A former Northampton County man has pleaded guilty to animal cruelty charges after inspections of his Bethlehem Township sanctuary last year turned up sickly animals and unhealthy conditions.
Jahjah Melhem pleaded guilty Thursday to three counts each of animal neglect and animal cruelty. The Pennsylvania SPCA found scores of animals during a series of inspections at his Heaven on Earth Farm in the 3800 block of Bethman Road, confiscating goats, cats, dogs and birds.
As part of a negotiated plea, the Northampton County District Attorney's Office withdrew 41 other charges, including two felony counts of aggravated animal cruelty and 36 summary counts of animal neglect.
Defense attorney Donald Souders asked Northampton County Judge Craig Dally to consider a probationary sentence for the 54-year-old. Melhem has no criminal record and at one point had a "reliable and robust" source of income to care for his animals, Souders said.
Melhem had more than 250 animals in his care at one point, according to the defense. And without going into detail, Souders told the court that Melhem's income dried up leaving him financially unable to care for his animals.
Souders said his client didn't engage in "overt acts of cruelty." Some cats had diabetes and the goats suffered from hoof rot because they were kept in wet areas, he said.
Assistant District Attorney Judy Chaverri asked the judge to sentence Melhem to one year probation on each charge and order community service. The prosecution also asked that he be prevented from owning any animals other than the two dogs he currently owns.
Dally sentenced Melhem to six years probation and ordered that he perform 100 hours of community service each year. The judge also noted multiple times that Melhem is not to own any animals other than his two dogs.
Melhem declined to address the court.
The first inspection came on Sept. 24. A humane officer found four goats that appeared to need veterinary care as each one was having difficulty bearing weight on at least one leg, according to court records. Melhem told authorities that a veterinarian examined the goats about a month earlier and that he was providing treatment for what he believed was hoof rot.
The SPCA confiscated the goats the next day, and an examination revealed some of them were underweight and had lame legs. One goat sustained a broken shoulder and was euthanized.
An Oct. 23 inspection revealed Melhem had 16 dogs on the property despite a court order that limited him to only 12 dogs. He also had 17 cats in a house on the property, and the floor in the room where the cats stayed was allegedly covered in feces.
Melhem surrendered six cats to the SPCA and a Yorkshire Terrier, Shih Tzu mix dog named Willy. The dog was under-weight and flea infested with matted hair and suffering from dental disease, according to records. The cats were also under-weight and suffering from a array of maladies, including fleas, intestinal parasites, a respiratory infection and broken teeth. One of the cats later died.
Inspectors couldn't assess the health of all the cats in the house as Melhem denied them access to the home.
The SPCA conducted additional inspections on Oct. 26 and 29. Melhem's attorney allowed authorities to inspect outdoor animals on Oct. 26, but Melhem, who was hospitalized at the time, allegedly refused to surrender any animals or grant access to the house.
The humane officer returned three days later with Bethlehem Township police to inspect the property Melhem rented. Inside the home were several dogs and cats with heavily matted fur along with animal feces smeared across the floors.
When police and SPCA officers returned hours later with a search warrant to remove the animals, they found that all the dogs had been removed. An "agitated" Melhem refused to tell authorities where the dogs had gone, claiming he didn't know where they were, according to records. Investigators eventually found the animals.
The SPCA did remove nine cats – one missing an eye – from a room allegedly filled with "excessive feces," live fleas and the stench of ammonia. Each cat suffered from a host of health issues.