|Once Bitten, Twice Shy
A version of this story -- edited for length -- was published in Las Vegas CityLife on May 22, 2008. Below is the original unedited version.
The people who eventually came to the aid of the FLOCK cats referred to the worst of them — which were little more than skin and bones — as “pancakes.” There were 748 cats in all when Nye County Animal Control seized control of a Pahrump rescue sanctuary last July. The facility was owned and operated by FLOCK (For the Love of Cats and Kittens), a non-profit organization based in Las Vegas. Operation of the sanctuary was immediately handed over to Best Friends Animal Society.
Although stories differ about how operations at the FLOCK sanctuary came so completely off the rails, there is general agreement about the resulting conditions. Many of the cats — like the facility itself — were filthy. Most of them were starving and dehydrated, their only activity limited to finding what little shade was available.
Because the cats were allowed to mix freely, many of them (the exact number is unclear) were sick. Some — the fortunate ones — had only mild respiratory infections, while others were on death's doorstep (in fact, 79 of the cats died on their own or had to be euthanized). “One hundred percent of the cats were in bad shape,” says Sherry Woodard, Animal Behavior Consultant for Best Friends. “I mean, even the cats that seemed to be new arrivals — that looked like they were OK — they [had] all been exposed to contagious diseases and sickness.” Henry Brean, of the Review-Journal , described the FLOCK facility as a “shelter-turned-death-camp.”
FLOCK's former president, Sharon “Sheri” Lee Allen, is now facing 13 misdemeanor charges related to animal cruelty and neglect for 125 animals (117 of them cats) seized from her residence (in April, Allen pleaded not guilty). To date, however, nobody has been charged for what happened to the FLOCK cats.
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Despite last year's meltdown, FLOCK is still around — with a new board of directors (made up of long-time FLOCK associates), and a renewed sense of purpose. These days, they are trying to rebuild both the organization and its reputation. And at least one board member — current FLOCK president Maggie Ward — is admitting to the organization's failures. “It's true the cats were badly abandoned,” she says, “and we all have to accept responsibility for that, because we should have done a better job than what we did.”
The bulk of the blame, however, is being placed on Allen. “It wasn't our fault,” says FLOCK founder Sylvia Renee Lyss. “We had faith in the person that was running the place, and we were wrong. We made a big error in asking her to take over — that was where our fault lay.” Ward, too, points to Allen as the source of the troubles at the sanctuary. But, says Ward, “none of this was deliberate. I think she had to have had a breakdown, because how could a woman be so loving to so many animals for so many years, and then let this happen?”
Allen says that she's been made the “fall guy” for one simple reason. “There's me, and then there's the group [FLOCK's new board] that came in May 30th.” she says. “So, if they're not at fault, I have to be, don't I?”
According to some accounts, Allen had simply taken over the FLOCK sanctuary, changing the locks weekly to keep all but a few people out. “She wouldn't allow any of us to come into the sanctuary,” says Ward. “She wouldn't allow the volunteers — our volunteers — to come in. She got rid of pretty much everybody that was in FLOCK.” Allen denies this, noting that the locks were changed just once — shortly after the facility was opened — following the dismissal of two employees who didn't work out. Any access problems were simply a matter of the harsh desert climate. “There's a lot of dust out here,” says Allen, “and the doors would be hard to open.”
When she agreed to run the FLOCK facility, Allen thought she'd be caring for about 300 cats at the Pahrump sanctuary, not 800. As a result, she was “one hundred percent overwhelmed,” says Allen. “I got very little help from the organization, and I had 800 cats that they made me responsible for. So you spend the time, and spend the money, and do the best you can to make them comfortable and happy.” In fact, Allen says she spent $20,000 of her own money on the cats and the FLOCK facility.
As for the conditions of the cats, Allen says they were in good shape when she left the sanctuary on the 28th of May (Allen says she resigned, while the FLOCK board says she was forced out). According to Allen, it was when the board took over that things deteriorated. “The day they came in — this I know for a fact — they opened the doors and let everybody back out,” says Allen. “[They] chased all the cats back out into the open field — [cats] that we had spent months trying to sort and get put in a proper environment.”
Allen is quick to point out that Animal Control was at the FLOCK facility in April, and then again in early June. If conditions were as bad as people are claiming, she asks, then why didn't Animal Control take action? “No citations — nothing was issued against anyone at that point in time,” says Allen. “But July 13th it was in such bad shape that they shut it down? Doesn't that kind of raise some questions?”
So far, nobody from Nye County Animal Control is willing to answer those questions. Neither Brent Jones (Director) nor Tim McCarty (Supervisor) has been willing to comment on the specifics of the FLOCK case, noting that the investigation is still underway.
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FLOCK was established in the early 1990s, with a sanctuary in Sloan, about 12 miles south of Las Vegas. “All the organizations used to bring their feral cats to us,” says Lyss. “We were a feral cat sanctuary. Feral cats have nowhere to go — nobody wants a feral cat. And so we took them all in.”
In 2006, FLOCK relocated its sanctuary (including, according to some reports, more than 800 cats) to Pahrump, onto a two-and-a-half acre plot of land outside of town. It was part of an arrangement with Allen, their newly elected president, who agreed to take the job only if the sanctuary were closer to her home and business, both located in Pahrump. It also got them out of neighboring Clark County, where there are tighter restrictions on the number of cats they could keep.
Today, the FLOCK mission remains largely unchanged. “We just went on doing what we do,” says FLOCK secretary Pat Snell, “and figured that that was the best way to prove that we are who we say we are — and we're proud of who we are, and we're proud of what we do.” Ward concurs. “We have a lot of people that have known us for many years,” she says, “and they know what happened at the sanctuary was not a FLOCK thing. And there are others who are never going to believe us, and we don't bother trying to convince them… We don't have the energy to try — we're all involved with the cats.”
In addition to FLOCK's involvement with adoptions, spay/neuter programs, and feeding stations for feral cats, they have recently begun, says Ward, “to pay for some of the vet bills for the feral cats, which no other organization is doing. You know, there are cats found out in the street with their eyes falling out, or a broken leg — when we find them, we take them to the vet [and] we pay for it.”
FLOCK, a registered 501(c)3 non-profit, can undertake such work because they've retained substantial support from their network of private donors and others in the community. Indeed, a Las Vegas PetSmart store serves as FLOCK's adoption center. According to Dave Vale, PetSmart's District Manager for the Las Vegas stores, this is an ongoing arrangement that's been in place for about eight years now. Adoptions were interrupted only briefly during last year's crisis,” says Vale, “just to be on the safe side, until we understood what was going on with FLOCK.”
In the end, Snell says, despite all the bad press, FLOCK “did not lose very many [newsletter] subscribers, volunteers, or donors.”
So FLOCK has a new board of directors and the continued backing of its supporters. What they don't have is a sanctuary, where FLOCK can house cats (they currently rely on their volunteers to foster cats in their own homes). “Sanctuaries are out from now on,” says Lyss. “We will never open a sanctuary again — at least not in my lifetime… We're going to do anything we can for the animals, without having a sanctuary.”
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The future of FLOCK is not entirely up to its board and network of supporters, however. In the wake of recent events, the organization has, not surprisingly, attracted lots of criticism — much (though not all) of it from Best Friends, which took more than seven months to clean up after FLOCK.
Best Friends, based in Kanab, Utah (where they run the nation's largest no-kill animal sanctuary), was first made aware of the deteriorating conditions at FLOCK's sanctuary in early June. On July 13, following an intensive four-day assessment, and negotiations with Nye County Animal Control, they took over operations of the facility. At the time (a month-and-a-half after Allen was out of the picture), FLOCK was still struggling to pull their sanctuary out of its tailspin — raising questions about their ability to run the operation (and, on a more fundamental level, the viability of any feral cat sanctuary).
Ward states that FLOCK spent around $18,000 (mostly on vets) during that period. But 18 grand doesn't go very far when you've got more than 700 cats in desperate need of care. And according to Woodard, FLOCK's approach was ineffective and wrongheaded. “They weren't treating the easiest, most treatable of problems with the cats,” says Woodard. “They weren't even getting rid of the flies.”
By comparison, Russ Mead, general counsel for Best Friends, estimates his organization has spent about $600,000 on what's been dubbed “The Great Kitty Rescue” (which included the cats from Allen's home in addition to the FLOCK cats). And the meter's still running. More than 600 of the Pahrump cats have been adopted or are currently in foster homes, awaiting adoption. Approximately 250 more are still at Best Friends' “Rescue Village” in Kanab.
For Mead, though, this story isn't about money, but justice. Or at least it ought to be. Last September, USA Today reported that Nye County District Attorney Bob Becket's office promised to prosecute “to the fullest extent” if they found that crimes had been committed. And yet, nearly a year after the collapse of the FLOCK facility, no charges have been filed (other than those connected to Allen's own animals).
“ It really upsets us that for the biggest cat-hoarding case in the nation,” says Mead, “with photographs of maggots crawling out of eyes of live cats — that nobody's been charged with cruelty yet.” (Bob Becket's office did not return repeated requests to be interviewed for this story.)
According to Mead, this is a textbook case of institutional hoarding. Unlike “crazy cat ladies,” institutional hoarders are able to leverage the name and reputation (and funding) of an organization in order to acquire more animals. This might involve the active involvement of several members, or the actions largely of a single member, carried out in the absence of adequate oversight (in the case of FLOCK, it comes down to whose story you believe).
In either case, the results are disastrous. “In the name of saving animals,” says Mead, “actually, a greater number of animals are being harmed by these institutions.” And recidivism rates for animal hoarding behavior are nearly 100 percent. “They will do it again,” says Woodard. “There is no doubt. They will continue… They don't see how wrong, how criminal, what they're doing is.”
Allen challenges the idea that what happened at FLOCK was hoarding, asking, “Would a hoarder adopt out? Would a hoarder spend money on vet bills?” Ward, too, dislikes the label, but is more circumspect. “That may be the word,” says Ward, “or maybe it's just the fact that it's so hard to say no. There's just so many cats, with so many problems, and it's very hard to say no. What are you going to do?”
Because this case has the potential to serve as a precedent in terms of national animal welfare law, Mead is leaning heavily on Becket's office. If nothing is done soon (misdemeanors have a one-year statute of limitations), though, it will be a missed opportunity. And if this case — documented in excruciating detail — can't be prosecuted, Mead and others are left wondering which cases can be.
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Regardless of the legal outcome, FLOCK seems more committed than ever to the street cats they love. And they clearly miss having a facility for them. “There's no place, now, to take the cats who have aids and leukemia, and the ones who need lifetime medication,” says Ward. “There's no sanctuary to take them [to] anymore.”
Mead sees things differently. “If I had a cat — and I've got one of the Pahrump cats,” he says, “I would rather see that cat back on the streets of Vegas, looking for food in dumpsters, than be where they were at FLOCK.”