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Southeast Asian Shaman Fighting Animal-Cruelty Charges

December 18, 1995

FRESNO, Calif. (AP) _ A Southeast Asian shaman who had a puppy clubbed to death in the belief the sacrifice would cure his sick wife is fighting animal-cruelty charges on religious-freedom grounds.

Chia Thai Moua, 46, pleaded no contest this month to cruelty to animals. However, the Hmong immigrant will be allowed to withdraw the plea if he wins an appeal of a judge’s refusal to allow a freedom-of-religion defense.

``The D.A. conceded this was done for religious purposes, but without that defense, we stood little chance in front of a jury,″ said Moua’s lawyer, Richard Ciummo. ``If it was a chicken, that would be one thing. But he killed a dog, a puppy. He didn’t understand that to Americans, that’s like family.″

``Yes, we have religious freedom in this country, but everything is subject to limitations,″ prosecutor Ronda Duncan said.

Shamans among the Hmong, who came to this country from the highlands of Southeast Asia after the Vietnam War, believe a dog can use its night vision and keen sense of smell to track down evil spirits and can barter for a sick person’s lost soul.

``We love dogs. They are a very dear pet to us, too,″ said Shur Vangyi, a Fresno deputy city manager for Southeast Asian affairs. ``But sometimes we have to kill dogs to cure our souls.″

Moua said he had a relative kill the 3-month-old German shepherd on his front porch only after two years of other rituals, including burning of money and sacrificing chickens and a pig, failed to help his wife, a diabetic.

The ritual included the high-pitched chants of the Laotian highlands.

It’s not the first sharp cultural difference between the local Hmong community and other residents of this conservative farm belt.

In 1990, nine Hmong children died of measles after their parents consulted shamans and waited until the children were in cardiac arrest before taking them to a hospital.

That same year, the parents of a 6-year-old Hmong boy ignored three court orders to let doctors operate on his club feet. A shaman told the family that the handicap was meant to atone for an ancestor’s sins and that surgery would bring those sins on the next generation.

Last year, a 15-year-old girl with ovarian cancer disappeared after undergoing one round of court-ordered chemotherapy that her parents opposed.

``Most of these cases are about cultural misunderstanding and the police and hospitals reacting before they understand our ways,″ said Pao Fang, head of the Lao Family Community of Fresno.

Moua’s sentencing was delayed pending his appeal. He expects to get community service.