Manatee County's internal investigation of Animal Services temporarily halted

jdeleon@bradenton.comMay 17, 2014 

The entrance to Napier's Log Cabin Horse Animal Sanctuary. The owners of the East Manatee animal sanctuary were arrested Thursday on several animal cruelty charges. AMARIS CASTILLO/Bradenton Herald

MANATEE -- A county internal investigation of Manatee County Animal Services and its handling of an East Manatee shelter whose owners are suspected of animal cruelty and fraud has been temporarily suspended until a criminal investigation is complete.

Napier's Log Cabin Horse and Animal Sanctuary was raided by a multi-agency effort led by the Manatee County Sheriff's Office on Feb. 5. About 300 animals were seized after being found in deplorable conditions.

Animal Services was aware of the internal investigation into its involvement and that it had been suspended, according to Ron Koper, director of the Department of Public Safety, which includes Animal Services.

The clerk's office has contacted his department since the raid to request documents and ask questions, Koper said.

But some "soft" changes have already begun at Animal Services.

These changes include stricter follow-ups with animal rescues that transfer animals out of the county shelter.

"Post-Napier has become: Do we get more strict, to be a regulatory agency to those partners we work with?" Koper said. "We are going to be quicker to suspend their privileges."

Previously, the department just took it on faith that the animal rescues were properly caring for animals they received from the county, he said.

On April 17, owners Alan and Sheree Napier were arrested. Alan Napier was charged with 15 counts of animal cruelty and one count of fraud. Sheree Napier was charged with 14 counts of animal cruelty.

The week after the raid, county officials announced that county Clerk of Court R.B. "Chips" Shore would conduct an audit to evaluate how Manatee County Animal Services employees dealt with those who operated Napier and how complaints were handled.

"We talked to the sheriff office's attorney, Michelle Hall, and she said she would let us know as soon as they are done in there," Shore said. "We are ready, able."

Documents obtained by the Bradenton Herald reveal that as far back as 2009, Animal Services had received complaints about conditions at Napier's. Despite this, however, Animal Services officials have maintained they never found any significant problems during their inspections of the facility and continued sending animals there.

On Thursday, the county commission received a letter from the Animal Services Advisory Board stating it felt Animal Services had misled the board about Napier's.

"Had we known anything about the absolutely disgusting conditions, we would have advised you that there were serious substantive and procedural issues within Animal Services regarding releasing animals to a facility they were aware had complaints against it and that neighboring counties had barred from taking animals," the letter stated. "Instead, we heard that Napier's was OK to be receiving animals."

As of Friday, the letter was not yet scheduled to be discussed by commissioners, county spokesman Nick Azzara said.

The clerk's investigation began in February, but at the time the clerk's office said it did not realize a criminal investigation was under way. There was no communication between the departments, according to Shore.

Once the clerk's office realized there was a criminal investigation, auditors decided they needed that to be complete before continuing the internal probe.

"This isn't the first time this has happened," Shore said.

The sheriff's office investigation is still ongoing, and no new information is being released at this time, according to spokesman Dave Bristow.

On Thursday, shelter manager Nicki Bentley sent a newly revised copy of the rescue partnership agreement along with other revised documents to local rescue organizations.

"We are launching a new rescue partner program in hopes to help better serve and protect the animals of Manatee County," Bentley said. "We feel we have outgrown the old transfer agreement and have decided to put into place some new procedures and revamp the rescue program."

Bentley also added that the transition to the new system would begin immediately and be completed by July 1.

The new agreement included a clause that infuriated many in the animal community.

"Rescue Partner agrees that they and their representatives will refrain from negative comments or posts on any online or social media platforms regarding MCAS, MCAS Staff, volunteers, operations, or animals," the agreement states.

On Friday morning, Animal Services chief Kris Weiskopf sent out an email clarifying the intention of the initial email after some rescue organizations apparently became outraged and threatened to stop taking animals from the county shelter.

"The intent of the email and subsequent attachments was to gather input from each of the rescue organizations, requesting feedback and comments prior to sending a final plan to our County Attorney for final review," Weiskopf wrote. "While we would like to fast track this in order to get the new process in place as soon as possible, we want to afford time for you to provide input."

Karen Slomba, associate director at Nate's Honor Animal Rescue, had a different take on the draft agreement.

"In one respect it's great that Animal Services is paying better attention to the rescue organizations that they are working with," Slomba said. "In the other respect, they need to be careful that they don't make it too difficult for the well-respected organizations to have to jump through too many hoops to help save animals."

Slomba said she didn't see the new agreement as a threat.

"To me, what I hear is, 'Everybody let's play nice in the sand box,' " Slomba said. "And to be fair, I don't think anybody should be bashing each other."

The department is still awaiting more direction from county officials to make additional changes, Koper said.

"What's really an issue here is how regulatory does the board desire us to be?" Koper said. "How regulatory of an agency does the community want us to be?"

The department's role is to act as animal control, he said.

"There is not state statue or ordinance that directs us to regulate other animal welfare organizations," Koper said. "We don't have a direction or a vision to regulate anyone out there with a pet."

Jessica De Leon, Herald law enforcement reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7049. You can follow her on Twitter @JDeLeon1012.

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