DA's office: Co-owner of Last Hope Cat Kingdom in Atwater won’t face charges over animals

rgiwargis@mercedsunstar.comJanuary 3, 2014 

Last Hope Cat Kingdom co-owner Renate Schmitz pets a dog at the Atwater shelter in this 2010 file photo.

BEA AHBECK CASSON — bahbeck@mercedsunstar.com Buy Photo

— Last Hope Cat Kingdom co-owner Renate Schmitz won’t face criminal charges in connection with the discovery of sick and dying animals at her shelter, the Merced County District Attorney’s office announced Friday.

“Our ethical responsibility requires that we only file a case where we believe we have a reasonable likelihood of obtaining a conviction,” said Supervising Deputy District Steve Slocum, the prosecutor handling the case. “Any prosecutor would be hard-pressed to prove beyond a reasonable doubt to 12 jurors that Ms. Schmitz is a criminal deserving of conviction and incarceration.”

The Atwater rescue group’s site became the subject of a criminal investigation after county Animal Control officials seized 295 cats and six dogs in June. Officials said the animals were living in deplorable conditions and euthanized 200 cats they said were “too sick to survive.”

Schmitz was unaware of the district attorney’s decision to not file charges when contacted by the Sun-Star on Friday afternoon. The 62-year-old reacted with surprise and was close to tears after hearing the news. “Oh, that is wonderful,” Schmitz said with a gasp. “This is the most wonderful thing I could hear. I’m very thankful, and we will work hard to get everything done that they’ve asked us to do.”

It’s been a week of decisions for the embattled rescue. On Thursday, the county’s Planning Department announced it will allow Last Hope to keep its permit and continue to operate, but with fewer animals and under a set of restrictions for two years.

Schmitz was given five days to appeal the decision regarding her permit, but told the Sun-Star on Friday that she will accept it. “It’s better than taking the license away,” she said. “I will not give up and make sure we will be in good standing in two years.”

One of the conditions set by the county requires Schmitz to reduce the number of cats to 40 and remove dogs within 45 days. Schmitz said she currently has about 80 cats and 29 dogs, but is working with rescues outside the county to house them.

With one of the biggest shelters in Merced County scaling back, many are wondering how the growing number of unwanted, abandoned and neglected animals will be affected.

Cynthia Karsten, a veterinarian and resident at the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine, supported setting limitations for Last Hope but said controlling the animal population falls on the shoulders of the community.

“One organization cannot solve the problem and it shouldn’t be expected of her,” Karsten said. “Overburdening a shelter with housing these animals has not worked. Even if you make a bigger shelter, you’re going to fill it eventually.”

“The shelter is clearly overwhelmed, so it’s a matter of coming up with new programs,” she said, adding that “the community needs to look at how they want to handle it.”

Karsten said such efforts begin with encouraging people to adopt from shelters, helping people keep their animals by offering programs and services such as free pet food, and providing bilingual education about spaying, neutering and licensing pets.

“It has to be priority for the community; it’s not going to happen on its own,” Karsten said. “People need to work together instead of against each other.”

Working together hasn’t always come easy for some animal groups in Merced County. Some Last Hope volunteers said a rift between their rescue and another came to a head when some of them accused the other group, New Beginnings for Merced County Animals, of being involved with causing the June raid.

“If one really looks hard enough, they’d be able to see for themselves the common threads that run the whole thing,” said Amanda Hage, a volunteer and supporter of Last Hope.

Hage said she understands why area animal groups feel the need to compete for resources such as volunteers and donations, but that it’s a waste of energy that could be spent helping animals.

“I have witnessed the negativity in the groups and I don’t agree with it,” she said. “It only hurts the animals if we’re fighting amongst each other. I would hope going forward we can all work together because the issues are so large in Merced County.”

Kristen Lucas, vice president of New Beginnings for Merced County Animals, said her rescue didn’t cause the “deplorable” conditions at Last Hope and has nothing to gain by having it shut down. Lucas said her organization has worked with Last Hope in finding homes for at least 100 of its animals.

“You can’t blame us for the conditions that were out there. We had no part in that,” Lucas said. “We have absolutely nothing to gain by anyone going under or what happens at Last Hope. If she had her permit taken away, it makes our job that much more difficult.”

It’s not uncommon for animal groups in one community to butt heads, Karsten said. “People just have their own way of doing things,” she noted. “People care a lot and it’s an emotionally charged topic.”

Although strong feelings were involved, Slocum said, the decision to not file charges against Schmitz was based solely on the evidence.

“When it comes to animals, you see a wide range of opinions from both sides,” Slocum said. “But my job is fairly simple. All I have to do is look at the evidence, and based on everything, there were extenuating circumstances surrounding Last Hope. It’s my opinion that there was no criminal intent on her part.”

Lucas, who also works as an Animal Control officer for Livingston, said not prosecuting the Last Hope case sets a dangerous precedent for animal cruelty and neglect cases.

“In the long term, it’s going to hurt a lot of animals,” Lucas said. “If we try to file on neglect or cruelty cases, it’s going to be difficult. Nobody seems to have taken the animals’ best interest at heart. We won’t be able to hold anyone else accountable either.”

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

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