Unsettling board review of Manatee County Animal Services in cruelty scandal

May 18, 2014 

The Manatee County Animal Services Advisory Board came to a troubling conclusion about Manatee County Animal Services, disclosing publicly last week that the board had not been informed about the squalid conditions at Napier's Log Cabin Horse and Animal Sanctuary and indeed were misled by officials.

An anonymous complaint -- not one from Manatee County Animal Services -- launched an investigation on Dec. 9. Two months later, the Manatee County Sheriff's Office led a multi-agency law enforcement raid on the East Manatee facility, rescuing more than 300 animals from horrible conditions.

The owners of the closed-door East Manatee farm, Alan and Sheree Napier, both face animal cruelty charges with additional charges pending.

At Wednesday's advisory board meeting, Jean Peelen read some disconcerting statements from the panel's letter to county commissioners. The most damaging: "We base our recommendations largely on information provided to us by Animal Services. Unfortunately, regarding Napier's refuge, the information that we got from Animal Services was far from reliable. It was misleading."

Last month, county commissioners reaffirmed the support for Manatee's No Kill policy adopted in 2011. This Editorial Board has been a strong proponent for the program, the first of its kind in Florida.

Animal Services transfers dogs, cats and other animals out of the county shelter to rescue organizations to prevent euthanasia and get pets back into the community.

As of last month, the save rate stood at 93 percent, above the national No Kill movement's goal of 90 percent. When commissioners joined the movement, the live release rate was only 61 percent in Manatee.

But the Napier scandal prompts a fundamental question: Is Manatee County overzealous in pursuit of No Kill's high animal release and adoption rate?

And is that why Animal Services continued to release animals to the Napiers after three years of citizen complaints? How could county inspections only found "minor violations" unworthy of citations?

Just a month before the anonymous complaint prompted law enforcement action, county officials reassured the Animal Services Advisory Board. "We were told as recently as November 2013 that Napier was borderline, but OK," the panel's letter reads.

The disturbing and inhumane conditions found there during the raid could not have developed so quickly.

Furthermore, "Quite a number of people onsite with the raid have said that no one could have walked 10 feet onto the property without smelling the horrible smell of decay, sickness and animal waste," Peelen read from the letter.

All this casts a very poor light on Animal Services.

Within a few days of the February raid, the county administration pledged to conduct an internal audit to evaluate the performance of Animal Services in dealing with the animal cruelty complaints lodged against the Napiers. That audit was suspended a few weeks ago at the request of the MCSO while the office conducts its investigation into the Napier case.

Regardless, county policies on Animal Services must be tightened to prevent lax oversight of private rescue organizations that accept county shelter animals. Plus, detailed inspection reports with images should be available to the advisory board and the public. The agency must be held accountable.

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