FLOCK cats get their day in court

Death Valley cat rescue

It’s been almost a year since Best Friends was called to the scene of a desert compound on the edge of Death Valley to rescue and care for more than 800 cats being kept in nightmarish conditions. Most of the cats have now recovered and are in good new homes. Those who still need special care are at Best Friends Animal Sanctuary.

Animal cruelty charges against FLOCK (For the Love of Cats and Kittens)

Meanwhile, over the last 10 months, local officials in Nevada have been examining the legal side of what was perpetrated against these cats. And this week, delivering on his promise to prosecute "to the fullest extent," Nevada district attorney Bob Beckett filed animal cruelty charges against FLOCK, the organization responsible for conditions at the compound where the cats were being kept.

On June 2, Beckett filed 18 misdemeanor counts against FLOCK (For the Love of Cats and Kittens) and unnamed officers, directors, employees and volunteers.

By naming FLOCK itself, but not the people associated with it, Beckett is taking an unusual path to prosecution. "We’re taking our time," he explained, "trying to separate those who had knowledge of the conditions from those who were on the board in name only. We’re trying to do the right thing. We don’t want to publicly nail somebody who didn’t know what was happening. We want to be thorough."

But being fair doesn’t mean letting people off the hook.

"We’re sending the message that even if you come in here and form a corporation, you can’t hide. They need to be held accountable. We’ll get to the truth about who knew or should have known what was going on."

The law under which FLOCK was charged prohibits anyone from depriving an animal of necessary food, drink or medical care, abandoning an animal or engaging in an act of cruelty against any animal. Each count carries a maximum penalty of six months in jail, 120 hours of community service and a fine of $1,000.

Animal hoarding case

Best Friends general counsel Russ Mead was first on the scene of what he describes as an institutionalized hoarding situation, and led the early stage of the rescue. Since then he has worked closely with the district attorney’s office preparing the case.

"As far as we have been able to determine, this is one of the few if not the only time an organization has been charged with animal cruelty," he said. "One of the lessons from this animal hoarding case is that we all need to be vigilant about the animal welfare and animal rescue organizations we support. The horrible aspect of this crime is it was done systematically to such a large number of cats by people hiding under the umbrella of a nonprofit."

Sheri Allen, the former head of FLOCK, is currently facing separate animal cruelty charges arising from 125 sick and malnourished animals – including 114 cats – investigators found at her home after the FLOCK atrocities came to light. She has denied the charges.

The Great Kitty Rescue

The overwhelming scope of the problem led local authorities last July to seek help from Best Friends, which launched a successful campaign dubbed "The Great Kitty Rescue."

A volunteer tipped off county officers to the inhumane conditions inside the two-acre facility in Pahrump. The compound, surrounded by a tall fence topped with barbed wire, was a desert landscape where the temperature often soared to 120 degrees.

Most of the cats were severely malnourished, some near death. At least 40 died because they were so sick and weak.

While rescue and emergency care were top priorities in the early days, Russ Mead was also careful to have photos taken to document the abuse and neglect both at FLOCK as well as at Sherri Allen’s house. And when Sheri Allen petitioned a county court to give her back possession of the cats, this photo documentation was critical to the judge’s decision to deny the request.

"We all love animals," said Beckett, who lives with several dogs and cats. "They’re part of our family. One of our dogs was a puppy mill dog. It’s sad what they did to her. It’s sad because animals have no voice, no rights."

Each of the first seventeen counts against FLOCK are tied to individual cats identified by their Best Friends rescue number. The eighteenth count refers in general to "300 cats" at the compound.

"We chose those specific cats because we can show hard evidence through pictures and documentation," Beckett said. "We want to focus on those where – if they fight us – we’re confident we can prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt."

"We can bring in the big picture at sentencing."

Although the cats were purported to be ferals who were trapped in the desert or brought in from the streets, Best Friends trainer Sherry Woodard has shown that many were simply frightened pets. In fact, several were identified as missing from their families and returned.

Cover Girl, who is also listed in the charging documents, was considered a "fierce feral," but has made incredible progress as you can see on this YouTube clip.

Written by Best Friends staff

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