'You don't even get to pet an animal'

Ex-veterinarian barred from interacting with animals for 10 years in cruelty case, may spend another 9 months in jail

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A former Edgewood veterinarian convicted of multiple counts of animal cruelty after deputies discovered 48 dogs in her feces-filled home is barred from having any contact with animals for the next 10 years as part of a sentence handed down Monday by District Judge Mary Marlowe Sommer.

"You will stay 25 feet away so you don't even get to pet an animal," Sommer said.

The judge also sentenced Debra Clopton -- who was convicted in 2016 of 22 counts of animal cruelty and one count of practicing veterinary medicine without a license -- to four years in jail. But after receiving credit for more than 400 days she spent incarcerated and on electronic monitoring awaiting trial, Clopton will end up spending about nine more months behind bars.

Clopton's public defender Jennifer Burrill argued Clopton should get probation, saying the lapse in judgment that led to her housing 48 animals in filthy and inhumane conditions -- in violation of county laws that prohibit residents from keeping more than 10 dogs -- was caused by an undiagnosed thyroid problem.

Burrill put two doctors on the stand at Monday's sentencing who testified that after the 2013 incident, Clopton had been diagnosed with hypothyroidism and that the condition can cause delusions similar to those found in schizophrenics.

Clopton, 53, told the court she was "remorseful and heartbroken" over her actions.

But Sommer seemed unmoved by Clopton's expressions of regret and noted one of the two doctors said psychosis in connection with hypothyroidism was "rare."

Having not been provided any medical records on the issue, the judge said, she was not convinced thyroid-related psychosis explained Clopton's behavior.

"What I see before me and what I have consistently seen before me is an unaccountable woman," said Sommer, who presided over Clopton's trial in 2016. "I think it's a mental illness issue, a hoarder issue, much more than a thyroid issue."

Clopton originally had been found not competent to stand trial, but was later found competent.

Sommer noted Clopton also had dodged an animal cruelty-related charge in Rio Rancho in 2011. It was reduced in a plea agreement to a rabies vaccine violation.

The judge also noted Clopton had continued to practice veterinary medicine "undaunted" after losing her license in 2012, "on the pretense" that she didn't know she no longer had credentials.

"I didn't find your testimony at trial credible," Sommer said.

The Santa Fe County Sheriff's Office began investigating Clopton in 2013 after neighbors complained of incessant barking at her home on Best View Trail in Edgewood.

After making several attempts to contact her, they raided her home, finding eight dogs outside and another 40 inside.

An animal control officer who participated in the raid said the stench of feces and urine took his breath away when he stepped inside the home in April 2013. According to testimony given at trial, the dogs were crowded into kennels and many were sick or injured.

Three of those dogs were in such bad shape they had to be euthanized immediately and several more were put down later because they suffered from a severe neurological disease that left them unable to walk or stand normally.

At least five of the dogs were pregnant.

The Santa Fe Animal Shelter & Humane Society, which had a capacity of 58 dogs at the time, was overwhelmed by the arrival of Clopton's pack, many of whom were feral, said Ben Swan, then the shelter's public information officer.

Because Clopton had not yet relinquished ownership of the animals, the shelter's staff could not spay or neuter them, Swan said. The shelter soon had more than 70 dogs on its hands.

Clopton agreed to give up ownership of the dogs after a judge said she had to pay about $27,000 to cover their room and board, or allow others to adopt them.

Swan said the shelter was able to find homes for all the dogs, with the exception of those that were euthanized due to medical issues.

"This really sends a message to the community that these kind of things will not be tolerated," Swan, who now lives in Arizona, said in a phone interview Monday. "And that's what everyone in the animal welfare world really wants people to know."

Contact Phaedra Haywood at 505-986-3068 or phaywood@sfnewmexica­n.com. Follow her on Twitter @phaedraann.com.

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