Hundreds of cats rescued

A Las Vegas cat rescue organization could face animal cruelty charges in Nye County after hundreds of sick and starving cats were rescued from the group’s fly-ridden sanctuary at the south end of Pahrump.

For the Love of Cats and Kittens, or FLOCK, allowed as many as 400 cats to roam free at the no-kill facility, which animal control officers described as a cluster of open cat rooms on 2 1/2 acres of brush and dirt. The property is surrounded by a 12-foot fence topped with barbed wire to keep the cats from escaping, said Tim McCarty, animal control supervisor for Nye County.

Animal control officers took control of FLOCK’s sanctuary on Friday. The cats are now under the care of Best Friends Animal Society, a Utah-based group that McCarty credits for saving the animals from almost certain death.

"The best-case scenario for the cats was Best Friends stepping up. We can all feel good about this," he said.

In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, Best Friends led a massive animal rescue operation to the disaster zone. Russ Mead, general counsel for the nonprofit organization, said the conditions they found in Pahrump are even worse than what they encountered along the Gulf Coast.

"This is the worst (case) I’ve seen in terms of animal cruelty and neglect," Mead said. "When we got there, your eyes would water from the smell of urine and feces, and there were thousands of flies in every building."

Mead said one cat got an infection that went untreated after one of its eyes "blew out." When the cat was found, still alive and hiding under a bush on the property, there were maggots coming out of its eye socket.

Only three cats have died since Best Friends arrived on the scene Saturday, Mead said.

"Seventy-five percent of them are sick in some manner or another. There is a whole section of them that are starving to death."

Medical assessments are still being done, but Mead said it appears most of the sick cats have illnesses that can be cured.

McCarty said animal cruelty charges will be filed against someone in connection with the conditions at the sanctuary, but he declined to elaborate. "The investigation is ongoing," he said. "In scope, it’s larger than anything we’ve dealt with."

Maggie Ward, the newly elected president of FLOCK, said the conditions at the shelter came about because of mismanagement by the organization’s previous president, who took over when the sanctuary moved to Pahrump from Las Vegas in 2006.

"We didn’t know about it (the conditions) for a long time because she wouldn’t let volunteers into the facility," Ward said. "She kept it locked and changed the locks every couple of weeks."

When FLOCK volunteers finally were able to gain access to the sanctuary, they found it was understaffed, coolers were not being used in the cats’ huts, and the animals weren’t being adequately fed or given medical care.

"She couldn’t do the job or wouldn’t do the job," said Ward, who added that authorities have asked her not to name the previous president.

A member of FLOCK contacted Best Friends for help, Ward said, because the problem "was overwhelming and beyond our means, moneywise."

FLOCK’s Web site offers no hint of trouble. It includes photos and a description of the Pahrump sanctuary under the heading, "A Safe Place: Life is Good."

The organization apparently continues to offer cats for adoption at two PetSmart locations in Las Vegas. A spokeswoman for the pet store chain on Wednesday said the company is reviewing its relationship with For the Love of Cats and Kittens.

McCarty said animal control officers were tipped off about the sanctuary last month by a FLOCK volunteer who was concerned about the conditions there.

"They didn’t kind of have a problem; they had a horrendous problem," McCarty said. "They might have managed forty cats, but not three or four hundred."

Best Friends has agreed to assess all the cats, provide them with food and medical care, and find homes for them. The process could take three months and cost $500,000, McCarty said.

Mead said it is too soon to predict the rescue’s final price tag.

"We won’t know how much it will be until we’ve had a chance to look at all the cats. We know it will be six figures," he said.

One thing is certain, McCarty said: Nye County has neither the staff nor the money for an operation such as this. Without Best Friends, most of the cats probably would have to be euthanized.

"How do you deal with 300 cats all at once? It would have absolutely overwhelmed the Nye County Animal Shelter," McCarty said. "Three hundred sick cats could not be brought into the shelter."

Best Friends staff member Tiffani Hill said the group is looking for volunteers to help with the rescue. No previous experience with cats is necessary, she said.

"We just need people who are willing to work hard and can stand the heat."

Hill said anyone interested can call her on her cell phone at 805-698-5959.

Mead said the Pahrump rescue operation also could use donations, particularly Friskies-brand canned cat food.

Best Friends Animal Society operates the nation’s largest no-kill animal sanctuary near Kanab, Utah, about 200 miles northeast of Las Vegas.

Its pet rescue after Hurricane Katrina was a $6 million operation, Mead said.

FLOCK last made headlines in 2001, when one of its volunteers was charged with posing as a veterinarian and illegally killing 210 cats at the no-kill shelter the organization once operated in Sloan.

Las Vegas resident Sam Ockene pleaded guilty to the charges and was sentenced to probation.

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