Update Feb. 11, 2010: The case was dismissed today. Judge Kent Jasperson dismissed the case at the outset, stating FLOCK itself could not be named as a defendant and pointing out the individual directors and officers had only been named and served the day before. Judge Jasperson had refused a prosecution request for a continuance.
The courtroom was packed this morning as Deputy District Attorney Robert Bettinger prepared to proceed with animal cruelty charges against FLOCK and its directors and officers. The judge’s ruling ended the proceedings before they started.
Mr. Bettinger only had been assigned the case about a month, and had spent a great deal of time preparing it for trial. He should be commended for his pursuit of justice in this case. His boss, however, District Attorney, Robert Beckett, had dragged his feet in pursuing the case, waiting nearly a year to file charges and then more than another year before assigning it to Mr. Bettinger. The District Attorney also claimed a couple of times during the past 2 years to have lost evidence supplied by witnesses.
Mr. Bettinger said he plans to appeal. Let’s hope his boss allows him to do that so that maybe justice will be done for these animals and everyone in Nye County and across the state and country who came to their aid.
For more on this case, read Animal Law Coalition’s report below.
Original report: It has been more than two years since Nye County, Nevada animal control officer Tim McCarty took control of a facility in the town of Pahrump that many have described as an Auschwitz for cats.
McCarty was able to convince the owners of FLOCK (For the Love of Cats and Kittens) to surrender ownership and custody of the some 700 or more cats to the county which, in turn, placed the animals in the care of a rescue organization, Best Friends Animal Society. It was agreed FLOCK would lease the facility to the county to be cleaned up and the cats cared for on site until they were in better condition and could be placed for adoption.
Nye County then filed charges of animal neglect against FLOCK for failure to provide food, water and veterinary care in violation of Nevada Rev. Statutes §574.100. These are misdemeanor crimes each punishable by a jail term of 2 days to 6 months, 48-120 hours of community service and fines from $200-$1,000.
The FLOCK Pahrump facility was basically a large sandy lot surrounded by a tall fence with a few small buildings inside. The cats had virtually no protection from Nevada’s brutal summer temperatures and bitter cold winters. Most had no indoor access or any way to get away from strong desert winds, rainstorms or snow. McCarty and rescuers who were on site in the summer, 2007 found dead and dying cats, starving and dehydrated cats, ill and seriously injured cats with open wounds, even eyes hanging out or missing, all covered with flies and maggots; and many, many more who were very frightened and alone. The cats were not separated at all; there was no mechanism for disease control.
Rescuers found cats everywhere at the site. Some were crowded under the few bushes on the lot or into the few buildings to avoid the 110 degree plus temperatures every day though most found no relief. The sand burned their feet. There was no water. It was impossible to walk without stepping on feces or vomit. There were flies and maggots everywhere. The place was utterly filthy.
Best Friends Animal Society employees and volunteers named the facility "The Dump".
FLOCK which is a 501c3 non-profit corporation, claims most of the cats were feral, that they had been trapped in Las Vegas and brought to the facility. That doesn’t excuse the gross criminal neglect. And, as it turns out, some of the cats had micro-chips and were obviously pets. No effort had been made to identify their owners. In fact, most of the cats were not feral at all and were, instead, understandably frightened and traumatized by their horrific treatment at the hands of FLOCK. After months of care from a team of Best Friends Animal Society’s staff and volunteers, most of the cats that ultimately survived found homes and others remain in Best Friends Animal Society’s sanctuary.
At that time the county took custody of the cats, the Board of FLOCK basically expressed indifference to the condition of the facility and the cats. Board members were primarily Renee Lyss and Leon Kind. Maggie Ward was the president, a position she had held since May, 2007. The prior president, Sheri Allen, maintains the place was in great condition when she left in May. Allen would have everyone believe that this terrible condition came about between May, 2007 and July, 2007 when McCarty assumed control.
When sheriff’s deputies went to Allen’s house to interview her about the situation at FLOCK, they found 125 cats living in filth, sick and starving. One investigator described there was feces on every surface in Allen’s house. A rescuer described, "At first glance you can tell that the majority of these cats are extremely sick, extremely emaciated and they are covered in excretions from every orifice. They are in visibly horrendous condition. The stench of rotting flesh, urine and feces is overpowering. No animal should have to live like this – especially an animal that should have been â€˜rescued’."
The sheriff’s department seized the cats and placed them under the care of county animal control. The county initiated a forfeiture hearing to obtain ownership of Allen’s cats. Testimony was presented about the mental illness of hoarding, a condition Allen adamantly insisted she did not have. The judge ordered the cats surrendered to the county. The Nye County, Nevada District Attorney, Robert S. Beckett, filed a complaint charging Sheri Allen with 13 counts of animal cruelty in violation of Nevada’s animal cruelty law, NRS §574.100 Allen eventually pleaded guilty to one count. She was not, however, ordered to stay away from animals, and Allen did not pay for any of the cost of the veterinary and other care of the animals after they were forfeited. She did not offer to pay anything; nor was she ordered to do so.
FLOCK as Institutional Hoarder
What of the Board members including Renee Lyss and Leon Kind and FLOCK’s president, Maggie Ward? Before these charges that will go to trial on February 11, were filed against FLOCK for animal neglect, the organization insisted it would resume operation of its "sanctuary" in Nye County. Ward and Board members appeared at the facility, the Dump, at various times while it was under county control and rescuers were caring for the cats. They intimidated the rescuers and worried them with threats of letting the cats out or harming them in some way. Guards were posted to protect the facility at night. At that time on its website and in newsletters issued to its members, FLOCK claimed that it was working to care for the cats! FLOCK actually solicited donations for its rescue and care of the cats! If FLOCK is convicted, maybe they will actually consider the cruelty for which they are responsible, the suffering of these innocent animals.
Some have characterized FLOCK as a case of institutional hoarding. Hoarding has nothing to do with legitimate shelters, rescues or sanctuaries that work to rescue and care for the millions of unwanted, abandoned, suffering animals.
So, it is particularly troubling that some persons hoard under the pretense of operating as an animal shelter, rescue or sanctuary. Also, hoarders in an organization can ultimately destroy it, causing a phenomenon known as institutional hoarding. As the situation deteriorates, the organization may ultimately (1) focus on acquisition of animals and make little or no effort to place animals in homes, (2) continue to take in animals even when it is clear the care is deteriorating, (3) have too few or inconsistent numbers of staff, (4) refuse to disclose the actual number of animals (FLOCK told McCarty there were 400 cats and rescuers eventually counted more than 700), (5) refuse to allow visitors into some or all of the areas where animals are kept, (6) make unsupported claims of excellent lifetime care, (7) fail to provide humane care and cause the animals to suffer from malnutrition, starvation, illness, disease, untreated injuries, poor sanitation, overcrowding, inadequate shelter from the weather, and intensive confinement; and (8) refuse to acknowledge the deteriorating conditions and neglectful and abusive treatment of the animals.
Also, without strong community intervention, the hoarder is virtually certain to continue to acquire animals and repeat the same pattern of abuse and neglect over and over. Animal cruelty laws in most instances are not sufficient to protect the animals and prevent the hoarder from re-offending. To prevent a hoarder from re-offending requires not only prosecution under animal cruelty laws, but also mental health treatment and regular inspections or visits by animal control or other local authorities.
It should be noted that while hoarding may in many cases be characterized as a mental illness, the result of psychological disorders or dementia, many hoarders are manipulative, demonstrating a criminal psychopathy, the cruelty committed intentionally and willfully.
Excerpts of testimony presented to prosecutors: (Also visit Best Friends Animal Society’s website for more on this horrific case and the cats that were rescued.)
From an animal behavior consultant who was first on the scene and cared for the cats for months afterwards:
"This declaration was very difficult for me to write. It is so hard to think about the horrible conditions I saw the cats living in there and how they are suffering. …I [first] entered FLOCK [in July, 2007] through an unfinished building that contained 17 cats. Those cats are living inside. All are underweight, show signs of starvation and malnutrition, and most have signs of illness, particularly upper respiratory infections, skin conditions, wounds, and diarrhea. The litter boxes were all soaked with urine and filled with diarrhea. At least one male cat is intact.
"Through this building I entered the back yard. The cat colony is the largest I have ever seen. Hundreds of cats live together. I quickly realized that the ground is covered in feces. Some had been raked into piles but not removed. Hundreds of pounds of feces remained on the ground in this yard. The cats I saw were all underweight. There were flies everywhere. The flies in the yard were swarming on the cats’ runny eyes, noses, wounds and the visible diarrhea There were also maggots everywhere including in the cats’ runny eyes, noses, wounds and visible diarrhea. …I looked into the small shed like buildings that are in the back yard. These small sheds or buildings are made of wood chip board, plywood. The sheds or buildings are filled with flies, feces and vomit. The cats in most of these buildings were inside by choice because evaporative coolers were running inside, but I understand they were not turned on this summer until very recently. The temperature during my visit was around 114 degrees F each day. There are 2 cat doors to the buildings. I watched as cats lay in the cat doors, blocking entry access to other cats.
"Most of the cats are in the yard and are desperate for shade. There is just no adequate shelter for them. They are truly suffering in the extreme summer heat.
There is one building labeled Hospital. I entered to see almost 20 cats running free in the building. There are cats in cages as well. There were filthy litter boxes soaked with urine, diarrhea, flies, and vomit. I asked about medical care and I was told most of these cats had not seen a veterinarian. Untrained volunteers and staff including a 16 year old girl were prescribing, administering and changing medications. Staff and volunteers spoke of disagreeing about vet care and hiding from each other what they do medically. I observed what went on at the hospital during my visit, and I can confirm they did not have any consistent care from needed daily cleaning to keeping a routine schedule for medical care to professional veterinarian services. There was really no cleaning or care at all except the untrained volunteers and staff guessing at what vet care they should administer and even that wasn’t consistently given to the cats. Cats died while I was there. I called and asked for help from a local DVM. Dr. Suzanne Zervantian did come to FLOCK on the 4th of July. She will have test results from the cat that died that morning.
"Many of the cats in the yard look as ill as the cats in the hospital building. Approximately 85% of the cats are showing signs of sickness, and almost every cat is underweight and shows signs of starvation and malnutrition. I saw chronic upper respiratory, drooling, skin conditions, and various wounds which were covered in flies and maggots. One cat had his right eye hanging out of the socket. None of these medical issues had been diagnosed let alone treated.
"I saw no measures to control diseases. There is no proof of vaccines on this cat colony. When I asked about records for the cats, I received multiple answers ranging from every cat had a record but they were stolen to we never really had a database. While I was there, I saw mounds of feces and vomit everywhere. There did not appear to be routine cleaning or sanitation at all inside any of the buildings or outside in the yard.
"There was only one staff person there at a time for all of these cats. On two occasions while I was there, staff did not show up at all. Other times the staff person was late.
"The cats are guarding from each other due to a lack of basic needs being met. The cats guard shade, water, food, and access to cool air. Many of the eats are not having then-basic needs met for survival. I understand there are times when the cats are not fed and do not have clean or any water. I understand about 100 cats froze to death last winter, and the shelter during this summer of 100 degree plus temperatures is very inadequate or nonÂexistent for many of the cats. The feral cats do not have enough adequate shade or shelter, water or food available. None of the cats has their medical needs met yet there are terrible medical emergencies there; they are just ignored. Also, the cats are forced to live in a growing herd in a harsh fenced in yard that is covered with piles of feces and vomit, and there are flies and maggots everywhere. The flies and maggots cover the cats’ runny eyes and open wounds. An unknown number of cats have gone over the fence and are living outside with unknown support for their basic needs.
"The Board members whom I met with showed no concern about these horrific conditions. This leads me to believe this situation is not new nor is it worse than things that have happened in their past. "
Another declaration from an attorney who met with Board members of FLOCK in July, 2007:
"I met with the Board of Directors and president of FLOCK on Thursday, July 5th, 2007. I pointed out the animals were in grave need of medical care and suffering under the harsh temperatures and awful conditions of the so-called sanctuary, and the situation could not be rectified long term until serious changes were made in the operation of the facility and the care of the cats….
"They did not want to implement  change….
"The cats now roam free on the dirt yard. The dirt is hard packed and cannot be disinfected. The cats defecate in the yard and there are piles of fly- and maggot-infested feces everywhere, and the flies and maggots swarm the cats’ runny eyes and nose and wounds. Some of the cats are obviously sick with respiratory illnesses and likely other airborne diseases. We recommended the grounds be concreted and sealed. This will allow for disinfecting at regular intervals….
"The response of the Board was that they could not afford to concrete the entire 2.5 acres and they did not want to place the cats in smaller quarters. They were not inclined to do anything to clean up the facility….
"We noticed the walls in the cat sheds are made of particleboard. This material is not impervious to moisture and not possible to disinfect. The surfaces in a cattery must be disinfected at regular intervals. I recommended the walls be lined with some other material that would allow the walls to be disinfected. The Board responded that it was too expensive to change the walls…. I also pointed out a series of operating deficiencies including gross lack of sanitation and routine cleaning, no routine veterinary care, far too few staff to humanely care for the number of cats and, of course, the inhumane, neglectful and abusive treatment of the animals because of insufficient shelter despite extremely hot weather, failure to evaluate, diagnose and treat even obviously severe injuries and illnesses; and inexcusably filthy and unsanitary conditions…. Frankly, they seemed unconcerned about the condition of the cats or the way they are forced to live….
"Other information I learned from the Board: They make no effort to adopt out animals. Our staff noticed they added animals to the facility while we were there. The claim is that they trap these allegedly feral cats in Las Vegas and bring them to Pahrump. But we found most of the cats are either friendly or at least not feral. We found some had microchips and no effort had been made to identify the owners. Our staff concluded this is likely a clear case of institutional hoarding."
From another rescuer:
"[O]n Saturday, July 14, 2007 I was there. I have been here ever since. It was extremely hot. As I walked around the place FLOCK called a "sanctuary" for the first time, I heard the cats trying to breathe. They were all trying to grab every inch of shade they could find, and I could hear the panting, the trouble they had breathing. Every cat was panting and their body temperatures were in the danger zones. It was horrible. …. All of the cats I saw then had upper respiratory infections with gunky eyes and noses. There would be maggots in their eyes and noses and flies swarming. ….
"The smell was just unbelievably bad. There were feces everywhere. You could not find a place to step without stepping on cat feces. The buildings were also full of cat feces. The buildings were filthy. Obviously, cleaning was not part of FLOCK’s agenda. The buildings are made of plywood that can’t really be cleaned. The wood is covered with cat mucus, feces. We have tried to power wash it, and the boards come apart. We have used putty knives. We can’t get the building walls clean. They are contaminated….. Also, there were flies everywhere. You could not open your mouth inside the buildings or flies would swarm in.
"The flies also covered the cats. The sicker cats couldn’t shake off the flies and so they would be covered in them and maggots too. It was just horrible. … I was really blown away by the extreme emaciation and dehydration of so many of the cats. You could put your fingers around the cat and feel the other side. You could put one side of the cat’s body against the other side, that’s how extremely emaciated they were. …. The cats’ noses were so clogged and crusted, they probably couldn’t smell to find whatever food there was. Also, the cats would just get into these crazy sneezing frenzies to the point they would get bloody noses. ….
"It was clear there was no control of disease there. The first time we did intake, we used a building called Cozy. There were 27 cats in there. We found all were positive for diseases like FIV or Feline Leukemia. There had been no effort to separate cats with contagious diseases, and these diseases just spread through the colony. Also, Feline leukemia spread through cat feces. It is easy to prevent yet it is obvious it was allowed to spread through this colony. Feline Leukemia leaves them with weak immune systems. There was also tapeworm, ring worm among the cats."
"As another example of how disease was spread with this living situation, I saw blood and mucus in the food bowls. The cats would go into sneezing frenzies and leave mucus and blood and other cats would then eat out of the bowls.
"These cats were all housed together in one yard with just a few flimsy buildings. There was no socialization, and cats can’t live basically alone together like this in one area. Also, there was not nearly enough housing or room. Only about 10-15 cats could live in one of those buildings. .
"I saw the cats definitely guarding food. One group would circle the food and there would be a group around them and then another. The cats had had to take turns to eat.
"The cats all have ear mites as well as upper respiratory infections. I have seen many sunburned on their coats and ears.
"The cats were not receiving just basic veterinary care. There was only one small building used for a hospital. Â As an example, there was a cat there we called Tom Thumb. He had a hole in his neck that he kept trying to scratch. It turned out he had ear mites which made him want to scratch the hole in his neck. When treated for the mites, he stopped scratching and the hole healed. He suffered for a long time because basic care was lacking.
"The suffering I saw there just blew me away. I couldn’t believe it. And I was there after Katrina when cats were pulled out of flooded homes and streets after starving for weeks. This was worse, much worse."
Visit Best Friends Animal Society’s website for more on the rescue and the cats.
Photos from Best Friends Animal Society