Animal sanctuaries criticized over surge in
employees say the Dancing Star Foundation is ordering older animals euthanized
to cut costs, even as its executives receive hefty salaries. The nonprofit
denies any improper activity.
February 26, 2009 Steve Chawkins, Los Angeles Times
two Central Coast animal sanctuaries run by the Dancing Star Foundation had
reputations as good places for old and ill animals. Care was unstinting, the
facilities well-kept and the budget ample.
But over the last few months, economic declines have forced layoffs at the
sanctuaries near Paso Robles and Cayucos in San Luis Obispo County. Even worse,
some former workers said, Dancing Star began to euthanize cows, horses and
burros whose care was deemed too expensive.
foundation denies the claim, saying that only animals with severe, intractable
medical conditions have been put to death.
"Economics were never a factor," said Roger Gillott, the foundation's spokesman.
The allegations "are offensive to us because they are completely contrary to our
most deeply held beliefs, and are belied by the facts."
The controversy, playing out in area newspapers and online, has raised alarms
among animal activists across the country. Farm Sanctuary, an organization based
in Watkins Glen, N.Y., aimed at ending cruelty to farm animals, said that
Dancing Star had agreed Wednesday to review its practices and signed off on a
euthanasia moratorium. Dancing Star said no more killings had been planned
anyway -- an assertion that former employees dispute.
Jason Hamaker, a ranch maintenance
supervisor, said his bosses started talking last fall about cutting back on
medications and feed for some of the older animals. The sicker the animals
became, the more justified their deaths by lethal injection would appear, he
"They said they wanted a total of 50 gone within a couple of months, and then
another 30 after that," he said. In the last four weeks, according to Hamaker,
23 animals have been put down.
In a rough winter month in the past, there might have been three euthanizations,
he said. Hamaker, a five-year employee, said he was fired Wednesday.
Sheldon Rowley, who was laid off three weeks ago, said Dancing Star was "an
incredibly run sanctuary" until last month. "They said if we didn't thin out the
herd, animals wouldn't get the care they needed," he said. "First we were told
it was financial, and then we were told it was a quality-of-life issue."
Gillott declined to discuss numbers, but said more animals than usual had
recently been euthanized because so many were aging and infirm when they arrived
"We believe the humane thing to do with animals in extreme pain is to put them
to rest," he said. "In recent weeks, we've asked whether we've been lax in the
past -- not as aggressive as we should have been -- from an overabundance of
love for the animals."
The accusations came to light last week on
The report, which also revealed the hefty salaries given to Dancing Star
executives, stirred anger in the animal welfare community. In 2006, Michael
Tobias and Jane Gray Morrison, a husband-and-wife team who have collaborated on
numerous films and books, received $275,000 and $235,000, as president and vice
president. Chief Finance Officer Don Cannon drew $219,450.
"Those salaries are just way out of line," said Kim Sturla, founder and director
of Animal Place, a sanctuary for farm animals in Vacaville, Calif. "It's
shameful -- it just reflects badly on all of us animal nonprofits." Sturla said
those three salaries exceed her sanctuary's entire annual operating budget.
Gillott said those salaries have been cut twice since the latest nonprofit tax
filing in 2007.
With about 320 animals on more than 1,000 acres, the sanctuaries were started in
1993 by Sue Stiles, an heir to the McClatchy newspaper fortune. Tobias became
president of the foundation, which also funds cancer research at UCLA, when
Stiles died in 1999.
The complaints from sanctuary employees have prompted an inquiry from local
animal welfare officials.
Eric Anderson, head of San Luis Obispo County Animal Services, said his
department concluded that the euthanized animals were "either beyond treatment
or had conditions for which euthanasia would be at least one of the
considerations that could responsibly be made."
Russ Mead, an attorney for Farm Sanctuary, visited Dancing Star for two days
last week, investigating conditions at both sanctuaries. "It's the best-funded
place in the country for animals and the staff appears to be caring," he said.
However, he said he was unable to determine whether the euthanized animals -- he
knew of 14 in the last two weeks -- had been properly selected. "There was only
so much I could do because they were dead," he said, adding that a decision to
put down several additional animals apparently was reversed during his visit.
Euthanasia is occasionally practiced at sanctuaries, often after prolonged
consultations among staff members and veterinarians.
Tristen Weltner, one of two veterinarians who administered the lethal
injections, said they were given only to "the more debilitated and poorer
quality-of-life animals." In its defense, the foundation released descriptions
of seven horses that had been identified in news reports. They were as old as
27, according to the foundation, and suffered from partial blindness, crippling
arthritis, limb deformities and other "severe" conditions.
But Hamaker and other former workers were skeptical.
"The cows had some lameness, but we never put a cow down before for being lame,"
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