SPCA Ordeal

Keeping Motivational Messages Alive
Keeping Motivational Messages Alive

I sat down yesterday night at sunset, eager to write this post but not knowing where to begin or whether it would be read or of any use.

I was surprised to hear one of my little Poicephalus shrieking furiously. Something was badly wrong, and I knew it. I dashed outside to see a hawk flattened against the side of one of my flying cages, with a mirror image of a little red-bellied squashed against the cage wall. The wire on the cages is simply 12 “x 1” wire, and the cages are barely six inches apart. The hawk managed to fit between the cages and the divider and take my young male red-bellied. I swiftly frightened the hawk away and yanked my little red-bellied out of his flying cage. I observed no blood anywhere, and he just favoring one leg a little, so I believe he’ll be OK, just a little terrified………..well, a lot scared. He is presently in a holding cage in the home, under my close supervision.

I returned to the computer with tears flowing down my cheeks, wondering whether it was all worth it.

There are so many things to be concerned about as breeders. Birds growing unwell, spending several hours a day cleaning cages and feeding the flock, the public’s idea that we are factory farms, while in truth, we are fortunate to have breeding and healthy birds. We don’t go on vacation with our loved ones since we can’t get good staff to look after our flock while we’re gone. We are concerned about theft and never leave the property at night. Working on the Florida theft committee with Jan Schotenlore and Linda Meade for three years taught me a lot and taught me what to be scared of.

If we didn’t care so much about our birds, I’m sure a lot of breeders would give up.

Thieves are well-versed in their trade. I haven’t gone to bed until 2 or 3 a.m. for many years, and then my spouse wakes up and patrols the land until daybreak. We once had two males climb over our back fence using burlap sacks in order to take some of our birds. So the diligence pays off.

I was furious when I rescued my tiny red-bellied from the clutches of the hawk.

We went through so much. We are assessed by every group of animal persons, beginning with rescue organizations, pet owners, bird behavior experts, anti-breeding groups, and pet “overpopulation” groups – and then there was the September 10th experience. Many expert breeders and aviculturists have recently gone through this trauma together, which is why I wrote this post.

The ordeal I’m referring to was an injustice perpetrated by a new breed of “thieves” – “thieves” who do their dirty work under the guise of “legal authority” – “thieves” who use the “letter of the law” against innocent and law-abiding animal breeders – “thieves” who can steal our animals from us even when we’re not doing anything wrong. Those “thieves” are officials in law enforcement and animal shelters who believe in the “animal rights” ideology and religion – individuals who do not believe in breeding animals for sale as pets. Religious fundamentalist terrorists are described as “evil doers” by President Bush. We now have to deal with a new kind of fundamentalist terrorist “evil doer” – “animal rights evil doers” who steal our animals from us because their “animal rights” religion tells them they must, by whatever means necessary.

While a breeder was visiting a bird expo for the weekend on September 10th, a bunch of terrorist evil-doers broke into her house and removed roughly 35 pairs of her breeding cockatiels, predominantly display cockatiels, as well as a few other species and her companion birds. The total number of birds eliminated was about 100. Cage trays were removed and deposited on the floor; cages were flipped on their sides, and nest boxes with recently born chicks and viable eggs were placed inside. The cages were then hurriedly loaded onto waiting vehicles. Naturally, the chicks were suffocated and perished, as did the eggs and embryos. The terrorists said they were assured they could relocate breeding pairs without damaging or disturbing the birds. I’m curious who told them that. The bad guys seized all the animals on the farm and brought them to a warehouse to hide their treasure.

On December 16, little over three months later, the birds were recovered from the holding facility by their owner. Many of the birds were noticeably leaner than when they were captured. Because to the overcrowding, many were plucked and frayed. Some of the birds were even kept in cages that were too tiny for the species and were not as clean as they should have been. While in the evil doers’ captivity, birds, especially breeding birds, had their bands removed. We experienced this situation again and time while working on the theft committee for three years.

Who are the terrorists in this story? Pinellas County SPCA in Florida! Worse, the animal removal was carried out under the supervision of the local sheriff’s department.

As the narrative progresses, a displeased neighbor complained to the sheriff about noisy dogs. The sheriff entered the residence via a rear door she said was left open and discovered the birds in what she “thought” was an abusive condition. The bird that began it all was a sun conure with a plucked chest that the breeder had just acquired from a retiring acquaintance. The sheriff came to the conclusion that this bird had been mistreated! The sheriff failed to see the bird’s clearly obvious plump chest and cheerful demeanor. Animal Control was called in and refused to confiscate the animals since there were no breaches. The sheriff, undeterred, then contacted the SPCA, which would happily seize any animals. This is excellent PR, and pity usually comes in cash. This SPCA has a webpage, and if you phone anonymously, they will keep your identity confidential, and….. “SPCA Humane Officers will investigate your information.” Every effort is made to ameliorate the animal’s circumstances via education and persuasion of owners. When this does not provide favorable results, the SPCA collaborates closely with local and county law enforcement personnel to resolve the matter.” http://www.spcafl.org/site/PageServer?pagename=cruelty invest

(The photos on the website are not of the breeder’s birds.) These are examples from a more recent situation.)

In our situation, the owner’s friend came to the owner’s house at the owner’s request to check on the birds and freshly born kids, as well as their food and water. The companion was arrested for cruelty to animals. The owner was contacted and said that she would come home right away. The cops and the SPCA informed her she couldn’t wait any longer and removed all of the animals. I’m guessing they don’t read their own website. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) could have been notified after the breeder’s buddy arrived, since there was a caretaker on the grounds. We Florida breeders are regulated and supervised by the FWC, which inspects bird breeders on a regular basis. If there are problems, they give a warning and return to the site to ensure the issues have been addressed. They will confiscate in exceptional cases.

Only because to Fred Smith, the regional director of the American Federation of Aviculture (AFA), and his determination to get to the bottom of this, were Florida breeders made aware of this injustice. Fred Smith, the regional director, wanted to know whether one of our AFA members was truly as horrible as the mainstream media made him out to be, and he wanted to investigate the accused member. Fred Smith went to the SPCA to check how the birds were doing.

When Fred arrived to the SPCA and saw the birds, he was astounded with how good they looked, and none were harmed or neglected. Fred, like the rest of the public, had read the newspaper articles and watched the TV news programs about how the birds had been mistreated and neglected and were in terrible condition. Fred spent time researching data and studying the circumstances around this confiscation, in addition to visiting every bird show in Florida teaching people about bird care and promoting the AFA, managing to his own flock of breeding birds, and completing his regional director responsibilities.

We were all made aware of the matter after Fred was happy with the breeder’s care of her birds. Fred called the Florida Federation of Aviculture Inc. after spending numerous hours on the phone (FFAI). The FFAI, in collaboration with the AFA, was brought up to speed and promptly began their own inquiry, as well as holding an emergency meeting.

Fred and other FFAI members distributed notices announcing the date of the first court hearing. The SPCA was petitioning for ownership not just of the seized birds, but also of any more birds possessed by the breeder and her companion elsewhere. They requested the court to impose fines and prison time on the breeder and her friend, as well as to order that the owner and her companion never possess birds again. They also requested a court order requiring the breeder to pay all boarding fees and other expenses paid by the SPCA. To far, the fees and charges total around $13,000.00.

Because there was an active criminal investigation at this period, no information was or could be released to the public or the news media. Many animal confiscation cases result in the dropping of criminal charges against the animal owner as soon as the confiscating party is awarded permanent control of the animals. The prosecution uses this pressure method and ruse to prevent the truth and any proof from being collected by the animal owner or the media while the confiscating party pursues their confiscation case. This case followed that pattern. In this instance, the breeder gained her birds back in court, and all criminal accusations against the breeder and her companion have since been dismissed. In this instance, the owner of the birds fought back and gained her animals back, despite what seemed to be overwhelming odds that she would be unable to defeat the strong and arrogant SPCA.

The proceedings lasted three months and were quite exhausting. Around 20 aviculturists attended the first court session. All of the aviculturists and expert breeders in the courtroom could see that the SPCA workers and attorneys understood almost nothing about birds, breeding birds, their anatomy, illnesses, or their upkeep. The whole SPCA team (including the initial sheriff’s deputy on the scene, all of the testifying SPCA staff, their testifying veterinarians, and their lawyers) was in over their heads. Some of the evidence offered by SPCA witnesses on the birds’ treatment made it evident that the SPCA had no idea how to care for any bird, much alone a flock of breeding birds. They utilized bleach in their cleaning solution to clean the birds’ environment, causing respiratory harm to the animals. They fed the birds wrongly, which caused diarrhea in some of them.

They wrongly thought that vials of polyoma vaccine discovered at the breeder’s house were drugs for ill birds, demonstrating their lack of knowledge regarding bird diseases and treatment for bird diseases. The SPCA’s doctor was a dog and cat vet with an interest in birds, but she was at least 10 years behind the curve in terms of avian medication and treatment.

As the prosecution proceeded to present their case, they were blind to the reality that the majority of their witnesses’ remarks were foolish, and their evidence served only to expose their inexperience of birds and bird care. It became evident that the SPCA was used to winning animal seizure cases with little effort and based on baseless charges.

We were not frightened. Of course, we realized that the biased, unbalanced, and inaccurate information presented to the judge by those who knew virtually nothing about birds was all the judge was hearing, and we realized that if we expected to prevail, we needed an expert who knew about birds to testify – otherwise, the prosecution’s case was a “slam dunk.” We needed an avian expert. Jan and I contacted vets throughout the state. Other members were attempting to get their vets to join them. We were advised that no veterinarian could afford to take time away from their business to testify on behalf of the breeder. Many advised us to walk away and let them get the birds – “you can’t win against the SPCA.” The cost of defense for this breeder was in the thousands of dollars, and it was all for a lot of cockatiels, despite being bred for display with meticulous genetic blood lines. The cost was way over what the birds were worth. This breeder could not afford to bring in an avian vet, that’s all there was to it.

Despite all the nay-sayers, and all the cautions that we could never win against the SPCA, we were not willing to abandon the breeder or our cause. Individual members of the Florida Federation of Aviculture started donating money for a vet. Two bird clubs in Florida, the Imperial Bird Club, and the Jacksonville Bird Club both donated $500.00 each for vet costs. To them I am eternally grateful. Some clubs and organizations refused to get involved, for fear of the SPCA or some other organization making them targets for harassment. This is another fear we breeders are now faced with. If we help, will we suffer too?

Many aviculturists attended all four hearings. Dr. Margaret Wissman, a board certified avian veterinarian, agreed to be a witness for the defendant and testified at the last hearing. It is my belief that her testimony made it clear to the judge that the allegations which the SPCA had made about disease and perceived cruelty and neglect were not a truthful picture of the situation – Dr. Wissman made it clear to the judge that the breeder was not cruel or abusive or neglectful – and that her testimony is what turned the case in the breeder’s favor. It took the judge almost two weeks to reach a decision. The petition from the SPCA was denied in its entirety – the SPCA lost on every count. The judge ordered the SPCA to return all of the birds and other animals to their owner.

Existing law in Florida can be, and is, used to harm breeders and animal owners. We have a statute in Florida that gives any law enforcement officer the right to call any recognized agency (such as the SPCA, animal control, Humane Society, and even some rescues) to immediately confiscate animals, without a warrant and without a hearing, if they in their opinion, feel there is any animal neglect or cruelty. They do not have to call FWC, the only organization that has training in exotic animals here in Florida. This law creates a very serious situation for all of us – a situation that gives us all something new to fear. All of us who own birds and other animals now have to recognize that “public perception” may be the standard used to judge us when allegations of animal abuse and neglect are made against us by law enforcement or “animal welfare” personnel. “Public perception” may or may not be accurate or truthful, but it will be used by law enforcement and “animal welfare” personnel to make judgments in an area in which they have no training or expertise. “Public perception”, when it is not based on fact, can wreak havoc on any enterprise, especially in the area of breeding birds.

We also must remember that most of the “animal welfare” organizations that claim to have the best interest of the animals first and foremost, are against breeding animals of any kind. Many of them support the philosophy of “animal rights”, which contends that animals are not ours to use. They especially do not believe in breeding animals to be sold as pets. Many of them do not believe that we have the right to own or use animals of any kind for food, for fiber, for research, for entertainment, or as pets. Those same organizations, who have been given the power under existing law to allege animal abuse by their owners, and who have been given the power to confiscate animals from their owners without a warrant and without a hearing, are fundamentally and philosophically biased against breeders. Existing law allows these organizations to be our accusers, our judges, and our executioners, and they revel in that power – they are the poster children for the saying “Power Corrupts – And Absolute Power Corrupts Absolutely”. They have an absolute conflict of interest when it comes to any case involving breeders, and they should not be allowed to participate in any confiscation cases – yet the law allows them to freely operate and freely confiscate despite this clear conflict of interest. Of course these organizations will confiscate, at the mere hint of a dirty water bowl or recently spilled food. Many of these people see problems where none exist, or knowingly create them – as was done in this case. The sheriff’s officer ordered the barking dogs (who had been found loose in the yard) to be tied up next to a dirty water bowl, then had photographs taken of the situation as “evidence” of their “abuse” by their owner.

So now, not only are we afraid to leave our birds at night, we cannot leave during the day either. In the event my dog would escape the yard and cause a car accident, a sheriff would come out to my property and up to my door. As he walked along the pathway, he may see a bowl full of water (changed an hour ago) just full of mushy pellets, and smelling like, well you all know what it smells like. He may see a bird in a small cage that is being medicated, or under veterinary care. What would his perception be, and would he call the SPCA or humane society, or even a rescue organization? When I would arrive back home from shopping for veggies and other good bird food, would my birds all be there, or would they have been taken to some secret place where I could not see, or find out about them?

Thank you AFA for Fred Smith. Thank you FFAI for your work in this and thank you, Imperial Bird Club and Jacksonville Bird club, for your monetary support in this effort. Thank you Dr. Wissman for your support of aviculture. We could not have done it without you.

Many people behind the scenes worked tirelessly on this case, and studied the FWC regulations as well as county and state statutes. I am very grateful to all that pitched in and did work and made donations in the name of aviculture. Many people from out of state gave their support and donations as well, and I thank all of you too.

After this experience, and seeing the support of the avicultural community, I know that yes, it is all worth it.

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