”

  • Written by Rick Green
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Insurance shift saves county $400,000


LACONIA — Belknap County commissioners say a recent switch of medical insurance providers will save the county $400,000 a year in health insurance costs in 2018.

County Administrator Deb Shackett said the county’s current insurance provider, New Hampshire Interlocal Trust, which partners with the nonprofit Harvard Pilgrim Healthcare to provide group health insurance plans for local governments, was asking for a 22 percent rate hike.

Commissioners received a quote from the county’s former insurer, Health Trust, which offered a rate that would represent an increase of only 8 percent.

Health Trust is a nonprofit public risk pool that provides insurance for public sector employees.

Last week commissioners approved switching back to Health Trust, which until two years ago had been the county’s insurance provider. The switch required approval by the four unions representing county employees to be sure the new plan was comparable to the one currently offered.

Commission Chairman David DeVoy told members of the Belknap County Convention during Wednesday night’s budget session that negotiations are currently underway with the unions, all of whom agreed in recent years to changes in health insurance plans to a site-of-service plan that lowered rates and kept a so-called "Cadillac tax" from taking effect in 2018, which would have forced the county to pay a 40 percent tax on plans exceeding the cost limit.

Implementation of the “Cadillac tax” has  since been delayed until 2020.

The  changes two years ago to the the union contracts came at a  cost, as the county agreed to pay the entire premiums for the new plans for all employees, reversing a policy that had required employee contributions of 5 percent to 7.5 percent.

DeVoy said county negotiators are seeking to bring back employee contributions for health insurance during ongoing discussions of new contracts.

The county employs about 250 people, 40 of whom are not union members but who receive the same health insurance benefits as those negotiated by the unions.

  • Written by Roger Amsden
  • Category: Local News
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