Emotional testimony highlights packed hearing for Atwater's Last Hope Cat Kingdom rescue shelter

rgiwargis@mercedsunstar.comDecember 16, 2013 


    To read the county’s staff report of the Last Hope investigation, visit www.co.merced.ca.us/index.aspx?NID=1970 Warning: The report contains graphic photos of sick and dead animals.

— An emotional day of testimony began with supporters of Last Hope Cat Kingdom pleading to allow the rescue shelter to continue operating but ended with firsthand accounts by others of the “deplorable” conditions at the Atwater facility.

The room at the Merced County administration building was packed Monday for the rescue operation’s lengthy permit hearing. Some broke into tears during the testimony, while others sat quietly.

Hearing officer Mark Hendrickson must decide whether to revoke the facility’s permit, which allows it to have 125 cats, modify the permit to allow fewer animals, or keep things the same.

Hendrickson listened to dozens of witnesses and asked questions Monday. A decision on the permit will be made within a “reasonable” time, he said.

Last Hope became the subject of a criminal investigation after a complaint to the Humane Society of the United States led to the discovery of sick and dead animals at the facility in June. Of the 301 animals seized, veterinarians euthanized 200, saying they were “too sick to survive.”

County officials Monday made the case for why Last Hope’s permit should be permanently revoked. They showed graphic pictures of cats with nasal and eye discharge, infected open wounds oozing with puss, cats with eyes and noses sealed shut from mucus and emaciated cats with missing fur.

A few cats were found dead inside cages, the pictures showed. Officials showed photos of unprescribed medication such as antibiotics and steroids, uncovered needles and unlabeled syringes.

The photos were a grim picture of the facility’s conditions, including litter boxes full of feces and diarrhea, walls splattered with diarrhea and mucus, and blankets covered with fecal contamination and flies.

“Our investigation found that Last Hope Cat Kingdom lacked organization, leadership and resulted in unnecessary suffering of the cats and dogs,” said Animal Services Manager Rick Blackwell. “Based on my knowledge and experience, Last Hope has become a hoarder instead of a sanctuary.

“Without intervention from the agencies involved,” he continued, “the hoarding illness and death of animals would have continued.”

Blackwell said Last Hope co-owner Renate Schmitz admitted to being aware of the sick cats at the facility. He said Schmitz sought out more animals, accepting 100 cats from a local shelter that closed, 100 cats from Madera County and a dozen more from a Chowchilla shelter.

Officials also took aim at Last Hope’s boarding of dogs, which wasn’t allowed by its permit.

Robert Newman, Schmitz’s attorney, said Animal Control visited Last Hope many times before the raid and never cited Schmitz for having dogs. He said the county told her she didn’t need a kennel permit for the dogs because of her nonprofit status. “Animal Control was aware and documented that dogs were housed there,” Newman said Monday. “Yet it was never mentioned, and there was never a violation.”

Newman acknowledged the “deplorable” conditions at Last Hope, but said Animal Control contributed to the problem by transferring hundreds of cats to the site. “Now we sit before you with the staff with their hands in the air saying they can’t believe things got so out of control,” Newman said, adding that Animal Control transferred cats to Last Hope the day before the raid.

Newman rebutted the pictures of sick animals by showing slides of healthy cats he said were taken before and after the June seizure. He asked local veterinarian Jim Byerly to share recommendations on how to prevent a similar situation. “This organization needs to understand isolation,” Byerly said, referring to separating sick cats from healthy animals. “Isolate the sick ones and put down the ones that can’t be saved.”

Although he doesn’t believe Schmitz intentionally harmed the animals, Newman recommended placing a limit on the number of animals allowed at Last Hope and “consistent” visits from Animal Control to ensure compliance. “My client has to get to the realization that she isn’t going to save all the animals in this county, as much as she’d like to,” he said. “I don’t believe there is a chance she would have intentionally created this situation or harmed animals.”

Jules Comeyne, a 76-year-old man who worked for the Merced Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and Animal Control, broke into tears while speaking about Last Hope, where he adopted his dog. “I believe 200 cats were put down because there was no place to put them,” he said. “I would like to see them continue, and if it can’t be for 125 (cats), then for less.”

Merced resident Jim Mount said he noticed Schmitz getting overwhelmed the past few years. “She did the best she could,” he said, recommending Last Hope have fewer animals and more visits from Animal Control. “But in the last few years, I noticed she had too many animals and they didn’t look good.”

Ida Ramsey shared a story about someone throwing puppies from a moving car and Schmitz rescuing them. “We have a great need for Renate Schmitz and Last Hope Cat Kingdom,” she said. “Animal Control can’t do it all, and they have to have a place like Last Hope.”

Sharon Lohman, president of New Beginnings for Merced County Animals, visited Last Hope three times before the raid and on the day of the seizure. “I couldn’t stand to stay there because of the sick cats. I left because I couldn’t take it,” Lohman said. “The day of the seizure I couldn’t believe what I saw. I beat myself up for days for not doing more in the past when I’d heard complaints.”

“I don’t think she’s a terrible person, and if I thought it was a one-time incident I would say try it again, but it’s not,” she said.

Merced resident Donevon Murrell described the day of the raid as one of the worst of her life. “What I saw was horrific,” she said. “I came home and couldn’t even speak to my husband. I just got in the shower and fell apart.”

Emily Ewing, 13, shared her experience volunteering for 225 hours at Last Hope. “When I would clean up, cats would sneeze and snot would get on my hands and clothes,” she said. “Just providing a place to exist isn’t good enough. It was, is, and always will be infected with disease.”

Karen Hunter said she believes everyone deserves a second chance, especially because the county desperately needs rescue facilities. “It doesn’t make sense to me. We don’t have a place for all these animals,” Hunter said. “I think Last Hope deserves a second chance.”

Blackwell said the county is always concerned about its euthanasia rate, but he would continue efforts to reduce it by working with other rescue shelters, especially if Last Hope closed. “It would be a tragedy to the public, but it would not impact us because we work with other rescues,” Blackwell said.

Sun-Star staff writer Ramona Giwargis can be reached at (209) 385-2477 or rgiwargis@mercedsunstar.com.

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