Volusia County Animal Services officers served a warrant at Journey’s End Animal Sanctuary on Wednesday.
If it were up to Florence Thuot, animals that come to her sanctuary, an animal hospice, would never leave, except for necessary visits to veterinarians.
But nine cats and seven dogs were taken from Journey’s End Animal Sanctuary on Wednesday when Volusia County Animal Services officers, with assistance from the Sheriff’s Office, served a warrant.
The unexpected and, for Thuot and her supporters, unpleasant visit comes about six months after the county began looking into the nonprofit following complaints from employees and volunteers regarding conditions at the property at 1899 Mercers Fernery Road near DeLand.
Thuot, the founder and operator of the sanctuary, said it was a disgruntled former employee behind the complaint that resulted in the county’s involvement, but records show that multiple employees and volunteers over the past several months have contacted the county with concerns about living conditions that resulted from too many animals, more than 100 at least, and not enough staff.
Officials arrived at Journey’s End about 9:30 a.m. Wednesday to look for animals that Rachel Barton, the lead shelter veterinarian with Tallahassee Animal Services, recommended be taken into immediate custody, Kevin Captain, a spokesman for Volusia County, said.
[READ: November Forensic Veterinary Statement by Dr. Rachel Barton]
The process lasted into the afternoon and took Thuot and some of her supporters on an emotional roller coaster.
“Those animals are going to die,” Thuot, 92, wailed. “They don’t need to take them someplace else to get them extra care.”
[READ: Timeline of events involving Journey’s End by Volusia County]
After visiting the facility in August, Barton wrote in a forensic veterinary statement that the sanctuary had “dangerously exceeded its capacity for care, resulting in undue animal pain and suffering.”
“Staffing is inadequate to meet the basic needs of the animals each day, let alone their advanced medical needs,” Barton wrote.
When she visited the property again, this time on Nov. 12, Barton reported that not much had changed since her first visit in August.
“Volusia County Animal Services is committed to ensuring pets live good lives, receive the full protection of the law and are free from cruelty, pain or suffering,” Adam Leath, director of Animal Services, said in a news release. “We strive for positive outcomes in all our cases. The actions we took today were necessary to preserve the health and welfare of animals in crisis.”
The cats and dogs removed from the facility were taken to multiple veterinary clinics for care and extensive diagnostic and rehabilitative treatment, according to the county.
For more than 40 years, Thuot, who lives on the 5-acre property with the animals, has given a home to animals, mostly dogs and cats, that have endured abuse, neglect or have special needs.
Journey’s End is a place where, instead of being adopted, animals “can enjoy the remainder of their lives in a comfortable, loving atmosphere,” according to the organization’s website.
Thuot and her supporters say the animals, of which officers counted 127 on Wednesday, at the sanctuary receive the best care from top-of-the-line veterinarians.
While waiting just outside her property, Thuot wept and said she was worried that officials didn’t know the medical history of the animals and wouldn’t know which ones needed certain medications or treatment.
Barton and another veterinarian who visited the property last year reported concerns about medical histories and medications not being well organized or readily available.
“What we found during our investigation is that medications were often expired, improperly dispensed and inadequate,” Gary Davidson, a spokesman for Volusia County, said in an email Wednesday afternoon. “For this reason, the treating veterinarians for these animals will determine which medications are needed and properly dispense new ones.”
Teri Harty, a veterinarian at Volusia Woods Animal Clinic in Orange City, stopped by Journey’s End on Wednesday to check on Thuot after hearing the news of the warrant.
“I’ve been coming out here for several years, and I do not feel that there is overt negligence, I don’t feel there’s any animal cruelty going on,” Harty said.
Harty said any facility that has animals is going to need a lot of upkeep and cleaning on a regular basis.
Davidson said the situation was emotional for Thuot and friends of Journey’s End as well as county officials.
“They love the animals, and we do as well,” Davidson said at the scene. “And we all want the same thing, and that is the very best care for the animals that are being housed here.”
During a phone interview in December, Erin Wollett, the attorney representing the nonprofit pro bono, said the county had shown a lot of patience, but she wasn’t sure how much it had left following the forensic veterinary statement Barton wrote in November.
On Wednesday, Wollett said she was working to help Thuot find a different attorney, someone with experience on cases involving animals and nonprofits.
Much of what Barton found problematic was also described by Jennifer Green, who authored a forensic veterinary statement in July while serving as the veterinarian for Volusia County Animal Services.
Living conditions continue to be unsanitary and dangerous to animal and human health; employment law violations may still be occurring and should be further investigated; and the facility continues to have numerous violations of the Association of Shelter Veterinarians Guidelines for Standards of Care in Animal Shelters; Barton wrote in the conclusion of her report
On July 25, the county’s Animal Services Division issued an order to provide care that, among other things, stated Journey’s End needed to reduce the number of animals, particularly the cats, on the property.
Current and former staffers, volunteers and veterinarians have reported that many of the cats are healthy enough to be adopted out.
The order also noted issues with housing conditions for dogs and cats, a lack of routine veterinary inspections, health conditions not being fully managed, and a lack of appropriate vaccinations and licensing.
Barton wrote that the situation at Journey’s End is a classic example of rescue and exploitation hoarding.
“There is broad neglect of their personal health and hygiene, animal health and hygiene, accumulation of clutter and debris and general decay and disrepair of the household,” Barton wrote. “Rescue hoarders often claim they are being persecuted and will typically reject assistance from outside groups.”
By the end of the week, the Volusia County’s Attorney’s Office will file a petition for a hearing on the custody of the animals that were removed, Davidson said in a news release Wednesday afternoon.
[READ MORE: Volusia County still working with Journey’s End Animal Sanctuary following complaints on conditions]
[READ MORE: Volusia County gives Journey’s End Animal Sanctuary tentative date by which to improve]
[READ MORE: Journey’s End Animal Sanctuary complaints draw Volusia inspections, start rumors]