Chicken farmer pleads guilty to cruelty

By JIM HALEY

Herald Writer

A Lake Stevens chicken farmer, who has come under fire by animal-rights groups and the state Department of Ecology, pleaded guilty Friday to one count of cruelty to animals and was fined $500.

Keith Amberson, 52, also will not be able to keep farm animals for two years, and he will have to perform 200 hours of community service under a sentence issued by Everett District Court Judge Tom Kelly.

He won’t have to serve a 90-day jail term if he abides by conditions set down by the judge.

During the past two years, Amberson and Amberson Egg Farm have been at the center of storm fanned by animal-rights activists who twice raided the farm to rescue chickens they said were dying from lack of food and water. The most recent rescue was in March.

County animal control officers then reported not seeing food or water for the chickens. They reported finding 1,500 live chickens and about 1,000 dead ones in a rat-infested chicken house.

Other witnesses reported seeing up to 6 inches of liquid chicken manure on the floor, conditions that were recorded in a videotape made by a representative of the animal rights group Pasado’s Safe Haven near Sultan.

Pasado’s also conducted a similar chicken rescue in February 1999, but no charges were filed at that time.

"This is a really crucial victory for the millions of hens in Washington that are forced to live their lives caged up in little, tiny, cramped cages where they are never allowed to smell fresh air and stretch their wings," said Mark Steinway, a co-founder of Pasado’s.

He wants to use the case to push for legislation forcing improved conditions in poultry farms around the state.

"For too many years the poultry industry has been allowed to get away with too little supervision," Steinway added.

Amberson had no comment.

His attorney, Brian Phillips, said Amberson is "happy this matter is concluded. He can move on with his life. Mr. Amberson has always been a responsible poultry farmer and member of the community."

In court, Phillips told Kelly that Amberson has been a poultry farmer all his life, and his problems started after he was dragged by his own refrigeration truck when someone tried to steal it.

His injuries sent him to the hospital and left him partly disabled, Phillips told the judge. At one time he kept up to 70,000 chickens, and was phasing out of the business in March.

He said Amberson has no plans to resume poultry farming and is in the process of dismantling his equipment.

The chicken farmer also has run afoul of state Department of Ecology for allowing chicken manure to pollute Stevens Creek, which feeds nearby Lake Stevens.

During the past 20 years, Amberson has been the subject of numerous health and pollution complaints.

He was fined $21,000 in 1999, but a judge earlier this year reduced it to $10,000 on condition that he have no more water-quality complaints. Ecology Department spokesman Curt Hart said Friday that Amberson has not yet paid the $10,000.

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