Puppy Truck Fire Investigations Start

The US Department of Agriculture joined state and local authorities yesterday in probing a tractor-trailer fire that killed dozens of puppies in Lowell on Monday afternoon after a thousand-mile journey from the Midwest to New England pet stores.

Investigators searching the charred 40-foot trailer said the fire, which suffocated some 60 puppies before firefighters arrived, was probably sparked by an overheated ceiling fan. The flames had already burned through the roof when Fire Chief Patrick McCabe arrived at the truck.

About 60 puppies from 8 to 12 weeks old were housed in cages inside the air-conditioned aluminum trailer that caught fire. The vehicle was traveling on the access road from Interstate 495 south to Route 3 when the driver, Joseph Price, 40, of Joplin, Mo., received a radio call from another truck driver alerting him that flames had broken out in the back of his tractor-trailer. Police said that the driver was cited with three violations unrelated to the fire – for having defective brakes and an expired inspection.

A State Police spokesman said no animal-welfare related charges had been filed as yet, but that the department planned an "involved investigation to make sure that there was nothing that was inappropriate." The state fire marshal’s office and the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals are also investigating.

The USDA is looking into whether the death of the puppies, being delivered from Hunte Corp. of Goodman, Mo., violated the federal Animal Welfare Act. A USDA spokesman said the department had no prior enforcement against Hunte Corp.

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