Merced County reaches decision in Last Hope Cat Kingdom case

01/02/2014 9:21 PM

01/04/2014 11:25 PM

Last Hope Cat Kingdom, the rescue where hundreds of sick and dying animals were found last year, will be given one more chance by Merced County officials.

A decision by the county’s Planning Department will allow the Atwater facility to keep its permit and continue operating, but under a new set of strict guidelines. After an emotional permit hearing Dec. 16 and weeks of deliberating, hearing officer Mark Hendrickson announced the decision Thursday.

“We want to give her the opportunity to find success and to do so in a way that will help her avoid the poor and unsanitary conditions that were taking place,” Hendrickson said, noting that a series of conditions will be imposed to monitor the rescue.

One of the eight conditions requires Last Hope co-owner Renate Schmitz to reduce the number of animals on site to 40 cats and no dogs. She can no longer call the rescue an “all-species sanctuary” and has 45 days to remove other pets.

If Schmitz receives too many unwanted animals from the public or other sources, she must deliver the excess number of cats to Animal Control or another rescue facility. “There will be no tolerance for the number of animals to ever exceed the maximum allowed,” Hendrickson wrote in his report.

In the four-page decision, Hendrickson acknowledged the extreme cases of disease, illness and animal suffering at the facility. He said Schmitz and her volunteers lacked training to ensure animal safety and well-being, despite best intentions to do so. On the flip side, Hendrickson said there’s a “considerable community need” to handle unwanted, abandoned and neglected animals in Merced County and pointed to the rescue’s positive historical track record.

Other conditions include requiring Schmitz to work with a licensed veterinarian to draft a business operating plan and submit monthly reports describing the current conditions of the animals. Each week, Schmitz must report the number of animals taken in, adopted out and how many she has on hand.

Schmitz must also implement a spay-neuter program, a training program for staff and volunteers within 60 days and pay a $2,916 fee for inspection visits – about three hours each month – from the county’s Planning Department.

The restrictions will be in effect for two years, according to the report. If Schmitz meets the requirements, she’ll be allowed to slowly increase the number of cats by no more than 20 each year – until reaching a maximum 80 cats total. If Schmitz doesn’t meet one of the requirements, her permit will be revoked.

Robert Newman, Schmitz’s attorney, applauded Hendrickson for being fair and considering all sides before making a determination, but said restricting his client to 40 animals seems “excessive.”

“I’m a little disappointed he has reduced the number to 40, particularly in light of the fact the county has left 80 animals within their care since June,” Newman said Thursday. “But to Hendrickson’s credit, he recognizes her contributions to the community.

“Nonetheless she gets to continue doing the work that’s important to her,” he continued. “I think that’s a victory for Last Hope and also for the animals.”

Eric Sakach, senior law enforcement specialist with the Humane Society of the United States, sees it differently. Sakach was present during the June raid of the rescue and said it was “one of the worst” situations he’s seen in 37 years.

“I’m not pleased with this decision,” Sakach said. “I don’t think you’re allowed to neglect animals to that degree and then be allowed to operate conditionally. This person has been involved with an incredible amount of cruelty and neglect at the facility – that is not the type of person that should be operating a rescue.”

Sakach said the county should have waited on a decision from the Merced County District Attorney’s Office regarding criminal charges against Schmitz before holding a permit hearing. “It’s putting the cart before the horse,” he said. “It should have been prosecuted first.”

Merced County Animal Services Manager Rick Blackwell said he’s also waiting on the outcome of the criminal case. Last month, his agency recommended permanently revoking the rescue’s permit.

“The permit aspect has been resolved with this finding and we’ll abide by the hearing officer’s decision, but this doesn’t change the criminal aspect of it for us,” Blackwell said. “Until the (criminal) matter is resolved, we will not be giving her any animals.”

Supervising Deputy District Attorney Steve Slocum, the prosecutor who is handling the case, could not be reached Thursday. Last month Slocum said his office had not made a filing decision.

Schmitz has five days to appeal the decision or agree to the terms and conditions, according to her attorney. Schmitz did not return calls Thursday seeking comment.

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