LOS ANGELES, Calif. - Rescue crews went into a warehouse last year to save nearly 20,000 rats and reptiles at a wholesale distributor of exotic snakes and rodents, encountering a sight so revolting that they needed crisis counsellors to cope.
Many of the animal control workers came out gasping for air and sickened by the heinous sights and smells, including a mixture of death, disease, decay and ammonia from accumulated urine and feces in rat bins. Officials with the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals called it the largest-ever seizure of animals in California.
The owner and manager of the business have now been arrested and charged with more than 100 counts each of felony animal cruelty for the way they treated the rats and reptiles. Their company, Global Captive Breeders, raised rats and snakes that were sold at pet stores and swap meets.
The Riverside County district attorney filed the case Friday and a judge issued warrants for owner Mitchell Steven Behm, 54, and company manager David Delgado, also known as Jose Magana, 29. A message left for Behm's attorney was not immediately returned, and a lawyer for Delgado could not be located.
The People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals initiated the investigation after sending an undercover operative to work at the breeding facility in Lake Elsinore, 70 miles southeast of Los Angeles.
Some of the animals were already dead by the time rescue workers got there. The ones still living were too sick to treat and too toxic to move, and had to be euthanized.
The toll the operation took on workers ranged from physical to emotional, said Capt. Cindy Machado, who headed up a team of workers from the Marin Humane Society in Novato and co-ordinated veterinarians who came from all over the country for the weeklong December operation.
People were throwing up because of the ammonia fumes and "there were times you had to run outside just to catch a breath of fresh air," she said.
People emotionally broke down and had to be excused. Several people ended up with colds and sore throats. "I lost my voice," she said.
"I had some idea what to expect but little could have prepared me for the overwhelming stench of death and decay you could smell from the outside of the facility. On the inside it was overpowering," said Daphna Nachminovitch, senior vice-president of cruelty investigations for PETA.
There were 18,400 feeder rats and over 600 snakes, black tree monitors, tokay geckos and sulcata tortoises, Nachminovitch said.
Most of the rats were without food in overcrowded bins and because of a faulty water system, were either drowning or dying of thirst. "Some were literally eating each other alive," she said.
Mitch Behm got a conditional use permit for the business in 2009, said Justin Carlson, a spokesman for Lake Elsinore. The city received one anonymous complaint about the business before PETA stepped in, Carlson said. The company's website listed corporate offices in Rancho Santa Margarita.
A whistleblower contacted PETA and the animal welfare agency sent an undercover investigator to get a job at the business. The investigator documented rats being grabbed by their tails and slammed against poles, stomped on, shot with a BB gun, frozen alive and drowned.
The undercover worker was there for two months, and Nachminovitch said that period of time was needed to document enough photo and video evidence to obtain a search warrant. In addition, the neglect was so far advanced by the time the whistleblower called that it would have been impossible to save the animals.
The 6,100-square-foot warehouse had separate entrances to the reptile and rat rooms, but the snakes didn't fare any better than the rats, Nachminovitch said. Some of the boas and pythons were 15-feet long.
The animals were euthanized in the warehouse and taken to a rendering plant, she said.
Every rescue worker sets out to save animals, Machado said. But there is also satisfaction in giving an animal in pain a humane, peaceful passing, she said.
"I have been with PETA for 15 years and there was an unprecedented amount of active suffering while we were standing there. I am grateful we could end it," Nachminovitch said.