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Texas: Animal seizure hearing delayed

By Robin Y. Richardson, News Messenger

Friday, February 05, 2010

Testimony began Thursday in Marion County’s district courtroom in the disposition hearing for the seizure of more than 50 animals from 950 Lewis Chapel Road, where former circus queen Barbara Hoffman and her business partner, Fred Lulling, reside.

However, Judge Lex Jones, approved to postpone the remainder of the hearing to Feb. 16 after the involved parties spent two hours after lunch trying to no avail to negotiate where to place the animals. All parties seemed pleased with the postponement.

“That’ll give me time to find an interpreter (for Lulling),” said Marion County District Attorney Bill Gleason.

Lulling’s attorney, Bruce Abraham, had complained earlier in the hearing about the lack of an interpreter for his hearing impaired client, who had to communicate through notes and sign language from Ms. Hoffman Thursday.

“I cannot convey all that to my client without an interpreter,” Abraham said of negotiation discussions from the D.A. “You can’t explain tones of voice and threats in writing.”

Gleason said his office had tried to search for an interpreter in Harrison and Gregg counties as well as in Tyler and Dallas for Thursday’s hearing, but didn’t have any luck.

“The one in Dallas charged $135 an hour,” he said, adding the one in Tyler was busy.

“He’s not going to jail so it doesn’t affect his (substantial) rights,” Gleason explained. “There’s no civil or criminal penalties at this time other than forfeiture.”

He agreed, however, to find an interpreter for the next court date.

In addition to finding an interpreter, Gleason said the postponement would also give Juan Jesus Davenport, the legal owner of the seized horses, time to bring equipment to transport them. Davenport, who came to the hearing to reclaim his animals, said he had loaned them to Ms. Hoffman to use in her proposed educational programs.

“He has a claim to the four Shetlands and two minis,” Gleason informed.

Attorney James Finstrom, who is representing Ms. Hoffman, said the postponement will also give Ms. Hoffman and Lulling, who are business partners and engaged, time to construct and set up their property to meet approval.

“It would be (treated) kind of like a CPS case — (try to) seek some kind of reunification of some if not all of the animals (with its owners),” Abraham said as he explained his goal of reuniting the animals with his clients.

“(Only) with the understanding that some CPS cases end up with parental rights terminated,” Gleason chimed in.

“I really didn’t think you needed to say that Mr. Gleason,” Abraham fired back.

Ms. Hoffman and Lulling were arrested last Wednesday for six counts of animal cruelty after county and state officials seized domestic and exotic animals, including 10 jungle cats.

Their bond was set at $30,000 each.

Officials obtained a warrant to seize the animals after being notified that they were illegally harboring the wild cats.

Gleason informed the judge Thursday that an agreement has now been reached regarding the cats. All parties, including Lulling and Ms. Hoffman, signed as a witness on the agreement, which involves dropping criminal charges against Ms. Hoffman and Lulling and giving the wild cats to Wisconsin Big Cat Rescue.

The wild cats included six tigers, one cougar, two black panthers and one spotted leopard.

They currently remain the property of Marion County until the county turns them over to Wisconsin Big Cat Rescue.

“They’ll be down here next week,” Gleason said.

Gleason said Ms. Hoffman will be able to visit the wild cats to say her final goodbyes before they leave. She has also volunteered to remove the collars from the cougars and tigers at the request of Wisconsin Big Cat Rescue.

“The Big Cat Rescue doesn’t like collars on the cats,” Gleason explained, sharing county officials were afraid to go in and take them off.

“So the big cats are not an issue now. The only issue is the smaller animals.”

Gleason said since Ms. Hoffman is particularly fond of the monkey, he agreed to return it to her.

“The animals are safe and secure except that they are a burden on Dr. Hedges,” Gleason added.

Dr. Carol Hedges, a local veterinarian who assisted at the seizure and is now housing most of the animals, testified that most animals “appeared to be in good health.” However, she considers their cramped confinement to be “animal cruelty.”

“The coatimundi was in a small dog crate,” she said, adding she has an outbreak of flies now in her office because of the animals’ soiled bedding.

“Out of all of them (the animals), I’m not even comfortable with returning the monkey,” the veterinarian said.

Abraham asked if the county was committing cruelty to the big cats since they are still confined in the small cages.

“The cruelty was kind of forced upon us,” Gleason said. “We can’t go to Wal-mart and buy a tiger cage, can we?”

“You can go to Lowe’s,” Abraham charged.

During presentation of evidence, the district attorney showed a videotape of the seizure, shot by Marion County Deputy Shawn Cox as Gleason did an inventory of the animals.

The video showed a semi-trailer filled with cats, dogs, rats and a possum. A camper trailer filled with several cats, birds, reptiles and other exotics was also seen.

“The ammonia in the air was super strong. It was hard to even cough or sniff the whole time I was taking the thing,” said Cox.

Cox said urine and feces covered the floor of the semi-trailer.

“The floor was rotting,” Dr. Hedges added. “There were places in there I felt I was going to fall through.”

“The canines and the felines in the trailer were not being taken care of properly,” she said. “The ability of light and air flow was limited. Some of the cages in there had no doors on them.”

Cox described how the ducks, geese and a rabbit were “cooped up” in the middle of the property in pens. He also shared how miniature horses had been in a kennel.

“That seems odd to me,” he said.

The video also showed a couple of dogs linked together on a tractor rig.

“They couldn’t move around,” Cox said.

He further described how inside the 36-foot long camper lived a wallaby, a South American raccoon, numerous large birds, large tortoises, smaller turtles, tarantulas, six doves, sugar gliders, two iguanas, 11 cats, snakes and others. In the bedroom were a few more cats, doves and pigeons.

“We were not aware of these animals until the search warrant,” Cox said.

In answering Finstrom’s question regarding the welfare of the animals, Cox agreed the animals in the camper as well as the goats and horses appeared to be in “pretty good shape.”

“I believe the animals were being fed and taken care of,” the deputy said.

However, he too thought their confinement was too small.

“I don’t think they were physically abused, but housing them in a small area is cruel,” he said.

“You can actually call it wall-to-wall animal crates in the trailer,” Dr. Hedges said, echoing his sentiments. “The stench of ammonia was higher than I’ve ever smelled.”

Dr. Hedges said the small crates provided the animals limited mobility, limited air flow and limited heat.

“They also had animals that were natural prey next to each other, which added stress,” she said, adding turtles were in plastic containers with no air holes.

The veterinarian said beddings were soaked with urine and feces littered the cages.

“It took gentlemen four hours to clean out the crates, set them to dry and they still didn’t smell (good),” she said. “We had to trash them.”

“I don’t know how long they could have stayed in that condition before deterioration,” she said of the cramped housing.

Gleason said since the seizure, Ms. Hedges’ office has played an integral part in feeding the big cats and housing the other animals. The veterinarian described the dramatic change she’s observed with the iguanas’ color and mobility since they have been in her clinic.

“They actually started reaching up toward the light for the feeding,” she said.

The veterinarian also gave a good report on the parrots. She said after her staff put them in clean cages, “it wasn’t long until they were cleaning and preening and eating and started laying eggs.”

She noted several of the animals were ill and suffering with issues when seized. The hooves on the horses, for instance, were overgrown and the female horse also suffered with a chronic sinus infection. Other than those problems, the horses appeared to be in good shape, Dr. Hedges said.

She also reported that the birds were missing many feathers and weren’t able to perch.

All the fowl, which included chickens, turkeys, geese and ducks had to be euthanized based on the Texas Animal Health Commission laws in case they had Avian flu. The domestic cats were also euthanized due to an upper respiratory infection that spreads from cat to cat.

“They could not get into this clinic or any clinic,” Ms. Hedges said of the domestic cats. “The clinic would’ve had to shut down.

“They all had runny eyes … runny noses,” she said. “One sneezed mucus on my leg — they were sick.”

She noted the coatimundi is on the endangered species list in Texas, therefore, Ms. Hoffman and Lulling weren’t supposed to possess it without a permit.

In answering Finstrom’s questions, Cox confirmed that a crew was on the property before the seizure to assemble cages and that Ms. Hoffman and Lulling did present written plans to have an educational center.

Ms. Hoffman said she made a mistake bringing her animals to Marion County.

“It seems that I made a mistake in my attempt to move to a county that already has bears registered,” she blurted out while not under oath.

“And. I thought that I had done everything properly. I made a mistake and did it improperly. I came here in the worst of conditions and I’m being severely punished for (making) human mistakes. This seems rather unfair.”

http://www.marshallnewsmessenger.com/news/content/news/stories/stories/2009/020510_web_pets.html

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Learn more about big cats and Big Cat Rescue at http://bigcatrescue.org