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.
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A cute puppy reduces a man to tears with his affection.
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"Our sweet Levi <a href="https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=441761919221771&set=pb.218621588202473.-2207520000.1357857134&type=3&theater">the day we got him</a> in 1997 and the day we said goodbye in 2012." (Via Facebook)
An Indiana man <a href="http://www.nydailynews.com/news/national/indiana-man-reunited-lost-dog-years-article-1.1221452#ixzz2HcGt0bZU">enjoyed a tearful reunion</a> with his dog Bandit five years after the beloved pet went missing in 2007, the New York Daily News reported in December. "This is my little buddy," he said at an adoption center in Indianapolis. "I’ve been missing him for five years."
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Greg Cook hugs his dog Coco after finding her inside his destroyed home in the East Limestone, Ala. on Friday, March 2, 2012. (AP Photo/The Decatur Daily, Gary Cosby Jr.)
A puppy stampede of love.
A man and his <a href="http://imgur.com/6NFEp">best friend</a>. (Via Imgur)
"My husband's dog <a href="http://www.reddit.com/r/germanshepherds/comments/12zh5u/xpost_from_raww_my_husbands_dog_greeting_him_at/">greeted him at the airport</a> in the morning," Redditor VonIsengard wrote. "This dog is Daddy's princess. He wouldn't have forgiven me if I didn't bring her to the airport!" (Via Imgur)
"The first and last night with my pup... Rest in peace" (via Imgur)
"<a href="http://imgur.com/gallery/1Mgx2">What a difference</a> 8 weeks makes." (via Imgur)
"A boy and his dog <a href="http://www.reddit.com/r/aww/comments/12u98c/a_boy_and_his_dog_reunited_after_sandy/">reunited after Sandy</a>."
Don't be scared.
We'll make it, I swear.
"This firefighter <a href="http://imgur.com/gallery/Gub3v">saved this dog</a> from her burning home." (Via Imgur)
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"My dad recently <a href="http://imgur.com/gallery/nmbvB">adopted a flunked guide dog</a>. I think they like each other." (via Imgur)
"This is my friend <a href="https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=467614926636470&set=pb.218621588202473.-2207520000.1357857051&type=3&theater">singing to his dog</a> before he passed away." (Via Facebook)
The video that started it all. His transformation from man to small child is adorable, but his reaction is <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/01/02/dad-surprised-christmas-puppy-reaction-video_n_2397230.html?utm_hp_ref=good-news&ir=Good%20News">all the more touching</a> considering the family lost their beloved dog a short time ago.
The 15 Most Important Pets Of 2012:
This hipster French bulldog from San Francisco is one of the cutest and coolest things the Internet has ever seen. The <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/08/28/trotter-the-hipster-french-bulldog_n_1837790.html#slide=1442172">Instagram superstar</a> is simply a natural in front of the camera.
Chengdu Panda Cubs
In October this photo of <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/11/07/chengdu-panda-cubs-are-th_n_2083702.html">seven sleeping panda cubs </a> went viral. They were born in 2012 at the Chengdu Panda Base in China. Clearly, they give any animal a run for its money for 2012's cutest.
In March, this adorable baby sloth melted every heart on the Internet. The sloth was wrapped from the head down in colorful bandages that happened to look a lot like a 'onesie'. The bandages are <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/03/01/baby-sloths-wearing-onesies_n_1313389.html">a creative solution to the baby sloth's skin infection</a> -- but to us, they're just about the cutest thing we've seen all year.
In November <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/10/07/cute-hedgehogs_n_1941315.html#slide=1604891">hedgehogs took the political campaign</a> by storm. Not only are these little guys indisputably cute, but they also look good in just about every situation and costume. Now if only we could have voted one into the White House..
This year, Zeus was officially named the <a href="https://www.facebook.com/zeustallestdog">World's Tallest Dog! </a> The 4-year-old canine stretches to an amazing 7'4" when standing on his hind legs.
In March, a star was born. And her name was Beyonce. A <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/03/28/beyonce-puppy_n_1384872.html">contender for World's Smallest Dog</a>, Beyonce was so small when she was born that she could fit into a spoon! We're anxious to see if she will nab a spot in the Guinness World Records.
These two baby tigers, whose mother abandoned them, found an unusual wet nurse: a wrinkled, sand-colored Shar Pei named Cleopatra. <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/06/06/dog-nurses-tiger-cubs-photo_n_1574598.html">This image of the dog feeding her adopted cubs </a> is one of the most heartwarming things we saw all year.
When an adorable East-Prussian Skudde lamb's mother passed away, Wolfgang Grensens, who volunteers as a shepherd in Luebeck, northern Germany, decided to raise the <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/11/14/wolfgang-grensens-german-_n_2132209.html">6-week-old baby</a> himself. Now the little lamb frolics along with Grensen's three dogs. Say it with us now: awwwwww.
This adorable pet wasn't on our radar until late this year, and now we're big fans! In October, a tiny echidna was rescued from a trail in Australia. His good looks melted the hearts of Internet users worldwide. A truly fascinating creature, the echidna has remained <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/10/24/adorable-rare-echidna-puggle-rscued-laps-milk-from-nurses-hand_n_2011500.html">virtually unchanged since prehistoric times</a>. Plus, it's a mammal that lays eggs. How cool is that?
Shiba Inu Puppies
In June 2012, the world watched in fascination as cuteness unfolded live before its eyes. During the<a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/06/08/shiba-inu-puppy-cam-live-_n_1581770.html"> Shibu Inu puppy cam's fourth installment</a>, we wouldn't tear our eyes away from the adorable puppies featured.
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Tard The Grumpy Cat
Earlier this month, we named Tard the Grumpy Cat <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/12/19/most-important-influential-cats-2012_n_2323065.html">the most influential cat of the year,</a> so it's no doubt she would show up on this list as well. Throughout 2012, Tard stole millions of hearts with her constant frown, which arguably changed Internet cat memes forever.
The Queen's Corgis
Queen Elizabeth II's corgis <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/09/09/queen-elizabeth-corgi-dies_n_1868282.html"> stole the show</a> during the opening ceremony at the Olympics, when they starred in a sketch alongside James Bond. Unfortunately, Monty and Cider, two of the four corgis, died in September. The other two, Willow and Holly, remain in the palace with the Queen.
Last year, a Los Angeles couple found Fiona -- sick, blind, and dirty -- in a trash heap. In March, <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/03/26/blind-dog-fiona-in-trash-rescue_n_1379889.html">her story of recovery</a> went viral. Thanks the couple's fundraising efforts, Fiona received a full makeover, and a $4,000 eye surgery replaced the lens in one of her eyes, partially restoring her vision. She has since been adopted by a loving family.
An Internet sensation was born this month when a <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/12/10/ikea-monkey-toronot_n_2270707.html">dapper monkey wearing a coat</a> and a diaper decided to make IKEA its playground. It was a great way to end 2012.