(This is the more fleshed-out version of the story from 2010. I wrote it almost a year ago for a book I am currently working on. It is always a work in progress.)
In 1997, I moved to Nashville from Brooklyn. I had been living in a sublet on King's Highway, and I was always worried that the original tenant would return and I would have no place to live, so when my friend Brad told me that you could rent a whole house for $400 a month in Nashville, I wasted no time in moving.
I bought an old beat-up Ford Country Squire station wagon from a man in Coney Island, which had been used as a Brooklyn taxi cab. It had a Plexiglas partition between the front and the back seat, complete with a slot for taxi fares and a “Do Not Smoke” sticker. My husband Teddy and I loaded up the dirt brown wagon which we nicknamed “Bombo”, with our four parrots and four cats, and we were soon on our blissful way.
At first, Nashville seemed like a reasonable enough place to live. I had lived in six states and one foreign country, so I knew that there would be some period of adjustment.
One day, I was driving down Gallatin Pike, when I caught sight of a Dalmatian tied to a table at a yard sale. There wasn't much give in the rope that was tied around his neck. I had been to many swap meets and yard sales in my life, but had never seen anything like this.
My heart immediately was propelled back in time to 1961, when my parents had taken me to see "101 Dalmatians" the Disney cartoon. After all these years, I still had a soft spot for these beautiful dogs, and I couldn't believe that one would be tied up in such a way. I pulled over my car the first chance I could and walked back to the yard sale.
"How much for the dog?", I asked anyone who would answer.
A big woman with a round red face sat on the porch of the old wooden home, her big beefy arms dangling over the railing. "Seventy-five dollars," she bellowed, "and not a penny less."
I scouted up and down Gallatin Pike in each direction, searching for an ATM, and I spotted a First Union bank on the other side of the road. In the blink on an eye, I was back with the cash, and the dog was freed from its two-foot tether. As I took the rope into my hands, I asked the woman what his name was and how old he was. She said his name was Caesar, he was 11 months old, and that she had narcolepsy, which prevented her from keeping him. I thanked her and said a quick goodbye. Caesar and I were soon on our way home.
I had rented a small house in the Englewood section of Nashville, which already had a doghouse and a small kennel in the back yard. Caesar was our first dog of many in the years to come, and because of this he would always hold a very special place in our hearts. He slept in the bed next to me on his back, with all 4 paws in the air.
There are pitifully few alternatives for unwanted pets in Nashville. Someone from Animal Control there once told me that even the supposed no-kill shelters just kill the animals they can't adopt out somewhere else. I found this hard to believe, coming from New York where there are so many wonderful shelters that are very active in adopting out, like The North Shore Animal League.
In Nashville, there were these chutes in a certain parts of the city where you could put your dog in like a trash bag, and they would slide down into a common room where every few days the animals would be euthanized. Teddy's mother, who is from Germany, had sent an article about it from a German magazine. Apparently some German tourists found out about these chutes and got together a group to adopt 15 dogs and bring them back to Germany.
I had met people in Nashville who thought nothing about dumping unwanted pets in places like Ashland City and leaving them to fend for themselves. I could not understand, in a place where there were so many churches and so much religion, how people could commit such heartless acts, even looking at them as reasonable alternatives. I saw cats thrown out of car windows and heard stories about children putting puppies on a barbeque. Dogs wandered my neighborhood in packs during the day and night. I had no clue if these poor animals belonged to anyone or not. There were laws in place that were supposed to prevent these things from happening, but they were not being enforced.
I was teaching voice and piano back then, so I was home all day while Teddy was working at the local supermarket. One afternoon, when he was off from work and we were in the living room reading the newspaper, I happened to glance across the small street to the overgrown vacant lot. I saw a tiny puppy emerge from the tall grass and step on to the street, tail wagging. He was followed by another, then another, and still another, all with tails wagging furiously.
At this point, I began to panic, because I envisioned a car whipping around the corner and killing them all. I told Teddy about it, and we both went outside to see if we could find where these puppies were coming from. Surely there was a mother nearby. To the rear of the vacant lot was a tall fence that was part of a beautiful upscale home where there had been a huge drug bust a couple of months before. The house was now vacant.
My husband climbed the tall fence and quickly disappeared behind it. Within moments, a puppy appeared at the top of the fence. My husband began to hand me six more puppies, each cuter than the next. We gathered up all 8 puppies in our arms and headed back home. I would look back on this moment years later as the real beginning of Our Animal Haus, the sanctuary that would eventually bear that name.
We were able to move to a bigger house in May of 1998 with a huge backyard. At first we tried using one of those electric fences. A wire was laid underground, and then attached to a transmitter. Each dog was then fitted with a collar, which was supposed to administer a shock if they tried to cross the invisible barrier created by the underground wire.
Well, this idea became a complete failure only seconds after it was installed. Caesar gladly took the jolt and began to tear down my street faster than you could say wireless fence. All 8 puppies followed, each dancing briefly on their hind legs as they took the jolt, following Caesar and running so fast you couldn't see their legs. There we were in a complete state of panic, following them in our station wagon, hoping to round them up before they reached the main road. Miraculously, we got them all in the car. We discovered that if you were able to catch Caesar, you were able to catch them all.
We opted for conventional chain link fencing after this, and little by little, we managed to build dog runs and buy enough Igloo doghouses for all the dogs. The puppies were big by this time, and it wasn't long before others followed. There was Buster, a Sheepdog-Lab mix given to us by a co-worker of Teddy's. He was being persecuted by the children where he lived, and nearly all of the hair was gone from his once shaggy tail; Cosmo, a senior Lab whom Teddy had found roaming around the parking lot of the supermarket, who had a gray beard and would give you his paw on command; Chester, who as a pup had managed to make the long trip down our driveway in the summer heat, head dragging on the ground, on the verge of dying. He must have wandered off from wherever he had been living in search of food and water...or else he had been dropped off. It would be weeks before he would be able to lift his head again, and he would walk around waggling his tail with his head bent down. It was sad and funny at the same time; Box Car and Billie, who came from a street near the Radio Cafe, where I worked. I had taken the bus to work one day and had gotten off on that street. As I walked, Box Car followed me. His owner shouted out asking if I wanted to take him with me. Of course, I could not...but I never forgot him. I returned with my car and found the man again, and this time asked me to take Box Car and another dog, a black Lab mix. When I walked closer to her, I could see cigarette burns on her head. At her feet, were a bunch of chicken bones from someone's KFC meal. She would be called Billie. There were still others, some brought to us, some mysteriously arriving on their own.
It was at this time that we began to also rescue cats, for whom there seemed to be even less respect and concern. Unwanted cats were doomed to a tragic and short existence. Many of them would be killed or tortured by delinquent kids or drowned as kittens. The lucky ones would be dumped in the country. We devoted the finished basement, which ran the entire length of the house, to cats. A friend of mine who visited from New York built cat runs along the walls and window seats so they could lounge blissfully in the sun. It was wonderful. We built it, and they came. We would end up with 25 dogs and 33 cats in our days there. We had a wonderful Vet from India named Dr. Joshi, who would give us great deals on whatever we needed for the dogs, and we were able to use the services of S.N.A.P. (Spay Neuter Animal Program), a mobile unit that performed free spays and neuters. We knew all of our neighbors, all of our city officials, and we had survived any noise complaints with complete and total victory. Life was good for us and for the animals, but that was about to change.
On May 21 of 2002, my father died of congestive heart failure. I had flown to my parents’ house in Palm Harbor, Florida a few days earlier to help my mother take care of him when he came out of the hospital, but his condition deteriorated rapidly. He was admitted back into the hospital on the evening before he died. My mother was a wreck, so it was my job to tell the rest of the family, including his older sister, Ana, who lived in a condo in Dunedin. Ana, or Auntie Yiya as we called her (my father could not pronounce the name Ana as a child and could only say Yiya), had Alzheimer's disease, and my Dad had been her principal caregiver. She was still able to live alone, but I knew that this was going to be a setback for her, as stress plays such a role in the progress of disease. When I arrived at her door and told her the news, she let out a small cry like a wounded bird and collapsed into my arms.
I would remain in Palm Harbor for a while trying to figure out what to do about my aunt. She had taken the news so hard, and I didn't think she should live alone anymore. I couldn't very well stay there, leaving my husband in Nashville with all of the animals to take care of himself.
One afternoon, I visited my aunt, and she was not there. The hurricane shutters were closed and locked in all three rooms that faced the water. I called the police. Eventually, they would come up with the information that she had taken a cab to the airport, with no luggage. She had paid with a credit card. I knew that she had no cash. I found that she had taken a Delta flight to Newark, so I called the Port Authority police. They couldn't do much to stop her, but they did say that a woman matching her description was seen trying to claim luggage at an American Airlines counter. She was now out there somewhere, all alone, and confused. I was so worried about her, and I felt completely helpless. The police I had spoken to could not do a thing.
A few days earlier, my aunt had been looking at the New York Times and asking me if I would like to come with her to New York for a visit. We'd rent a hotel room with a kitchenette. She used to like to do this when I was a kid, and she'd come to town with her father and stay at a hotel for a couple of months. She had grown up in New York and remained attached to the city all of her life. I remembered this and began to call all of the bigger hotels in the midtown area looking for her, but I had no luck. Suddenly it dawned on me that my father had been trustee, so I could probably access her credit card information with his. I could then get the name of the hotel where she was staying. I didn't know her Social Security number, but I knew my father's. I called the credit card company and explained everything to them. Sure enough, I found out that she had checked into a hotel room by Madison Square Garden. How she managed to get a cab to take her from Newark to the hotel without any money, I will never know, but I bet there was a pissed-off cabbie out there somewhere.
I called the police precinct closest to the hotel and had them Baker Act her. This is something you can do if a person is considered to be a danger to themselves. It allows you to take them or have them be taken against their will and checked into a hospital for a period of three days without their consent. The police called me from her room when they got to the hotel, and I could hear her arguing with them, and refusing to go. They called an ambulance, which brought her to St. Vincent's hospital in Greenwich Village. There, she was sedated until I could fly to New York the next morning to get her.
By the time I finally picked her up, she had already become something of a legend with the staff who knew the story of what had happened. Even with her illness and the sedation, my aunt's peppery personality shone through. By the end of the evening, we were back at her condo in Florida.
For a while after that, I tried putting her in a nursing home for Alzheimer's patients, getting her a double room so that she could take her piano. She hated it and would always ask, "How loud do I have to play the piano to get thrown out of this place?" My mother had temporary guardianship of my aunt at this time. My mother had never liked my aunt for a number of reasons, but most of all because she had to compete with her for my father's attention. She would have been happy to see my aunt stay in that nursing home forever.
On July 4, after she had lost 20 pounds in only one month, I facilitated Auntie Yiya's escape from her evil captors and called her attorney. I was awarded permanent guardianship of my aunt in August of 2002. This would change not just my aunt's life, but my life, and the lives of my animals forever.
I returned to Nashville in August, but before I left, I had set my aunt up in her condo with a caregiver who had been her housekeeper for a couple of years. She and her friend would trade off shifts so that my aunt would never be alone. This seemed like a reasonable thing for a while, but my aunt was unhappy with them and continued to lose weight. After awhile I was convinced that these girls had been enjoying their stay in the condo by the water a bit too much, neglecting my aunt in the process. Whenever I would call, I'd hear voices in the background, as if there was a party. I decided to make a surprise visit for Thanksgiving. When I arrived at her place, I immediately saw that there was no food in the refrigerator, only half- eaten MacDonald's hamburgers and stale fries. In the corner of the kitchen counter, there were a few cans of Boost, which I surmised was the only nutrition my aunt had been receiving. What was most devastating of all is that my aunt didn't know who I was anymore and had lost an alarming amount of weight. At this point I was sure that she would not make it to Christmas.
One of the girls had moved all of her possessions into my uncle's old room and appeared to be living there full time. My aunt's former housekeeper had outsourced her part of the job to her friend, so she could continue to clean condos in the building. No one was thinking of my aunt at all. I made Thanksgiving dinner, but she would not eat a bite. With complete disinterest, she slumped at the table, her long hair falling into her food. I even tried giving her a can of Boost, but she wouldn’t finish it. It was heartbreaking. I was livid.
I made arrangements to move her into a house she owned across the street from my parents house where my mother was now living and grieving. I thought it would be easier to care for both of them this way, and I could move there with my parrots and a couple of my cats. This would help to lighten my husband's load somewhat, as I would be leaving him all alone with all of the work. It bothered me to leave him this way, but I had no choice. I loved my aunt very much, and I had always been close to her. Auntie Yiya was all that I had left of my father's family.
On December 23, 2002, I loaded up my ridiculously spacious Buick Roadmaster, for which I had traded my Jeep Cherokee and my sweetly kaput VW Cabriolet, just for this trip. On board were three cats, four parrots, my nine-month-old son, and whatever else I could fit, and I said goodbye to Teddy and my Nashville home for what would end up being almost two years.
In 2004, my mother finally agreed to help me buy a house, one where all the cats and the dogs could be brought down from Nashville to live in. I was well-paid by my aunt's Trust, the same amount of money that had been paid to the two girls who took care of my aunt before, but I had no credit so it was impossible for me to get a mortgage without someone cosigning for me.
Anticipating a move, my husband and I had tried to adopt out some of the dogs, but no one wanted mixed breed dogs, especially large ones. The few small ones we had were taken by Friends of Animals, who adopted them out through Pets Mart in Nashville. No one wanted any of the cats. I called a local realtor and asked him to find me a house in the area where I could have 25 dogs and 33 cats.
On July 5, 2004, the realtor took my mother and I to see an interesting property. I had looked at the listing before online. It was formerly a boarding and training facility for Whippets, so it already had lots of fencing in place, with dog runs and a few slots. There was a 1600 square foot auxiliary house in addition to the main house, which could be used as a cattery, complete with high ceilings, ceiling fans, and exhaust fans. There were two porches on either side of this building, which could easily be enclosed. There was a workshop and treatment room. Off the kitchen of the main house was a huge enclosed porch that could be used as a bird room. There was a one-bedroom apartment over a garage toward the back of the property, facing a huge pasture. It was perfect. We signed the papers. My mother gifted me half the money for the house, and my aunt paid the other half.
That week, I bought two ponies, Truffles and Clyde, as a gift for my son from a woman in Paris, Texas. Truffles was a very young and tiny Shetland pony, almost like a big stuffed toy. Clyde was larger and older, with deep blue eyes. He had been named Clyde because he resembled a small Clydesdale, and he was trained to pull a cart. Because of a tough hurricane season that year, they would not end up arriving in New Port Richey until the end of October.
On August 21, I moved into the house with my aunt and my little boy Gabriel, who was now two-and-a-half. I hired some men to replace some of the outdoor fencing that had rusted out, and to add new fencing, so they were busy working when there was a knock on the sliding glass door in the kitchen. It was a big muscle-bound guy, dressed in jeans and a grey t-shirt. He had papers in his hands. I slid the door open and asked him if he could come back as I was busy with my aunt at the moment. It was as if he never heard me, because he began to speak and was somewhat agitated. He was there to ruin my day and more.
He proceeded to tell me that the property was zoned for only nine domestic animals. Although it was a five-acre parcel and had been a kennel before, it hadn't been one while he lived there. He had the papers in his hands to prove it. He then told me that the person who had flipped the house and sold it to us had at one point thought of turning the property into an upscale boarding facility for pets. The same way he was visiting me now, with paperwork in hand, he had visited the former owner. I couldn't believe what I was hearing, because this meant that the former owner knew that it couldn't be used as a kennel and had deliberately misled the realtor into listing the property as being perfect for a kennel. He knew very well that we were bringing dogs and cats from Nashville, and he knew how many. He knew all along that this would be devastating for us, but he took the money and ran.
The house was in my name and my aunt's name, so I could sign the paperwork to request rezoning, but she could not, and as I did not have Power of Attorney over her, no one did. I was not able to sign for her and file the paperwork which would have temporarily protected me and prevented my neighbor from filing a complaint. The attorney for the guardianship said that my aunt's share of the house should have been put into the Trust in the first place, which would have enabled my mother to sign, but she took so long in filing a quick claim deed in order to transfer it into the trust that my neighbor was able to file his series of complaints.
The animals arrived on October 16, and trouble followed a day or two later. For the next 18 months, we would walk on egg shells and be visited by Animal Control so many times that we got to know them all by their first names. They never found anything wrong, other than the zoning violation. After awhile the visits became little more than a formality. Occasionally, the neighbor would call the Sheriff, who would come to the door and ask the same questions each time: "How many animals do you have?" and "How many acres?" We were basically being harassed, and our lives were deliberately being made unbearable. We took one seven-day vacation in December with my husband's family, but the people watching the house and my aunt were so terrified because of these visits that we were not able to take a vacation together again.
My neighbor needed to get two more signatures to take his case against me to a new level. When he could not get anyone on our block to sign his complaint, he went to the next block a quarter of a mile away to get signatures. He targeted two elderly couples and frightened them into signing by telling them that their property values would go down because of our animals, despite the fact that these people could not really even see our house from theirs. Before I knew it, I was being dragged into court. I now had until January 1, 2006, to move all the animals, or they would be taken from me. My attorney told me that I could go to jail for non- compliance.
The only way I could see to protect myself was to sue either the person who sold me the house or the realtor who had listed the place as a kennel. The realtor took down the MLS listing from his page, but I had saved a printed copy containing the description of the property. The law firm I retained was headed by an attorney who would later on, in an unbelievable twist of fate, turn himself in to the police on January 2, 2006 for kidnapping and beating his girlfriend.
I really began to wonder what planet I had moved to. I had never had problems in Nashville at all. Here I was, afraid that any moment I could be hauled off to jail for non-compliance, and it was obvious that I was not going to be able to find anyone competent enough to help me. I tried to find temporary homes for the animals, but no one would take them. I had purchased the property next door and thought that maybe I could move some of the animals there, but the lawyer had mentioned in court that I owned the adjacent parcel in a moment of confusion, and that property was subsequently included in the judgment against me.
On January 11, 2006, we were visited by Animal Control and a Sheriff to see if we had complied with the court order, and of course we had not. This visit seemed more important somehow than the previous visits, and I began to feel as if I was really in a lot of trouble, yet it was all still like a dream. It was so unreal that something this nightmarish could happen in such a short time. I had really been screwed by the former owner and by the realtor, but there was nothing I could do. It didn't matter how innocent my intentions were or even if I was a good a person or not. I was being judged in a way in which I could not defend myself no matter how hard I tried.
We had an appointment that day with a realtor I had found online by looking up Realtors who were affiliated with the American Kennel Club. I found one woman locally, figuring that she might know of an actual kennel for sale. She didn't, but she knew of a house that was agriculturally zoned, where there had been a cat rescue. It was empty. The price was much higher than what we were looking for, but we didn't have much choice at this point.
When Animal Control and the Sheriff left, I went back into the house. My African Grey, Honig, had plucked all of his tail feathers, and they lay in a red mangled heap on the floor of his cage. The stress was so evident that it began to affect the animals.
The new house was in Brooksville, Florida, about 45 minutes to the north. We felt as if it was in the middle of nowhere. Turning down the driveway for the first time, I thought of the TV show, "Daktari" that I used to watch as a child. The house was set a quarter of a mile off of a quiet dead end street, and a long winding gravel driveway was lined with lush foliage and older oak trees. There was a tall palm tree to the right, and visible in the distance was a small pond that belonged to my neighbor. Cows dotted the landscape of his property, which was huge and pastoral. To the left were dense woods, and through them could be seen several clearings which I immediately thought would be nice for horses, because there would be lots of grass for grazing.
The house was sprawling and had a wrap around screened in porch, which was perfect for a bird room. Beginning in 2004, I had begun to purchase unwanted birds, both large and small hook bills, from people in the area. Some birds had come from a pet store that had to close in Palm Harbor. No matter how bad a situation is for a bird, more times than not, you will still have to pay for them. People are aware of their value, even if they are not always concerned about their well-being.
One such bird was a blue and gold macaw named Yaki, who had been in a glass display window inside a Japanese restaurant in Clearwater. She had been there for 12 years. My parents and I had frequented this restaurant, and I always would request the table by the bird. One day, the bird was gone. Oddly enough, while visiting a local pet store, I would run into a woman with a mobile bird service, who would end up working for me. She was temporarily boarding Yaki. I immediately offered to buy her as I was convinced that she would remember me and be quite happy to live with me. I suspected that this woman had called the Health Department herself and had the bird removed from the restaurant, at the same time securing for herself the job of boarding the bird at the request of the owner. She hung onto Yaki for nearly a year, finally selling her to me for $800 in February of 2005.
We signed the papers for the Brooksville house on the spot, not knowing exactly where we would get the money from. I decided to take out a mortgage on the New Port Richey house, as I would be selling it soon anyway.
I returned to court at the end of February of 2006. This time, I went with the attorney who handled the guardianship, because I had no one else. When we got there, she took out a newly drawn-up quick claim deed and mumbled something about the dates on the paper, which I could not clearly understand. I was so nervous. We were led into a very small room, which would become smaller by the second as the judge came in, followed by the Assistant D.A., as well as my neighbor, his accomplices, and the nice man from Animal Control whom I had gotten to know very well over the past 18 months. What transpired in that tiny box of a room was nothing short of a witch hunt.
The Assistant D.A. was not a very friendly woman. Her facts about the events were twisted and inaccurate, and whenever I tried to explain or correct her, my answers were objected to. My attorney, on the other hand, sat there like a lifeless lump of flesh. At one point, I became so angry, that I blurted out, "Why don't you just burn me at the stake?" When it was my attorney's time to speak, she immediately put the quick claim deed in front of me and asked me to read the dates. There were several dates on the page, and I realized that what she had been trying to explain to me outside was what she was looking for me to repeat to the judge. I was so confused. I began to cry uncontrollably. I don't remember whether she took me out of the room or if I ran.
When I returned to the room, I looked at my "friend" from Animal Control, and his head was bowed in shame. I know that he knew this was wrong. He had told me about some of the real problems they had with people and animals in the area: cases of abuse, torture and neglect. I was not one of those cases, and he knew that. He was basically a nice guy who at the moment was going through one of the shittier aspects of his job. This was a zoning dispute. I had been screwed over when buying the property, and now I was being screwed over a second time.
I was given 30 days to move all of the animals, or until April 1st. I told them about the new house and had expected more leniency, but I would later find out that my accusers had wanted to give me the weekend. Why such blood lust, I will never understand. I was, after all, leaving. After a tongue lashing by the judge, ignorantly stating that I had ample time to find homes for the animals, I accepted my fate and began to mentally set the wheels in motion. We would later learn that the reason why my neighbor had done all of this was because he was getting ready to sell his house and he was afraid that having an animal sanctuary next door would not get him the price he was asking for. This was of so much importance to him that destroying people's lives in the process hadn't mattered to him at all.
On March 28, with a caravan of six vehicles, we made the drive from New Port Richey to Brooksville. There was a small moving truck for bird cages, my aunt's hospital bed, dog houses, and the washer and dryer. There were two vans and an SUV for the birds, the bunnies, the ferrets and the sugar gliders. There was a horse trailer for the dogs, who were in crates and pet taxis. Then there was me with my son, my aunt, the woman who helped with my aunt, and one declawed cat that lived in the main house. Tomorrow, the cats from the cattery would be making the same trip. We had accomplished the seemingly impossible. That night, my son and I would sleep on an air mattress, my husband would sleep on the floor, and my aunt would sleep on her hospital bed, completely unaware that anything had happened at all. I had spent the last four weeks having outdoor dog runs built, this time from scratch, as well as coral fencing for the ponies. The man who installed the fencing in New Port Richey was my new best friend. There was a large brick barn on the property, with a hay loft and several rooms and closets for storage so a huge coral was built in front of it. It would loop around, passing close to the house so that my son could see his ponies from the window. I hired builders to create a 20' x 40' steel building with 12 windows and four doors. We would build what looked like an l-shaped batter's cage, which would wrap around the building on the side that faced the main house, so that the cats could be outdoors and see us at the same time. I had the bird room fitted win insulated glass, so that they would be protected from the elements. I also had a second room built using part of the lanai which had been used as an outdoor dining area off of the dining room of the main house. It was covered by the roof of the house, so it was easy to enclose.
The next two years were happy times for us. Although we had not yet sold the house in New Port Richey, and we were feeling the rumble from the real estate crash, we lived our lives without incident, which was hard to get used to. It is surprising how long it takes for the body to learn how to relax again after such an ordeal. Once the feeling of safety returns, it is like stepping on to new earth after a long time away. It is familiar, welcome, and strange all at once. We flourished in those times, and my son basked in the glow of safety, forgetting all about New Port Richey.
We hired 2 new people at $12 an hour to help us; a woman named Sherrie who was in charge of the birds and the bird room, and a woman named Missy, whom I can only describe as an amazon. She was a tall attractive and solidly built woman who could do anything a man could. While Sherrie cleaned and maintained the bird room, Missy was in charge of the horses and the cattery, as well as the small room off of the bird room where we had a few bunnies, sugar gliders, and 2 ferrets named LuLu and Elmo. This is also where Milo, a Prairie Dog from one of Sherrie's friends, lived. He was allowed the run of the place, as he knew how to use a litter box.
Missy knew everything there was to know about horses, and also worked at a stable part time. Having her around was also like having a teacher, and we learned a lot about horses from her. I had been a life-long lover of horses, and had taken English riding lessons as a child at a stable near my house, learning to jump over hurdles...until I was thrown badly one day, my helmet and I sent flying in opposite directions, and my mother demanded that I stop. My deep love of horses never stopped, however.
The woman who helped with my Aunt, Myrl, now had to drive 45 minutes each day, so her pay was raised to $20 an hour. These women, Sherrie, Missy, and Myrl, along with my husband and I, worked tirelessly to keep all of the souls on board at 24419 Lanark Road happy, loved, and well-cared for. It was our singular mission in life.
During the wee hours of April 1, 2008, Ana Mas Gomez, my beloved Auntie Yiya, passed away at 94 in the comfort of her own bed. I had played the piano in her room as she drifted in and out of consciousness. Her last words to me had been "Don't stop," when I tried to leave the room at one point. We had anticipated her death for years, but as in the case of my father, it never makes the loss any easier.
Because I was no longer receiving income as guardian, carrying the mortgages on two properties became next to impossible. I began to sell things that I did not need, a third car, a motorcycle, guitars, jewelry, whatever I could. It was also around this time that I began to apply for a 501(c)3 status and incorporated "Our Animal Haus" officially. I even had a Facebook friend come up with a logo and some ideas for tee shirts.
Myrl began to take care of the birds at this point, as Sherry had developed tremendous back problems and the work was beginning to get to her. Missy had a horseback riding accident and had to quit both if her jobs, so we hired a new woman named Vicki who although not as strong as Missy, was very knowledgeable about horses and Holistic practices. She was so good at what she did, that she also ended up working for my Holistic Vet who lived near by.
My mother moved in 2007 from her home in Palm Harbor when the property next door opened up, so I was now able to spend more time with her. She had always been jealous of my aunt when my father was alive, competing for his attention, and she had to go through the same thing while I cared for my aunt.
Her troubles with my aunt reached far back into her past. When she was 12 years old, my aunt had been her math teacher. Another student had been accused of copying off my mother's paper during a test, and that student had subsequently been moved to the front of the room, presumably to be monitored, while my mother had been moved to the back. Instead of my mother seeing this as a sign of trust on my aunt's part, she felt slighted. She was now 82 years of age, and she still harbored this deep resentment. Now she was free, for the first time in years, to be the center of attention; something my mother not only loved but truly needed. She was not as independent as my aunt, and she had never lived alone before my father died.
The house in Brooksville had a very odd design. There was a water heater and an AC unit on each side of the house, making each side independent of the other, something I would really appreciate on Labor Day weekend of 2008, when the water heater in the attic over the bedrooms would burst. Since it was a weekend, and a holiday weekend on top of that, getting someone to come in the evening to bail out water and remove sopping wet insulation from the attic was not going to be easy. We had a dog groomer who worked for us every weekend, and we decided to call her husband whom we had heard was a handyman.
Don was trouble from the beginning. He looked like he had been a junkie, and we knew that he had been in prison, but we didn't quite know what for. His wife was a hard worker, and she had been a dog groomer at the boarding facility across the street. She was sweet and timid, so I had felt badly about asking her too many questions about her husband. She had three children who would come on occasion to play with my son while she groomed the dogs.
It was around this time that I started to adopt cats from a kill shelter in Georgia. We had a gigantic lanai, and I had the pool drained so that the cats could use it to play in. I bought plastic sandboxes, filled them with cat litter, and placed them in the cabana room, which had an exhaust fan blowing out. This situation proved problematic as the cats began to pull the screens loose. Don would be over every day to fix the screens, always collecting money and then disappearing before he came back to do any work. We weren't even sure after awhile if he was putting in the screens the right way, or if he was putting them in such a way that they would break again, just to collect another check. He had lied about being a licensed contractor, so he could not do the repairs on the house after the boiler broke because the insurance company would not pay an unlicensed worker. The situation with him began to fall apart quickly, and we fired him in the winter of 2008.
A couple of days after firing him, we were robbed of some tools in the garage as well as a large utility trailer. There was only a one-hour period of time in which the house was left alone, so whoever did this had to have been watching and knew our routine. I talked to the Don's wife about it, as I had learned from the woman who owned the boarding facility across the street that he had been arrested for cocaine use and been in jail for two years. I had gotten close to her during the time she worked for me, and I knew that she wasn't always happy about him and the way in which he conducted his life. I tried to be honest with her as I could, but when I asked if she believed that he could have been the one who robbed our house, I was met with such complete opposition to this idea that I was almost sorry I had brought it up. I never saw her again.
We first met our local Animal Control officers in January of 2009. They had received an anonymous complaint, as you are allowed to make in Hernando County. One of the officers had left a pink slip at our gate, but could not enter the property because of the no trespassing sign. Needless to say, this set off all kinds of feeling of panic and terror. We felt in that moment as if trouble had suddenly obtained our new address.
My husband called the officer, Officer Patrick Pace, and he came to the house. With him was Officer Joe Groeneveld. They looked around and could not find anything wrong. In the complaint, a bird who plucked its feathers had been mentioned. I did have such a bird, and I said to the officers that the only people who would have known about this bird would have been people who worked for me. Having just fired the handyman, and his wife subsequently leaving in tow, I suspected that this complaint had been an act of revenge on their part. We never had visitors, and we knew exactly who came on our property, so any complaint made could not have been made by a stranger. It had to have been made by someone we knew well. This bit of deductive reasoning seemed to suffice, and the officers left with no intention of returning.
Two months later, the same complaint was made, only this time, Officer Pace said that no visit was necessary, and all that I had to do was give him a call back if something like this happened again.
In June of 2009, I posted a plea for donations on Facebook. I had hit a rough spot financially, and I was facing a two-week period with not much money to live on. My note was honest, maybe too honest for people who did not know me. The trouble came as it was cross-posted by a friend who had 20,000 friends on MySpace. One of them was a Vet who lived in another state, and after reading my plea, she decided to call Animal Control, not even knowing that within 24 hours of my post, I had received over $1000 and was now out of the red.
On August 16, 2009, I was once again visited by Officers Pace and Groeneveld. They showed me the email they had received from the Vet, which included portions of my Facebook post. I explained to them what had happened. The manager of Animal Control, Liana Teague, had figured that it was an unfounded complaint or another disgruntled employee, but all complaints must be routinely checked as a matter of record. Officer Pace asked if we were having any financial troubles. I told him that I had been considering moving the entire operation to my mother's parcel at some point, where there was no mortgage, but that we were okay, getting by like everyone else in this economy. He asked if we were networked with any other rescues in the area. I mentioned that I had some people working on getting me donated food through their 501(c)3. He said that he wanted to help me by hooking me up with places that could give us free dog food. Officer Pace was my new best friend.
He called back with the names of places where I could get food, but the one place that I would have to get the vouchers from was out of my jurisdiction, and the other place would only give me one voucher at a time. The food would be obtained from the local Humane Society, but this could not be done without following first the procedure of obtaining vouchers.
It was at this point that I actively began to file for a 501(c)3 status. The paperwork was daunting. It was also around this time that I had received some attention from a corporate sponsor named James. He was an acquaintance of an old musician friend of mine. He was very supportive of what we were doing, and wanted to help us get under another 501(c)3, as it would be the fastest way to receive assistance and possible grants which he expressed interest in helping us with. Things seemed to be looking up.
I was able to keep something of a buzz going on Facebook. On September 9th, Holly Cara Price, a journalist of some note and FB friend, published an article about Our Animal Haus in the Huffington Post. She was trying to help me get some publicity so that our sanctuary might receive worthwhile attention that was more high profile. She was well connected, having been Steven Van Zandt's assistant for a number of years, so she was a credible name to be connected with. The article would get me attention alright, but it would also open the door to hell.
Enter Mr. Logan Neill, who covers Arts and Entertainment for the Hernando Times, a Hernando County section of The St Pete Times. Neill called me in response to the Huffington Post article and wanted to come over to do a piece on us. He said he was in a hurry to write the article because he wanted it to appear in the upcoming weekend paper. He insisted upon seeing us right away. I told him that I had to take a shower first. Little did I realize that I was about to make perhaps the biggest mistake in my life.
Prior to his arrival, I had told Neill on the phone that my lawn was very overgrown because we were short on help, and that our handyman who was an ex-con had most likely robbed us, so we were naturally wary about hiring new people. I preferred that he wait until the lawn could be mowed. I remember that he asked for the handyman's name because he said he wanted to check up on him. I should have found this alone to be odd. I told him that I would appreciate his name being left out of any story.
When he came onto the property, which was a very large partially wooded 12+ acre parcel, my hair was still wet. I took him to the barn, and we talked along the way. He had a photographer with him, and he took some photos of my horses, some of them with my son, who gleefully tagged along. He passed four dog runs and the cattery building to get to the barn, but never went inside any of them. I showed him my lanai, which had a huge atrium over it that had been shredded by the cats when I had used that area for them the year before. The screens had been demolished and now hung flapping in the wind. The photographer took pictures of this, until I asked him not to. For some reason, I had a bad feeling about him.
Mr. Neill did not seem to have any prepared questions and wrote very little down. He had no tape recorder, and from my experience being interviewed throughout my career, I knew that this was the sign of a potentially bad interview, filled with misquotes or at the least, the sign of an amateur. We walked back to the front of the house and sat at the picnic table that my husband had moved there just for his visit. We gave them both glasses of water.
I remember him being fascinated by the fact that the Huffington Post article had mentioned that I was once hailed as the "female Springsteen." He asked me about it, with a hint of ridicule in his voice, as if it were somehow a huge lie that the woman who now stood before him had once been a rock star. I remember thinking that he should be asking me questions about the animals. I began to think that maybe he had made this whole story up about doing an interview, and had just wanted to check out this woman who dared to be compared with The Boss. Somehow I felt as if I had disappointed him and had not looked the part.
When I brought the conversation back to Our Animal Haus, he seemed to look in every direction but my face as I spoke. At the end of the interview, I gave him Officer Pace's phone number, in case he might want to talk to him, figuring he also might enjoy reading his name in the paper. At this point I truly believed that the people at Animal Control were our friends. That was my second mistake and perhaps the most crucial one.
The article did not appear in the paper as Logan Neill had said it would, and at first I was worried, but then figured it had just been bumped because it was the weekend after 9/11.
On September 16, Animal Control once again came to my house. Apparently Mr. Neill had used the contact number I had given him to meddle in my affairs. He was inquiring into my history with Animal Control, and he asked if there had been any past complaints.
Although Mr Neiil said he did not make a complaint, it was very apparent that he had. He was lying. According to Officer Pace whom I phoned that same day, Mr. Neill told Animal Control that the place was messy, and there were feces around. This was a complete piece of fiction, as he had only been at the barn and the corrals where the horses were. It was immaculate as we had a worker who maintained everything, and she had just left, not wanting to be photographed for the paper. His remarks, according to Pace, were meant to encourage them to take some sort of action against me. When I then confronted Mr. Neill as to why he would involve himself in such a fashion, his reply was that he was skeptical, even about what had happened to us in New Port Richey. I began to think that he had been sent by the devil.
When I was visited by Animal Control on the 16th, it was the first time I was to meet Officer Tossona. He had been back on his job after a year's absence for only 10 minutes when he was handed our file by Patrick Pace, who now had been promoted to supervisor. He was told to check out Logan Neill's complaint.
Tossona called at 11:30, from our front gate and asked to be let in. He gave me only minutes to dress. I was still in my housedress. We let him in, not aware of the fact that we did not have to if he didn't have a warrant. I was to learn this later from an animal welfare group. Many rescues make this mistake. I was also to find out that not all Animal Control officers are helpful and nice. Tossona was there to make up for lost time.
He was not at all friendly. He went everywhere and took pictures of everything. The only issue he seemed to have, was with the bird cages not having been cleaned. Vicki's nephew Brendan had been cleaning the bird cages at this time, but had to go back to school. We were looking to hire someone else. He asked about the cyst on our donkey's leg, and we told him that our Vet had said not to worry about it because it was a harmless sebaceous cyst. The Vet had seen the donkey the day he had arrived from another rescue. I gave Tossona the Vet's business card if he had any questions about the donkey or the horses.
Tossona, along with Pace and another Officer named D'Arco, came again the next day, and this time they counted all of the animals. This had not been done before. I was next door at my mother's house because the phone company was coming to fix her line, and I wanted to make sure she heard the door to let them in. It was on this day that Tossona talked Teddy into signing a piece of paper allowing random inspections of my home, among other things, like saying that we will provide basic care for the animals. He signed it out of fear and because he truly believed that it was for the animals' benefit. He was also under the impression that he could keep the animals if he signed it. English is Teddy's second language, and when he is stressed out, he is easily confused. Nowhere in this agreement did my husband's name appear. It stated that I, Carolyne, was agreeing to the terms as described on that page by signing at the bottom. I have no clue how having my husband sign this paper was ever considered to be legal at all. Teddy did not have Power of Attorney over me.
It was also on this day that Animal Control brought us some free hay from County Commissioner Atkins' barn. Looking back, this seems so odd.
The next day, a subdued Tossona arrived at around 11:30, handing me a copy of the citation he had filed. He told me that Pace had wanted him not to file anything, to give us a couple of weeks to get everything together, but it was too late. Tossona had already filed paperwork, putting everything on a rapid timeline. His issues were with the lawn, the bird cages, and the kennels in the garage which contained quarantined cats from a rescue in Georgia; they had to be unstacked. The horses' hooves also needed to be done by a farrier, which we usually did anyway. We also had to have proof of vaccination for all of the dogs and cats. We had one week to address most of these things, and there would be no problem if it was perceived that we were making an effort. He also gave me a printed article about a rescue named "Caring Fields," a place that may be able to take some of the cats, perhaps the quarantined ones.
Later that day I called "Caring Fields," and they said that they had no room for any animals at all, as things were the worse they had ever seen as far as the amount of pets being abandoned in this economy. They did, however, give me some suggestions on how to turn part of my mother's property into an outdoor cattery, which could be done quite cheaply. They offered to help me when I was ready to do it. I even called the man who was building my fence, and he said he would do it for cost if I provided the labor. I called Tossona and told him all of this, figuring he would be pleased.
The days leading to Animal Control's visit on September 25 were very busy, and we managed to do everything on the list, including getting our new financial backer James to fund all of the vaccines. For years we had used a homeopathic Vet, and they do not approve of vaccines, especially for the older dogs, or the cats in the cattery, some of who had compromised immune systems. Everything had been fine this way for years. But now, it had to change out of necessity.
The Vet came out early in the morning, with a whole crew of people doing both grooming and shots. It was videotaped at the backer's request. He probably wanted to see where his money was going, but he had said that maybe he could use it for promotional reasons at some point. Animal Control came out later, including Pace, Tossona, and Liana Teague. They were extremely pleased as the place was spotless, and we told them that the farrier appointment was on October 2. We also said that we had hired a full-time live in employee who was coming to live with us on Sunday. We took a group photo, minus Tossona, that I am so glad now to have as evidence that this day actually happened. They said that they would be back in two weeks. Three weeks later, they returned.
On October 16 at around 11 AM, Animal Control arrived for a surprise visit that supposedly my husband had agreed to upon signing that paper on September 17. They had let themselves in through the gate because of this. Teddy met Pace, Tossona, and a new woman, a trainee, in the garage. Pace said that they came to do an inspection and asked him if he was okay with that, giving the indication that no was an option. Tossona then reminded my husband that he had signed the paper, but according to Teddy's recollection, Pace still gave the option to say no, but he wanted to check with his supervisor. Teddy then went back inside briefly to continue working.
Some time later, Animal Control knocked on the door, and Pace told Teddy that Liana Teague had said that they didn't have to do the inspection. My husband let them look anyway, thinking that it was harmless to cooperate. In fact, he was still under the impression that co-operating was the best thing to do. We had nothing to hide. Their inspection did not include the inside of the house, as it had on September 16. Teddy was inside the house, working, as they looked around. They knocked on the door again, saying that they were done. They made no suggestions and did not mention any improvements. They simply left.
They came back about 90 minutes later. This time, they came to pick up Ginger, our 30-year-old mare. It was then that my husband went next door to get me. I had been on my way to cash a check so that we could go to the feed store with our new employee. It was a Friday. I went next door with our new employee, Nicholas.
When I arrived on the property, Tossona was there with his trainee. At first I was very friendly. I said to Tossona that if he perceived that there was any problem with the mare, we could just call out Vet to come on over and look at her. He asked if I could pay for that, and I said of course.
Ginger had been brought to us in 2007 and Dr. Dillard, our Vet, had seen her on numerous occasions. Her condition had greatly improved since being with us, but she was old and would never be much heavier because she just was not able to put on body fat on at her age. Our Vet had told us this, as had numerous other people who knew horses well. This is why she was always put out to graze on the property all day, in addition getting feed, beet pulp, and hay.
I called Dr. Dillard and left a message using Vicki’s cell phone. I then asked Tossona for the paperwork that allowed him to be on my property without my consent in the first place. It was at this point that he became angry and decided not to allow the Vet to come after all. He then called for police backup, as well as transport for the horse. I was being treated as a hostile person because I wanted to see documentation that allowed them to be on my property. I remained calm and told him that I did not give him consent to take my horse, and until I could see some paperwork allowing them to be there, it was my opinion that they were trespassing.
It was at this point that I recall Tossona showing me the paper that my husband had signed. I must have mentioned something about it being or having to be notarized, because I remember telling me that he was a Notary. I had read the paper, because he had left the copy pictured above at my house on 9/17. I could not understand how it could be valid, as I had not signed it. I also told him that I was sole owner of the property. He said that this did not matter. By now he had begun to treat me with complete hatred.
It was at this point that I recall Tossona showing me the paper that my husband had signed. I must have mentioned something about it being or having to be notarized, because I remember telling me that he was a Notary. I had read the paper, because he had left the copy pictured above at my house on 9/17. I could not understand how it could be valid, as I had not signed it. I also told him that I was sole owner of the property. He said that this did not matter. By now he had begun to treat me with complete hatred.
The police arrived, and I heard Tossona talking to them. I heard him tell them that we had no money. Money, or my perceived lack of it, had been an issue with him from the beginning. I blame the Facebook post for this, which somehow or other had stuck in his brain.
When the police approached me, they seemed to become irritated when I would not engage them. I told them that they were trespassing and that as long as no one could produce paperwork saying that Animal Control had the right to be on my property (I was the sole property owner, the only person on the title), then anyone coming at their request was also trespassing. Bear in mind that at this point, I had no knowledge of Animal Control having been on the property that morning.
My employee, who knew a bit about the law, told me to ask to see all of the policemen's badges and said that I should ask them for their business cards as well. If they didn't have them, then they are not in full uniform. One of the officers took this personally. He asked my employee what his name was, and my employee replied, "I am a private citizen, I don't have to tell you that, but you, however, are required to identify yourselves." This did not sit well with any of them.
Another sheriff arrived along with the horse trailer and the son of the County Commissioner, who was driving the horse trailer. Pace arrived and showed this new sheriff some paperwork. I was assuming that it was the paper stating that they were allowed to be on my property, but it was a court order. I was informed that it did not matter if I gave my consent anymore, that if the police thought that an animal was in distress, then they could do anything they wanted to. The paper, and this was 6 o'clock on a Friday, was a signed order by the judge to remove Ginger.
Ginger fought them as they forced her to get on the trailer, and she looked over at me. I will never forget this look as long as I live. Once inside, she kicked the walls of the trailer wildly. It was horrible. Tossona was extremely hostile to me, as were the police, and asked me to back away from the trailer, even asking for police assistance in having me removed if I did not immediately move, even though I had never raised my voice and had only asked politely for paperwork, as my rights as a citizen.
Later that evening, my backer James called me, because he had received an email from Animal Control containing photos that were taken by Tossona that morning. They were of Ginger, Sly, a blind Tennessee Walker who had come to us with Ginger, and an empty food trough that was no longer being used, as well as an empty bucket, which we also no longer used. We had an automated watering system installed months before. These photos were meant to be incriminating, and I believe they were meant to turn my backer against me. I quickly sent the backer my own photos of filled food bins, water buckets and hay. Everything had been in the barn. The photos of the horses were taken at such an angle that purposefully was a gross misrepresentation of their condition. Ginger was elderly and thin, but Sly was not thin at all. Neither were any of the other horses, for that matter. I paid Vicki $12 an hour to feed them. She also kept a calendar of what she did each day. In September, Sly had a gash over his eye from bumping into something, which she had treated with salve. All of this was on the calendar. Tossona had remarked about the gash back in September, but by now it was gone, not even a scar was left. Many rescues treat minor injuries like this one themselves, and they do not always require a Vet visit. I believe that this would remain an issue with Tossona, long after the wound had healed.
That night I also called the Vet who had given all of the vaccines on the 25th of September, and she said that she hated Animal Control and that they would most likely put Ginger down. She had warned me not to try and be friendly with them from the beginning; something that another rescue had tried to explain to my backer when he entered the picture. I was always, like many others, under the mistaken impression that Animal Control is there to help you.
The following Monday, October 19, two police officers arrived on my property looking for my son, because apparently there had been an anonymous complaint made that a child was being kept that no one sees, and that there were diseased animals and no one had any money to care for anyone. At this point I was living next door with my mother, so Teddy told them that there was no child there, and then he asked them politely to leave. They did so. These are notes I took at the time regarding that conversation.
“My husband: "Sirs, I am not obligated to answer any of your questions and there is no child here. "
One of the officers: "We know what happened over the weekend. Threats were made [against an officer on 10/16] and we received a memo. We don't know anything about it, we didn't even work that shift. We are only here to help the lady from DFS to see the child. "
My husband: "There is no child here. Would you please be so kind as to leave.”
My husband came over after this incident.
Shortly after, Animal Control arrived with a sheriff, plus two deputies at my mother's house asking for my husband. Teddy came to the door. They wanted to look at the main house. Still believing that cooperating was the best thing to do, I told him to let them go and have a look. I was still feeling very intimidated by the previous Friday's actions. My employee Nicholas went with them.
As they were walking over to the other house, Nicholas asked them for ID, to which the sheriff replied, "I'm the sheriff here, and these are my deputies, and they don't have to give you ID, but here is my ID. They have nothing to say to you. My deputies told me about you, that you were causing trouble [on Friday]." It was also on this visit that Tossona said in a flippant manner that he saw Sly, the blind horse, limping. This is patently false, but he was planting a seed.
The sheriff actually let them only open the small freezer compartment of the 24 cubic inch refrigerator, but stopped them from continuing their search of the other freezers in the garage. The others were all empty, mind you. as we used to use them for food deliveries from Rich Foods and Direct USA when my aunt was alive...if you joined you got a free freezer.
It was at that point that the sheriff stopped them from searching any further, and called the judge to ask him what to do; he would not allow it either. (One would think during this case that the judge was on call or something.) The damage was done, though, as in the top compartment of the small fridge, there were several animals found that we had been wanting to bury until we knew that we had someplace where we knew we would be living for a while...like at my mom's. There was the bodies of two feral cats, which had been killed by a dog who hopped the fence that week, and which our Vet knew about, a couple of sugar gliders, 2 parakeets, and a fish....whatever was in there was very small, and the way it would be depicted in the newspaper later would be as if we had there huge cadavers stored, giving people a specific impression.
I will say that you can ask any breeder or rescue, and they will tell you that it is not an uncommon practice to store the bodies of deceased animals in a freezer until they can be buried, when you are dealing with so many animals on a daily basis.
Looking back, we should have buried those bodies that day, but we had been told not to touch anything, and not to move any animals. We were still believing that full co-operation with the authorities was what was best. There is no law against keeping animals in a freezer, but there are laws that can prevent you from burying them on your property, so we weren’t sure at this point just what we were supposed to do, and we didn’t ask. We were being deliberately overwhelmed. They would later use the animals in the freezer against us in such a brutal and unfair way, even though we had broken no law. I would explain ad nauseum that we had delayed burying them because we wanted to make sure that we had a proper a grave that our son could visit, but in the long run, we would be deprived of that, too.
My mother's house was very close to the end of the dead end street, and almost on the road. All day police cars went up and down the street, slowing down in front of the house. It was horrible. They were also sitting in front of the gate to 24419 Lanark, because my employee who fed our horse as well as my mother's horse said she had been stopped and questioned by an officer. He had asked about my son. She told him he was fine, maybe his hair was a little long, but fine. I remember feeling angry at her for adding the bit about the hair, because it was completely unnecessary. I felt that it was thoughtless of her to insert any negative images into the minds of people who were predators, and who were looking for reasons to find fault in anything that I did. This was the point at which the nightmare became palpable.
It was on that evening that I learned that Ginger had been euthanized. I was on the phone with James when he received the call. At that point, he had been supporting my efforts to deal with Animal Control as a liaison. He was noticeably shocked when he delivered this news to me. It was at this point, that Animal Control stopped returning his calls and that an attorney, Erica Moore, became involved. I knew instinctively at this point that Ginger's death was going to be used to build a case against me, however far-fetched it seemed at the time to James.
That night, he sent me the Animal Control Vet's assessment of Ginger. Oddly enough, it came from someone at Dr. Davenport's office, where my Vet, Dr. Dillard used to work, the same office that still had Ginger's records, with her date of birth as 8/21/79. This Vet was trying to say that Ginger was 18, and was so malnourished that she could not stand, so euthanization was recommended. Was that the same horse who fought Animal Control as they tried to force her into a trailer on the 16th? I called Dr. Dillard immediately and told him what happened. He was shocked. He said that you couldn’t always tell a horse's age by their teeth. He also said that as far as her care, we were square with him.
Dr. Dillard knew we took good care of Ginger, and he had seen both Sly and Ginger when they had arrived on my property in August of 2007. They were at that time skin and bones, having actually been starved by their previous owner. Two of my employees at the time, Missy and Sherrie, had known their previous owner, and had talked her into giving them both to me. Apparently, she was not giving them enough food, and not allowing them to graze in her yard although she has plenty of grass. Sly's Uveitis had been allowed to progress unattended to, which must have been painful. Sly was now almost completely blind and had come to rely on Ginger as being his "eyes." She would guide him as if he were one of her babies. It was beautiful to see such tenderness between the two horses. Missy drove them to our place in her horse trailer.
"When they arrived at Carol's place, we all were in tears. These horses was nothing but BONES!! The mare had huge eyes that said to us her hope was gone, her love was gone, her trust in humans was gone. We didn't think she would make it out of the horse trailer without dropping dead, she was in bad shape. The gelding had age on his side but his eyes said the same as the mare. Well, in time Carol and Teddy had given hope, love, and faith in humans again. With great food, these horses had overcome death. They are very healthy, happy and enjoying eating. The mare would follow Teddy around like a puppy dog, out of love. She trusted him to no end. That's Carol and Teddy; saving all kinds of animals and giving so much love to them, when death is knocking at the animal's door", Sherrie would later say.
According to Sly's previous Vet in Gainesville, the Uveitis was most likely was the result of an injury to the eye that he had sustained before he had been purchased by a female sheriff from Pasco County, named Marty. When she was injured in the line of duty, she had sold him to this other woman, trusting that she would care for him properly. She was upset when she found out that his condition had been allowed to deteriorate to such an extent. Missy worked hard with him, as did 2 Vets, one conventional and the other Holistic. When he looked better and had regained some of his weight and strength back, we invited Marty to visit Sly. She marveled at how well he looked, and was grateful that he had been brought to us in seemingly the nick of time.
The next day, Tuesday, October 20, close to 12:30 PM, Teddy called and said that the police, lots of them, were back. I could hear them in the background being very forceful and asking Teddy he had any firearms. It sounded like a Waco thing. It was then that I sent Nicholas over there with my video camera to tape everything as James had suggested.
It was my birthday. I decided to run. I was so afraid that they were going to take my son. I told Gabriel that we were going to the beach. I drove north toward I-75 and turned at a motel, thinking that we would check in. I parked in front. I called home to talk to my mom, and a policeman answered. I hung up. I called back again, and this time my mother answered. She was oblivious to what was going on because of her dementia, and she was laughing and chatting with the policeman who had just answered the phone. They were looking for my son. Apparently, my husband had given them the number to where we were (they actually had seen me with my son on the porch of my mother's house so it is a mystery as to why they pretended not to know this), and it took them no time to trace it to the house next door. The police officer said to me that he just needed to see the boy, so I agreed to meet him in the parking lot of Tractor Supply, on the way to the beach, which is where I told him I had been going.
I headed south on 50, and I had to pass the road that led to my house going this way. I saw a police car turn onto 50 from that road, and he sped past me. It was at this moment that I knew that it was a trap, and I had just been hooked.
When I arrived at the parking lot, I was met by two patrol cars, one with a man standing outside the car in a swat-team-like confrontational position, as if trouble was expected. He wore dark glasses like in the movies, and his arms were crossed high over his chest as he leaned against the front of a patrol car, his head turned to the side. My vehicle was quickly approached by another officer, the one whom I had spoken to on the phone, and by a woman from DFS. Without missing a beat, she opened the door and pulled my son out of the back seat of the car. I was to follow them to the courthouse.
Their cars traveled swiftly, and I lost them quickly. At one point, I could not be certain at all where my son was, or if they had lied to me.
Our time at the courthouse was brief, and we then returned to my mother's house. The woman did a home inspection, which of course did not find me in any kind of violation. The police were still next door at my house, and this woman, who was very nice, as was this particular officer, asked about the events next door, and about the animals and the house. They took the name and birthday of our employee Nicholas, as well as information (Social Security numbers, birth dates) about me, my husband, and my mother.
It was nearly 6 PM when they left. I called home. Teddy told me that he had been handcuffed for three hours by the police and slammed against the wall. They had said to him that they did not need a warrant to search the house. He heard and saw Nicholas being arrested, cuffed, and put into a patrol car, but they did their best to separate them from seeing each other. My husband wept uncontrollably from the stress as numerous officers repeatedly asked him where our son was. They opened all the freezers, and searched the entire house for hours, while he stayed in handcuffs. They threatened him with loss of parental rights. He told me later that he had seen them take the camera on the grounds that it may contain incriminating information.
I would later learn that during this illegal invasion of my home, Animal Control would be there as well. They opened up areas of the house that were no longer being used because of flooding damage, and allowed the cats to enter these areas, photographing them as if they had been living there. A few of the cats were even allowed to enter closets that had been previously closed, and they were discovered later that evening, terrified and hiding behind empty suitcases.
It was at this time that my husband and I realized that Nick was nowhere to be found, and since he hadn't seen him be taken away, he couldn't be sure what had happened. I called the jail, and sure enough, he was there. He had been charged with obstruction of justice and peacefully resisting arrest. According to Teddy, all he heard Nicholas say was, "I am a private citizen and do not have to answer any of your questions."
I went to his appearance in court, and right before the court was about to start, the bailiff asked if this was all connected to the paperwork from the day before, same judge, and I said yes. He then disappeared behind a door in the hallway, which I remember thinking was like a backstage door at a club.
Shortly after I returned from court, the same officers as on the 16th and on the 20th, came along with Animal Control to my mother's house. There were three police cars. This time, they had an affidavit for an inspection warrant for my house, as well as an inspection warrant with my mother's name on it. She had just awakened, and this was very upsetting for her as the police were at her home the day before. Part of the warrant stated, "Carolyn Mas is the owner and caretaker of animals and has been neglecting said animals by failing to provide proper nutrition, medical care, and confining them in area without wholesome exchanges of air." The warrant with my mother's name referred to her as an Hispanic.
Officer Tossona took photos of my mother's animals, and they searched the entire property. At one point, they returned to search the mobile home which was used for storage next door, but for which we had lost the keys. It contained things from my mother's house before she moved that did not fit in her new house, as well as things from my late aunt. I told them they were welcome to look there, if they could find an open window to get in.
When they left, they told me that everything was in order, and that they wished to go next door. They searched the entire house once more and took the animals from the freezer. They also took Sly, whom Tossona had alleged was limping two days earlier. He said that he was going to take him because I had not called a Vet. My husband, our employee and I had found nothing wrong with Sly on the evening of October 19 after Animal Control had left. We had determined that there was no need to call a Vet, and we were certain that Tossona had been deliberately saying this to cause trouble and as an excuse to seize the horse. This ended up being true, as he was most certainly counting on us not calling a Vet, which would then give him grounds to take the horse. They also took seven cats, saying that they were all in distress.
According to Anne Zessin, an NAIA (National Animal Interest Alliance) member who was asked to obtain partial records of my case from Animal Control, these cats were then vaccinated by AC, and one subsequently died. The question raised by Anne was, if the cats were not healthy, then why were they vaccinated? It is not customary to vaccinate unhealthy cats as it can be deadly. There was also a receipt for $350 for these vaccinations, which was at my cost.
During the search of my home on the 21st, in a private conversation that occurred between Pace and my husband, Pace recommended that we take photos before the fitness hearing, in our defense. To this day I do not understand why he said this, as he was to lie in court just two days later. On this day, Animal Control told Teddy that their investigation was over.
On the 22nd, Logan Nell's article finally did come out. It was a hit piece on us, with my picture smack dab on the front page of the Hernando Times. There was also a picture of Ginger, but the caption said that the horse was an 18-year-old Paso Fino. We did indeed have a Paso, but he was a younger male gelding. In the larger picture of me, Ginger could be seen happily grazing behind me.
At the hearing on the 23rd, I asked for a continuance. I thought that I would be turning around at that point to go home, but Ms. Moore began to present evidence. Luckily, I had a briefcase full of photos and paperwork, which I had printed the evening before. This included letters from my backer to Animal Control, him to me, and to other people he was trying to get backing from. James was trying to get me under another 501(c)3, because it was quicker than to file myself. I also had around 50 photos of my property and my animals. I had financial statements from March through October. I had Vet records for all of the shots from the day that AC was there on September 25. Perhaps most incriminating of all, I had the photo of Pace, Teague, the Vet, her assistants, and us, all smiling on the afternoon of the 25th.
I tried my best to counter everything that had been said, and I began to notice that they were fabricating a story around what they had done, to justify euthanizing the horse, and to justify their extreme actions of the previous week. Liane Teague had been on vacation all that week, and all of these things happened in her absence. They needed to build a case out of lies in order to justify the many mistakes that had been made.
Suddenly, they were claiming that I had a history of non-compliance with them: that I had refused to get the free food they had offered and that I had refused to unstack the kennels in the garage repeatedly. Tassoni was the only one to ask us to do this on September 16, and by their return visit on the 25th, it had been taken care of. Where were the photos that Tossona took on the 25th? They also stated that Logan Neill had complained to them about us. I could not believe what I was hearing.
Logan Neill sat on the other side of the courtroom during all of this, staring at me as if I was a meal, and I indeed was. His photographer Will Vragovic sat next to him snapping one photo after another, as if I were a celebrity. The both of them sat with Animal Control before we went into the courtroom.
I am not an attorney, so I was confused as to what I was supposed to do. I assumed you gave the papers that prove your case to the other attorney, which is what I did, so that they could see that their client is wrong. I did give the pictures to the judge, including the one from the 25th. I also told the judge that I had the vet records for Ginger stating her true age, and I raised up the newspaper article for him to see, where Ginger could be seen grazing behind me, standing perfectly strong and on her own. If the Vet that Animal Control hired had said that Ginger could barely stand, it must have been on their watch, not mine. Somehow, I thought that all of this evidence would matter.
After about an hour of proceedings, I was given a continuance date for the following Thursday, and that was supposed to give me enough time to get an attorney. I also asked a woman who was sitting in an area next to the judge's bench if I could get a transcript of the hearing, and she said that I could pay for one afterward. I remember from my employee's first appearance just two days earlier, that when the blue icon in front of the judge was on, the session was being recorded. I did not see this light on, but I trusted his assistant knew what she was talking about.
When I returned home, I called the Vet, as I thought I did a good job presenting my evidence, and she said to me that I should have been a lawyer. I actually was proud of myself. I was controlled, organized and articulate.
I called the court house the following Monday. I couldn't find anyone who could tell me where to go and get a copy of the transcript. I didn't realize at the time that this was because there wasn't one.
Tossona and Pace stopped by to count the animals again that week. Pace even joked with my husband that they'd probably end up being friends and exchanging Christmas cards. This was not funny to Teddy. In fact, it was bizarre and somewhat Sociopathic.
I tried to find an attorney quickly who would take this kind of case. I could not find one. So, when I appeared in court the following Thursday, it was perceived that I had made the choice not to have one. I began to see that I was being railroaded (and once again repeatedly photographed), as I heard Officer Pace spout lie after lie about my supposed non-compliance. I began to see that no matter what evidence I was presenting, it was not going to change a thing. It was a done deal. Pace repeatedly lied under oath. I actually asked him if he still wanted that Christmas card, to which he bowed his head. They were now trying to say that I was starving all of my animals. Ms. Moore stated that I owed them over $5000 for almost a year-long investigation. She proposed that I be allowed to keep 10 birds. Ms. Moore even asked me if I was sure that Vicki had been feeding the horses. I replied, "Why would my employee single out two horses to starve, while the rest are fat?" She also then told me that Vicki no longer worked for me, that they had called her. I was shocked. They also presented a paper signed by the same Vet who had vaccinated the dogs and cats, requesting that the cats that had been seized be put down, that the county would not pay for treating them, that they had feline herpes, and it would cost them $100 per cat to treat. These were the same cats that had been seen by the same Vet on the 25th. I felt as if they were trying to turn everyone in my life against me.
At the end of the hearing, the judge said that he thought that I had not done anything deliberate but had merely been overwhelmed. Still, he ordered the animals to be removed from our property, all except for a few. Afterwards, Ms. Moore came up to me, after what appeared to be a negotiation with Animal Control. She said that I would be allowed to keep one of my son's ponies, my pig, two cats and two birds. She said that the rest would be sold to pay my debt to AC. I said, "Well, then I guess I will be getting back the difference." I was in total shock and it all seemed so absurd. If I was so evil, why was I being allowed to keep any of the animals? Moore said that I would be receiving some expedited documents containing the details of this deal, and I needed to sign and then return them. The animals were to be removed the following day.
Neither hearing had been recorded by a court reporter, which means that I could never prove that Animal Control had perjured themselves, and any future appeal would be impossible. How is anyone supposed to file an appeal if the original hearing is not recorded in any way, and why aren't the Plaintiffs told of this before?
That evening, a supporter of our cause called and then came over. She photographed all of the animals. Her photos are the ones that are seen on my website, www.ouranimalhaus.org. These are the only photos that I have of many of our animals.
I could not sleep. I drove over to the house at 7 AM. Teddy was already awake, or perhaps he too had not slept. The atmosphere of the house was unbelievably somber. I just did not know how to begin to say goodbye to my animals, some of whom I had cared for and loved for 12 years of my life. They were like my children. I walked silently through the kitchen, picking up one cat and moving him into then den. He was a grey and white Tabby with blue eyes named Johnny, and he would always push the swinging door from the living room to get into the kitchen and see the birds. This particular morning, like all the others, he purred at my touch as I placed him back in the living room. He would later be euthanized, and I would regret that I had not opened all the doors to the outside, letting all the cats free; they would at least have had a fighting chance.
At this point, after being treated like a criminal, I committed my only criminal act to date. I took a small Green-cheeked Conure named Froschie whom I had gotten in Nashville on my birthday in 2001, from one of the bird cages in the kitchen. I put him in a small bird carrier, and took him with me. I told my husband to tell Animal Control that he escaped from the food cup while he was feeding them, if they asked about the empty cage.
As I was driving down the driveway, I could see the horse trailers lining up outside my gate. The hit was to be at 9 AM.
Sometime later, there was a knock at my door. I opened it and saw several press people. I quickly closed the door. I could hear them talking through the door. One of them said, "Is it true that AC is taking healthy animals? If this is so, we can help you." I opened the door. There were at least three different media people there including Will Vragovic, Logan Neill's photographer. He actually told me that Mr. Neill had not made a complaint. I told my story to the camera, and the journalists seemed genuinely concerned and sympathetic, especially one man from the Huffington Post, although no article that I know of ever was published. Vragovic was peeved because my husband had asked him to leave, and he thought that I owed him the right to take pictures of what was going on since I used one of his photos as evidence in court. I had not been aware that holding up a newspaper with a photo was any kind of copyright infringement, or that I indeed owed this guy anything, but I consented and let them all go over, because they were taking healthy animals and I wanted the world to see. I actually thought that my story might make it out there, beating to the ground all of Neill's yellow journalism. In fact, the man from the Tampa Tribune said that Neill had violated journalistic ethics by complaining and interfering. One is not allowed to interfere unless there is an animal being beaten or killed.
Those photos that Vragovic took, would later appear on an animal hoarding website, complete with the house number of my mother’s home for everyone to see in one of the photos.
Later on, my husband called. I could hear the birds screaming in the background, like they were being killed. It was horrible. He said that one of the birds had gotten out, and that they were having trouble getting him back in the cage, and that Pace had said, "I don't care if we get him or not." I told him to videotape it with the phone, but he could not get it to work. The police still had my video camera.
My husband remembers hearing Officer D'Amato, who had been there counting animals on October 16, say, "This is bullshit," apparently referring to the seizure in general.
I took my mother to the bank before it closed. I had to. It was Friday, and they would be closed tomorrow. On the way back, we passed the last load of birds. They were being transported in an open horse trailer, something that I would have been arrested for doing. According to my husband, they also used a pickup truck. I was horrified.
When it was over, Animal Control had taken all of my cages, even empty ones, and all of the bird toys. They had taken all of our available kennels to transport the dogs and cats. These things would never be returned.
We eventually were to learn that all of our cats were killed. This was devastating to us. They were old, and had a right to live out the rest of their lives in peace. The older dogs were killed, we had heard; Chester for certain. We will never know for sure who else. Caesar? Buster? Box Car? Billie? We are not sure if we want to know.
The rest were adopted for a fee at a public fair and given vaccines again so that they could charge people for them. At this fair, which was advertised in the paper, we were mentioned as being the past abusive owners, and that these poor animals needed good homes as they had come from such a bad situation.
The birds, horses, the donkey and the cow were sold at an online auction. I don't know what happened to the sugar gliders and ferrets. I heard later that the prairie dog was safe. Each of the buyers of the animals online had to sign an agreement allowing random inspections, meaning that the animals could end up at Animal Control again.
Animal Control made $7000 from the online auctions alone. They had said in court that I owed them $5000 for their investigation. What happened to the rest of the money was never explained to me. I was never given the opportunity to pay this bill in some other way. They had taken it upon themselves to seize perfectly healthy animals and sell them. Along with my animals, they took expensive birdcages and dog crates, all of which was illegal. I was never presented with any paperwork about the seizures at all. The law did not matter in Hernando County.
What ultimately made me leave Florida, was the last incident, when Animal Control arrived at my mother's home for a surprise inspection in January of 2010. They were allowed to do this even though my mother had never been involved in the proceedings; her name had been on the earlier search warrants merely because her property was next door to mine, and my attorney had tried to remove her name in a lower court with no success. Because I was now living with her, she was forced to endure these visits as well, and subject her own dogs to inspections and Tossona’s relentless obsession with photographing everything.
On this day, they came with 2 sheriffs, one of whom was the one I had asked for ID back on October 16th. My husband, who was on the phone with our lawyer, let them in.; I was in the bathroom. The sheriff knocked on the door and shouted for me to come out, even though I made it clear that I had been relieving myself. When I emerged from behind the door, he said that he thought he "heard something in there" and had to inspect the entire bathroom. He said this with a smirk on his face that was completely revolting. He was enjoying what must have been some sort of sick revenge against me for demanding what had been my Constitutional right to ask him for ID back in October. This was completely humiliating.
They searched every inch of the house, even going into my mother's bedroom where she was in bed and in her pajamas, because they needed to see her cat. What is really odd looking back on these searches performed at my mother's house, is that not one time did they ever ask for proof of vaccinations for her dogs. Makes you think that their sole purpose was to harass, doesn't it?
It was on this visit, that they left a large plastic bottle with the ashes of the animals who had been murdered by them; exactly which animals, I will never know. The ashes were put inside of a bird food container, most likely the very container had been used to feed my birds after they had stolen them from me.
I examined the dusty grey contents. There were visible bone fragments in it, and what was there didn’t even fill the container to the top. All we had loved and cared for had been reduced to this brutally primitive dust, or gone to parts unknown.
In that moment, I could not imagine a tomorrow. They had taken hope from me, and had come to feed on any bit of sanity that I had left.
I locked the door behind them, and I watched through the sheer curtains as the truck and the police car disappeared down the street. Although my mind was dulled by the shock of what had just happened, I was suddenly keenly aware of the fact that I would probably never feel safe again.
Tossona made one subsequent visit where he attempted to shake my husband's hand, almost cornering him to do so. He then lay his hand on our son's head. That was it for me. After that day, I began to make arrangements for us to move out of Florida, and as far away from everyone as I could get.