MANATEE -- Manatee County officials have said they never found evidence of animal cruelty or other violations at an East Manatee County animal shelter before a law enforcement raid last month, when about 300 animals were confiscated and 20 animal corpses were discovered.
But nearby residents have complained for years about animals that appeared too thin and ill, trash everywhere on the property and the overwhelming numbers of animals. A closed-door policy for years also raised community concerns. And Hillsborough County stopped sending animals there in 2009 after an inspection.
The concerns came as the county was pushing its "no-kill" effort and was heavily reliant on transferring animals to rescue organizations -- including Napier's Log Cabin Horse and Animal Sanctuary. Transfers were done with minimal requirements by state statute, and Manatee County has minimal requirements for qualifying animal rescues as eligible to take its unwanted and abandoned pets.
Records obtained by the Bradenton Herald under the Florida Sunshine law show county officials have received and responded to complaints about Napier's Log Cabin since at least 2009. Despite those complaints, Manatee County Animal Services entered into a cooperative agreement in January 2010 with Napier and then began transferring animals there in April 2010.
That was nearly a year after Hillsborough stopped sending animals to the same facility after a veterinarian complained about the condition of a puppy and a subsequent inspection uncovered inadequate conditions.
Manatee County Animal Services continued to send animals to Napier even after complaints prompted one county commissioner to urge a surprise inspection and to make sure the rescue was following the law.
In January 2011, Animal Services officials advised the shelter it would no longer schedule its inspections in advance, and would instead rely on surprise inspections, which it never completed. And the county continued to send hundreds of animals for placement at the shelter. From April 2012 until January of this year -- a period during which emails and other records show Manatee officials were aware of complaints about Napier's -- Manatee Animal Services transferred 286 dogs and cats to the facility.
On Feb. 5, the Manatee County Sheriff's Office and several other agencies, including Manatee County Animal Services, raided the Napier shelter as part of an animal cruelty and fraud investigation. No charges have been filed in the case.
Early signs of trouble
In May 2009, Hillsborough County Animal Services tried to set up an inspection at Napier's after receiving a complaint from a veterinarian about the poor condition of a puppy he had treated. A microchip in the puppy traced it back to Hillsborough Animal Services, but their records indicated they had transferred the puppy to Napier's.
"I talked to Alan several times to try and make an appointment," investigator Pamela Perry said in an interview last week, referring to Alan Napier, co-owner of the shelter. "It took three to four weeks for him to get back to us."
During phone exchanges in which Perry was trying to schedule an inspection with Napier, Perry said she made it clear the shelter would not receive more animals until Hillsborough Animal Services was able to inspect the facility.
Although out of Hillsborough County's jurisdiction, an adoption partnership agreement Napier entered in 2008 allowed county officials to investigate any complaints and inspect the facility.
Perry reached out to her counterparts in Manatee in 2009 to request information about their dealings with Napier.
"I was told they would get three to four complaints a year about them," Perry said.
On June 2, 2009, Perry spoke with Napier, who set up an inspection time for the following week.
Upon arrival on June 9, Perry and another investigator observed more than 200 animals, including more than 80 cats, 70 dogs, chickens, hogs and horses, according to an inspection report.
The report details findings that include poor sanitation, fresh shavings piled over old feces-laden shavings, strong odors of ammonia/urine and feces, excessive flies surrounding animals and food, puppies in cages with no available water and numerous dogs observed with skin issues. There were no records of veterinary care.
"Having a week to prepare for our inspection there were still numerous shelter, water, food and vet care issues, sanitation issues, matting on small dogs, hair-loss and a general lack of husbandry," Perry stated in the 2009 report.
Napier was immediately told that Hillsborough would no longer send animals to his rescue. She had seen enough, Perry recalled last week.
"He was appalled and wanted to know why not," Perry said. "He had plenty of time to get ready for us, and if he thought that was ready, it wasn't. It was still not fit conditions."
In October 2009, Hillsborough shared its investigation report with Manatee County Animal Services, and included photos taken during the inspection, according to emails obtained by the Herald.
In an email to then-Manatee Public Safety Director Bill Hutchinson, Manatee Animal Services Chief Kris Weiskopf asked him to review the photos Hillsborough provided.
"While this inspection was done in June, it still becomes an issue as to how we want to proceed," Weiskopf wrote. "My understanding was that it took quite a while for them to get an 'appointment' from Alan Napier to look at the property."
County Commissioner Carol Whitmore, who spearheaded the county's no-kill efforts, was also forwarded the report and photos, according to email records. On Oct. 28, 2009, she emailed Weiskopf to say she could not open the photos. Weiskopf, who was out sick, offered to courier the report and photos over to her when he returned.
"Get better, this can all wait," Whitmore replied.
On Jan. 6, 2010, Animal Services Enforcement Supervisor Joel Richmond and Weiskopf conducted an inspection of Napier's rescue, records show. They found all the animals in good conditions, according to their notes. They observed fresh and clean water and wholesome food as well as kennels and runs to be compliant. The Napiers also presented them with records and veterinarian statements for all the animals at the sanctuary, they wrote.
Despite Hillsborough's findings, continuous complaints and their exchanges about Napier acknowledging that there were problems, Manatee County Animal Services officials entered into an open-ended agreement on Jan. 29, 2010 to transfer animals to Napier, documents show.
Standards of care
Ron Koper, who became the county's public safety director two years ago, noted Animal Services followed up on Hillsborough's findings.
"Four months later, we took their findings and told Napier we needed to come out," Koper said. "I'm not sure what Hillsborough saw out there, but what we saw was not the same thing."
The time lapse could have allowed the Napiers to correct deficiencies that had been found by Hillsborough, he said.
"I don't know if it was the same, better or worse," Koper said. "But at the time, it didn't violate the statute or ordinance."
State statutes say animals in confinement must be provided with "a sufficient quantity of good and wholesome food and water" and "wholesome exercise and change of air."
"It doesn't get specific to what that means," Koper said. "So if you go out and visit the animals and they have food, water and shelter, then you have to use judgement."
Officers are also faced with deciding what the conditions of the animals were when they were transferred to the rescue and what care and preventive measures are being taken, he said.
"It's difficult when to detect neglect when you can't spot-check," Koper said.
Manatee County transfers
State statutes required only that an animal rescue is an approved nonprofit for the county to contract with them, Manatee shelter manager Nikki Bentley said. When Animal Services contracted with Napier, the county required the animal rescue to enter into a cooperative agreement.
The agreement stipulates that the animal rescue upon selection of an animal is responsible for the care, handling and ultimate release for sale or adoption of the animals. That includes following the county ordinance that dictates an animal must be sterilized and vaccinated.
On April 21, 2010, Napier began taking in county animals, receiving a total of 54 cats and dogs by the end of the year.
Koper said that since Manatee County never found any violations, it had no reason not to enter into an agreement with them.
"A complaint about someone that is investigated and unfounded doesn't count against them," Koper said.
There were contributing factors that could have led to animal services giving the facility the benefit of the doubt, he said.
"We have a pet over-population problem," Koper said. "We have identified a goal to be a no-kill county."
That goal of adopting out at least 90 percent of every animal abandoned at the shelter resulted in an aggressive effort to get animals out, he said.
"Different rescue groups take that to different degrees, and people, too," Koper said.
As a result, the department has seen many hoarding situations, where good intentions end badly when people become overwhelmed, he said.
"Not to say there is any excuse for what Napier has done, but that is possible," Koper said.
Red flags fly
Records reveal how officials responded to the complaints that continued to come in over the years. While Koper said there were times that transfers were temporarily halted while complaints were investigated, they were always quickly resumed.
On July 13, 2010, Richmond received a complaint from a woman who had gone to Napier to adopt a dog and was concerned about the well-being of all the animals there. Alan Napier let her in the gate but not further into the facility. The dog she had expressed interest in over the phone was in a cage on a picnic table out front.
"It wasn't the staging areas that really got me upset, it was that the dog had a severe skin disorder on his entire body, feet and ears," she wrote. "Allen (sic) told me that they had a bad outbreak of fleas. Through my experience, I know it was not a flea infestation. He would not let us see the other animals."
The adoption rate of $455 also surprised the woman, who left unhappy and without the dog.
Richmond forwarded her complaint to Weiskopf with a note: "Just another example of a Napier complaint."
Complaints came from other rescues as well.
A Sept. 7, 2012 email to Richmond from Karen Mayer, director of operations at Nate's Honor Animal Rescue, complained about receiving another animal in poor condition from Napier. The puppy was anemic, covered in fleas and underweight.
"I know you are trying very hard, and I will call the state and file a complaint as you suggested. But I have to say that I am disappointed that the county still transfers animals out to him," Mayer wrote. "You told me yourself he knows how to work around the system, and transferring animals to him is condoning his behavior and treatment of these animals."
Two weeks later, on Sept. 21, 2012, Animal Services investigated and determined the complaint was unfounded. Problems cited in the county's reports were two dogs with green mucus in their eyes, a 20-year-old horse that was too thin and six cats that were quarantined for upper respiratory illnesses.
In the week that followed that inspection, Napier received 13 more animals from Manatee Animal Services.
On June 20, 2013, Whitmore responded to an email with documents she had requested about Napier from Richmond.
"He is constant in the complaints ... Are we ok with this?" Whitmore asked.
Richmond replied, "If you look at the number of animals he has and moves, the number of complaints are very small comparatively," Richmond wrote. "Most of the complaints we receive are not valid and are second-hand from people who have no witness or testimony."
He then assured her they would continue to respond to complaints.
On July 22, 2013, Whitmore emailed Richmond again.
"This guy is about done!! I am so sick of getting serious complaints about his treatment of animals," she wrote. "Can someone go to his place on a cold call and if he is breaking any of our laws, can we do something?"
Between July 25 and July 27 however, Napier received another 10 dogs from Manatee County.
Officials blame statutes
Manatee County's animal services officials said that despite the many complaints leading up to the raid, state statute and county ordinances limit their oversight of animal rescues such as Napier.
"I think we were limited by the vagueness of the statute and the ordinance of how a sanctuary is required to maintain its property," Koper said.
There is nothing that requires the county to transfer animals to all rescues. The county approves which rescues it contracts with.
The law does not specify how many animals a rescue can have in general or the ratio of employees and volunteers to animals within the shelter. It also does not specify adoption fees for rescues or mandate the proper level of veterinary care.
"That in a way did restrict our hands," Koper said.
Complaints were generally about a specific animal, he said. When animal services did inspections, they would find only minor deficiencies that would be corrected on the spot or soon thereafter, he said.
"We needed a mechanism to do a spot inspection without a warning," Koper said. "And the only way to do that was with a warrant. And to do that, law enforcement needs to go to a judge with probable cause. A complaint is not probable cause."
Ultimately, though, the complaints proved founded.
"Finally, when we were able to get a warrant, we were able to find what we suspected for quite a bit of time," Koper said.
Whitmore said no one ever came to her to say that changes needed to be made to county policy.
"I set policy, I don't run any departments," Whitmore said.
Now she is awaiting the results of an internal audit of Animals Services by the Manatee County Clerk and Comptroller.
"I am not sure with this investigation and internal audit what will be found, but if there are changes that need to be made, they need to be made and administration will make sure it's made," Whitmore said.
Jessica De Leon, Herald law enforcement reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7049. You can follow her on Twitter @JDeLeon1012.