ATWATER -- Merced County Animal Control acknowledges that it was transferring hundreds of animals to the overburdened Last Hope Cat Kingdom for years prior to an investigation that resulted in scores of animals being put down.
A Sun-Star review of Animal Control records revealed the agency transferred close to 2,000 kittens to Last Hope Cat Kingdom over a five-year period, nearly four times the number allowed by the rescue’s county-issued permit.
Then in June, a complaint to the Humane Society of the United States prompted an investigation that led to the confiscation of 301 animals and 200 cats being euthanized.
The investigation concluded in August and the case forwarded to the Merced County District Attorney’s office. Supervising Deputy District Attorney Steve Slocum said Friday he’s reviewing the evidence and hasn’t made any decisions. Renate Schmitz, co-founder of Last Hope Cat Kingdom, could be charged with felony animal cruelty and misdemeanor animal neglect.
Last Hope Cat Kingdom’s permit allowed a maximum of 125 cats, but the county’s Animal Control sent 1,969 kittens to the facility through its foster group from 2009 to 2013, an average of 393 animals per year.
According to the Animal Control foster and rescue reports, the agency continued giving kittens to Last Hope Cat Kingdom’s volunteers up until the day of the search, June 25. Six kittens were transferred to the rescue group on the same day authorities raided the facility.
Animal Control officials say the majority of those animals were kittens who did not survive, but the rescue facility took in animals from other sources as well, including the public and various shelters.
Heather Lawson, a former Merced County Animal Control employee, says the agency is partly responsible for the overpopulation of animals at Last Hope Cat Kingdom.
“I think that’s why they’re in the predicament they’re in,” Lawson said. “Whenever a kitten came in under 8 weeks, we’d automatically call Last Hope because they were the only ones that took them from us even though they were full.”
Merced County Animal Control first sent the animals, all under 8 weeks, to an unpermitted Merced foster home on Perch Lane that operated under the Last Hope Cat Kingdom umbrella.
The kittens, often called “bottle babies” because they require around-the-clock bottle feeding, were then transferred to Last Hope’s Atwater facility when they reached 5 to 8 weeks.
Gayle Erskine, 69, who runs the foster home, said Animal Control also gave her adult and pregnant cats, but the majority were bottle babies that no other group in the county could take. Her foster home is now getting its permit, according to officials.
“For me to be truthful, it does make it hard to say no because you know that you’re putting a death sentence on them,” Erskine said. “Probably when kitten season would start, we would sometimes be making four trips (to pick up animals) in one day.”
Lawson worked at animal control as an office assistant for five years. She estimated calling Last Hope’s foster home volunteers up to four times a day to take kittens.
“If we kept them, we’d have to put them down, so we begged Last Hope to take them,” Lawson said. “Nobody wants them put down, so I think Last Hope felt obligated to take them when the calls came in.”
Schmitz said her rescue sometimes stopped taking animals from the public, but said it was hard to say “no” to Animal Control. “If you don’t take them, you know they will be killed or euthanized,” she said.
Animal Services Manager Rick Blackwell acknowledged using Last Hope Cat Kingdom as the agency’s main rescue group for bottle babies, but said the nonprofit could have stopped accepting more animals.
“If you don’t tell me no, I’m making the assumption that you have the proper space available and can take care of these animals,” Blackwell said. “If you get overwhelmed, you shouldn’t be taking more animals. When we work with a foster or rescue, we expect them to be self-governing.”
Blackwell said Animal Control was not the only source of animals for Last Hope. The nonprofit reported adopting out 900 animals a year on its website, he noted.
Blackwell said the law prohibits Animal Control from adopting animals under 8 weeks of age, leaving the agency no choice in the matter. “We either send them to foster or rescues, or they have to be euthanized,” Blackwell said. “The alternative is not good for the animals or for us.”
Dave Robinson, county Animal Control director, said in a recent interview that he was unaware the agency was sending that many kittens to Last Hope. He said he did not know why the Perch Lane foster home was unpermitted, even as staff sent kittens to the home.
Bottle babies have a high mortality rate, he said, and most may not have made it from the foster home to Last Hope’s Atwater facility.
“One thing you have to remember about bottle babies is you probably have about 8 percent of them surviving,” Robinson said. “You might have 50 survivors out of the 393 kittens.”
Blackwell said Animal Control would have stopped sending kittens to Last Hope if they had been aware the rescue was overwhelmed by the number of animals. “We would never knowingly create a problem,” Blackwell said. “If we had knowledge there was an issue, we would stop sending animals there.”
Jennifer Fearing, California senior state director for the Humane Society of the United States, said government agencies should make it a priority to know what’s going on with the rescue groups they work with and send animals to.
“I do think that a local government bears some responsibility to know that they’re not giving animals to individuals or organizations that are not capable of ensuring good outcomes,” Fearing said. “These kinds of problems come to their attention when people bring it to their attention through complaints.”
Blackwell confirmed that animal control officers visited Last Hope only when there was a complaint. The most recent complaint was filed in 2010, so it had been almost three years since a thorough inspection.
A Flaw in Permitting Process
The county requires anyone with five or more dogs or cats to obtain a kennel or cattery permit from Animal Control. The permit includes annual inspections and renewals.
But Animal Control does not issue permits for nonprofit animal rescues such as Last Hope Cat Kingdom, based on county ordinance. Nonprofits only need a permit from the county’s Planning Department.
The Planning Department staff does not inspect nonprofits after the permit is issued, according to Mark Hendrickson, county director of community and economic development.
Because of this regulation, nonprofit animal groups receive no oversight from the county.
Lawson said she brought this issue to Blackwell’s attention when she worked at Animal Control, but no action was taken to regularly inspect nonprofit rescue groups.
“I think that if they did their inspections properly, they would be more knowledgeable of making sure the rescues are within the guidelines,” Lawson said. “They played a part by failing to properly inspect the facility and educate their employees to not call (Last Hope) when they’re at their maximum capacity.”
Robinson acknowledged that Animal Control hadn’t inspected the rescue annually. “I think going forward we realized we do need to have a role in the process,” he said.
Schmitz said she welcomes the opportunity to have regular visits and inspections from county Animal Control, not just when there’s a complaint.
“Oh, definitely. I would be in support of them coming out and checking on things,” Schmitz said. “I think Animal Control and the shelters need to work together and have better communication together. It would be nice if they come just to see what we’re doing.”
Mary Jo Campodonica, president of the rescue group Trails of Happy Tails, said she had no idea the “staggering” number of kittens being sent to Last Hope. She agreed that Animal Control should better monitor what’s happening at the rescue shelters.
“They’re responsible for making sure the laws and rules are being followed, and that’s how it all got out of hand. We are just going to redo this whole scenario if people are not held accountable,” she said.
Robinson said it’s possible that Animal Control officers were unaware Last Hope could have no more than 125 animals since the permit was issued in 2003 and by the Planning Department.
“Back in 2003, Animal Control knew what that number was, but over the midst of time, I think the number got lost,” Robinson said. “Planning and Animal Control have decided we’re going to work a lot closer together.”
Blackwell agreed. “If we had known her maximum, we would have worked on decreasing the numbers,” he said. “Had we had a permit process in place, we would have been able to regulate it better.”
Solutions to the Overpopulation Problem
Blackwell said he’s looking into putting forward an ordinance change giving Animal Control direct oversight of nonprofit operations.
Others say regulations from the county can go only so far. “I don’t think it’s the county’s problem. It’s the community’s problem,” said Merced County District 4 Supervisor Deidre Kelsey. “There needs to be an effort to reduce the number of animals.”
Animal experts say there isn’t any one solution to controlling a county’s pet overpopulation, but it starts with spaying and neutering and public outreach.
“If we could spay and neuter our animals, we wouldn’t have all these kittens,” said Cynthia Karsten, resident at the School of Veterinary Medicine at the University of California at Davis. “We either need to have less animals or more options for good outcomes.”
Sun-Star staff writer Ramona Giwargis can be reached at (209) 385-2477 or firstname.lastname@example.org.