Atwater animal shelter co-owner talks to officials

rgiwargis@mercedsunstar.comJuly 8, 2013 

— The Last Hope Cat Kingdom's co-owner met with Merced County Animal Control officials Wednesday — the first time since her facility was raided and 200 pets were euthanized.

The investigative interview lasted a little more than an hour and provided co-founder Renate Schmitz the opportunity to speak with officials about last week's seizure.

The meeting was not open to the public, but animal control officials said they planned to discuss some of their findings and allow Schmitz a chance to respond.

John Garcia, Schmitz's attorney, was present during the interview and said his client had the option to decline questioning but spoke to officers voluntarily.

"She answered all her questions candidly and as truthfully as she could," Garcia said. "It was important that my client express some of the facts that haven't been told that she thought were important for the investigation."

Garcia could not comment on the specific questions asked of Schmitz.

The county's animal control served a search warrant at the shelter last Wednesday and seized 301 animals, including 295 cats and six dogs. About 200 animals were euthanized because they were too sick to survive, and 74 were found dead at the facility.

County officials said interviewing Schmitz, who was out of town during the raid, is an important step in their ongoing criminal investigation.

The investigation has reached its halfway point, said Rick Blackwell, animal services manager.

Another meeting will be scheduled soon to decide the fate of the 91 cats and five dogs that were taken alive from the shelter to an undisclosed location.

Meanwhile, a review of animal control complaints under a public records request by the Sun-Star, turned up no signs of trouble at the 2,240-square-foot facility.

No formal complaints had been filed in the past three years, according to the documents. The most recent complaint, December 2010, dealt with excessive amounts of feces on the property.

In her report, animal control officer Cerissa Hultgren noted, "I did not see any excessive amount of feces. The kennels appeared to have been recently cleaned … I did not see any violation."

Two other complaints were filed in 2010, and one in 2009, which were in regard to a neighbor's complaint of loose animals, neglect of animals, and concerns about euthanasia procedures and disposal of bodies.

In the neglect complaint, the animal officer said Schmitz was "cooperative" and gave him a tour of the facility, including dorms that housed 147 cats. Schmitz told him that was the facility's maximum capacity.

The euthanasia complaint, handled by Hultgren, noted that Schmitz placed the dead cats in a "big freezer" until it became full — then they were buried in the field on the property. The report does not address if euthanasia was occurring at the facility, though it notes that Schmitz took some animals to local vets to have them put down.

In that report, Hultgren noted a messy trailer with "pieces of litter, kibble, and cat hair on the floor," but it appeared there was fresh food and water for the animals.

Reporter Ramona Giwargis can be reached at (209) 385-2477 or rgiwargis@mercedsunstar.com.

Merced Sun-Star is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service