One of the largest rescues of companion animals in the history of the ASPCA is being carried out in North Carolina, where 600 or more dogs, cats, horses and other animals have been seized from a no-kill shelter.
About 300 dogs and puppies were already being cared for in two 40,000-square-foot warehouses opened by the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. The rest were being moved there, cared-for by a total of 140 veterinarians, staffers and volunteers.
Some had untreated injuries and illnesses, and investigators found dozens of carcasses on the 122-acre site, said Tim Rickey, ASPCA vice president of field investigations and response department.
Once the animals were moved and placed in clean kennels with shavings and raised beds, they seemed much happier, ASPCA shelter director Ehren Melius said.
"They were ecstatic," he said. "Our goal is to make each day better for them than the day before."
The animals had been held at The Haven-Friends for Life, a private shelter in Raeford that last had a license from the state in June 2015, managed by Stephen Joseph and Linden Spear, who appeared in court Thursday on animal cruelty charges. Their attorney didn't return a message left by The Associated Press.
An inspection by the state Agriculture Department in September found many deficiencies, including inadequate water and medical care.
After investigations following complaints in June and again Monday, and the Spears' failure to correct shortcomings found during last year's inspections, the veterinarian who leads the Agriculture Department's animal welfare section denied their application to be a legal animal shelter and warned Tuesday of thousands of dollars in fines if operations continued.
Nancy Moore, who is allowing the couple to stay at her Southern Pines home, said she has supported the Haven with donations for the past 10 years and visited regularly. She described the shelter as a well-maintained operation that has adopted out thousands of well-cared-for dogs and cats over the years.
"I think they have provided a tremendous service in terms of the community, and certainly for animals. I would say they have dedicated their lives to basically taking care of them," Moore said Friday.
Four of the rescued dogs were being treated for respiratory illnesses in a sick room, including a puppy that slept in a tiny ball at the back of her kennel. Some were taken to specialists for treatment of injuries, such as a broken leg, or illnesses, ASPCA officials said. One dog suffering from kidney failure was euthanized.
The majority were in the ASPCA's warehouses located about an hour southwest of Raleigh, grouped in pods that attempted to follow how they were grouped at the Haven. One pure white dog sat on a bed at the edge of his kennel, legs crossed in genteel manner. In another kennel, a light-colored pit bull mix was jumping excitedly. Others slept or watched visitors nervously. All had clean water and food and were getting check-ups.
The ASPCA will soon petition in court for legal custody of the animals, and hopes all will be adopted.
Their number could reach 650 when the operation is complete, Rickey said. That would be the second-largest companion animal rescue in the history of the ASPCA, which saved more than 700 cats in Florida in 2012, a spokeswoman said. The organization also once rescued 4,000 chickens in a cockfighting raid.
"We're thankful the Department of Agriculture took action when they did," Rickey said. "But I question why they didn't take action earlier."
Agriculture Department spokesman Brian Long blamed "legal wrangling" and broken promises by the couple.
"It's frustrating," he said. "At certain points, they were making a determined effort. ... We wanted to try to bring them into compliance, but it never got there."
The ASPCA allowed the AP to visit the animals on the condition that their exact location not be reported, to avoid security problems for the staff and the animals, which need at least a month of care before any are ready to be adopted, spokeswoman Natasha Whitling said.
This case comes at a time when Americans and the FBI are showing less tolerance for animal cruelty, The Christian Science Monitor reports.
In 2016, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) will begin collecting data on animal cruelty crimes throughout the country to prevent animal abuse and help flag those who might become violent offenders.
Animal cruelty crimes will now have their own organized category within the National Incident-Based Reporting System (NIBRS), the FBI’s public collection of national crime statistics. The FBI partnered with the National Sheriffs’ Association and the Animal Welfare Institute to make the change.
As of this year, animal rights advocates and law enforcement will now have access to organized data on convicted animal abusers such as age, criminal history, and location.
“When the FBI says animal cruelty is important and we are going to track it, it sends a message to others in law enforcement and the community at large saying ‘pay attention to this,’” says Mary Lou Randour, senior advisor for animal cruelty programs at the Animal Welfare Institute.
And even those not invested in animal rights have reason to pay attention. Studies in the US and other nations have shown that between 63-70 percentof people convicted of violent crimes began their criminal careers with acts of animal cruelty, according the New York Humane Association.
Associated Press writer Emery P. Dalesio in Raleigh contributed to this report.