The 16 cats and dogs seized from an animal sanctuary near DeLand last week are continuing to receive veterinary care, according to county officials.
The animals — nine cats and seven dogs — were removed from Journey’s End Animal Sanctuary, on Mercers Fernery Road north of DeLand, during the execution of a search warrant Jan. 15.
The warrant gave county officials the authority to remove animals that were deemed to be in need of immediate medical care.
“The good news is that none of the animals are in need of euthanasia at this time. As we’ve previously said, we’re hopeful that some of the 16 animals will be able to be adopted out after they finish receiving the medical care that they need,” county spokesman Gary Davidson said. “But we won’t know for sure until the course of treatment is completed.”
The cats, according to county officials, were “infested with ear mites and fleas, and have numerous infections.” Paralyzed animals seized had infected pressure sores and urinary-tract infections, showing neglect, according to the county.
Journey’s End, which has been in operation since 1974 as a home for unadoptable animals, such as those with chronic health conditions, began attracting county scrutiny last summer.
Officials have said the sanctuary has exceeded its capacity to care for animals, resulting in some not getting the care they needed.
Florence Thuot, the sanctuary’s founder, who is now 92, said the county’s claim couldn’t be further from the truth. She said she worried about the fate of the animals that were moved elsewhere, many of whom require specialty care.
“They’re in an unknown place right now, and some are very fragile,” she said.
She has long denied that Journey’s End neglects animals, or that the sanctuary has a hoarding problem.
“None of the animals need immediate medical care,” Thuot said. “We have specialist veterinarians who are up in arms, because [the animals] are 24/7 taken care of.”
If there were truly widespread problems at the frequently visited sanctuary, someone would have taken notice long before now, Thuot noted.
“Most of this stuff would have been noticed by the veterinarians that come in and out of here, or the public that walk through all the time here,” Thuot said.
Volusia County officials said they did notice. Animal Services officials visited the sanctuary July 5, and noted that several animals “were observed to have untreated/improperly managed medical conditions,” according to the search warrant.
County officials also noted “excessive feces and urine” in animal housing areas, and identified 10 animals in particular to be “in immediate need” of veterinary care.
An Animal Services officer returned to Journey’s End July 27 to check on the animals.
Thuot told the officer that some of the animals had been taken to a veterinarian. According to the search warrant, she had not provided care to two of the animals, however.
“Thuot became combative when questioned about the status of these animals, and called the Volusia County Sheriff’s Office to respond and remove Volusia County Animal Services from the property,” the warrant reads in part.
The sanctuary was inspected Aug. 5 by Dr. Rachel Barton of Tallahassee Animal Services, at the county’s request.
Barton’s forensic veterinary report detailed several instances where animals were not receiving the care they needed, and it noted that there was insufficient staff to deal with the number of animals on the property.
Barton also found that some of the animals were young and adoptable.
The search warrant also said Animal Services officers received six affidavits from former employees or volunteers at the sanctuary, detailing unsanitary conditions and insufficient care provided to the animals.
One employee reported finding a dead cat in the air-conditioning system in the sanctuary’s cat house.
Thuot acknowledged that, occasionally, due to the mostly older and often ill condition of the animals, an animal is found deceased in the morning at the sanctuary.
“We had a cat who had gotten through a hole and caught in the ceiling and [became] deceased,” she said.
Another affidavit came from a volunteer who brought a cat to the sanctuary “for lifelong care.”
“[The volunteer] informed Florence Thuot that the cat needed thyroid medication, and provided the medication to Thuot. When [the volunteer] went to [Journey’s End] two weeks after ‘Oreo’ was brought to the sanctuary, she found the cat motionless behind a toilet inside the house,” the search warrant reads. “[The volunteer] brought her concerns to sanctuary staff and was told that the cat had not received any medication since it was brought to the property.”
Thuot later told the volunteer the cat had been euthanized, according to the affidavit.
“None of that’s true,” Thuot said.
Barton, the Tallahassee veterinarian, inspected the property again Nov. 12, and found that Journey’s End had “dangerously exceeded its capacity for care, resulting in undue animal pain and suffering.”
Her 56-page report said Journey’s End lacked written procedures for sanitation and record-keeping, and noted a high incidence of upper-respiratory disease and diarrhea in the cats living on-site.
The report also said the group’s reluctance to perform euthanasia when necessary resulted in unnecessary pain and suffering for the animals. Thuot said that the group follows the recommendations of its veterinarians when it comes to whether an animal can be given a chance to live or not.
One dog that was present during Barton’s visit in August was no longer there in November. The dog had a cancerous mass on her spleen.
“Staff had indicated the primary plan was to wait until her splenic mass ruptured open and she bled to death,” Barton wrote in the report. “On this visit, when I asked about the dog, the staff indicated they were not sure what happened to the dog, but they thought she had died within the last few months. I asked if she was euthanized or died on her own; staff indicated she was not euthanized.”
Barton added, “Allowing an animal to die by bleeding to death is inhumane. By their inactions, this dog suffered unnecessarily.”
Thuot disputed that account, and said the dog actually had had his spleen removed.
“He had a fast-growing mass on his spleen. This is common on older dogs, and our vet opted to remove the spleen immediately,” she said. “It was either euthanize him or remove the spleen and give him a chance.”
The dog, Topps, died a couple of weeks later in his sleep, likely as a result of the operation to remove his spleen, Thuot said.
The forensic veterinary report noted some improvements in cleanliness between Barton’s August visit and her November visit, but it said conditions were still not good.
“Although there has been an attempt to reduce the visible clutter, the conditions are still cluttered, filthy and indoor air-quality is poor with multiple areas having unacceptable levels of ammonia detectable in the air,” Barton wrote.
Volusia County Animal Services officers counted a total of 127 animals at the facility Jan. 15, including the 16 that were removed.
Thuot said the scrutiny on Journey’s End has come as a result of complaints from disgruntled former employees or volunteers who have been let go.
She said all the animals at Journey’s End with various afflictions receive the specialty care they need, disputing county officials’ accusations of inadequate care.
“Because of this, donations have risen,” Thuot said. “The public is fully supporting us.”
As a result of the recent actions, she said a group of people are planning to renovate some areas of the sanctuary.
A Facebook group formed in the wake of the search-warrant execution, called Saving Journey’s End Animal Sanctuary, now has nearly 300 members.
A hearing will be scheduled within 30 days to determine the ultimate fate of the removed animals, as required by Florida law. Thuot said Journey’s End is determined to fight to get the animals back.
County spokesman Davidson said he recognized how emotional the situation was for Thuot, but said the action taken was in the best interests of the animals.
“We realize that this is a really emotional issue for Florence. It’s emotional for us as well,” he said. “They love the animals, and we do as well. We all want the same thing, and that is the very best care for the animals that are being housed here.”
Davidson denied that county officials were seeking to shut down the sanctuary.
“The county has been engaging Journey’s End and their attorney for the last six months and providing them with suggestions and recommendations on what they can do to improve their operations,” he said. “And we will continue with those efforts going forward.”