Man charged with animal cruelty after 12 beagles suffocated in his care

Joseph Nicholson is charged with suffocating 12 of his beagles in this box

(CBS/AP/WNCT) PITT COUNTY, N.C. -- A Pitt county man was charged with animal cruelty after he left 12 beagles in a metal box for several hours and the animals suffocated, authorities say.

Joseph Nicholson told investigators that he put the dogs in the box in the back of his pickup truck as he went hunting Saturday, deputies said.

The dogs had no food or water while in the box. When Nicholson returned to the truck, they were dead.

CBS affiliate WNCT spoke with Nicholson about what he called a "freak accident."

"I came home unloaded my dogs so I could feed them and opened the gate and all of them were dead," he said. "I've been having this box for 8/9 years and I ain't never had no problem before."

He told the station putting the dogs in the box was normal practice for him when he goes hunting, and that he's  been raising dogs for over a decade.

Nicholson and his friends say he was only gone for around 3 hours, and say there is no way the dogs could have suffocated. They pointed to vents and openings all over the box.

"It's like these dogs got into something. Nothing ever happened to any of the dogs and for it to happen to 12 at one time. It's very unusual," said a friend.

Friends say they are surprised by animal cruelty charges.

Another friend told WNCT, "Without a shadow of a doubt. I know that Joe would never harm the dogs whatsoever."

Nicholson said the episode was a lesson learned. "You learn from some of the incidents that happen to you through your life so I'll always be more cautious than I was before," he said.

Nicholson still owns several more dogs, but says the ones he lost are irreplaceable. He says he can't afford autopsies for them.

Nicholson was charged with misdemeanor animal cruelty.