Sanctuary becomes killing field
Posted: Tuesday, February 17, 2009 10:34 am
Squirtle, rescued as a foal by sanctuary founder Sue Stiles, was only 8 years old.
By KAREN VELIE
A husband and wife team of internationally known environmentalists, paid handsomely to oversee a San Luis Obispo County sanctuary for infirm animals, has ordered the accelerating slaughter of many of their wards.
Former and present employees of the Dancing Star Foundation claim that its top officers, Michael Tobias and Jane Gray Morrison, intend to focus on endangered animals. They say the pair has commenced the systematic elimination of aged and infirm farm animals under the foundation’s care, contrary to the foundation's purpose.
Tobias and Morrison have reportedly told employees that economic issues prompted the kill policy.
According to the foundation’s 2007 IRS Form 990 filed Oct. 6, 2008, the group had more than $43 million in assets. Tobias, as president, receives a yearly salary of $285,500; Vice President Morrison, $244,000; and Vice President of Finance Don Cannon, $240,000.
The foundation was created by Sue Stiles in 1993 with a focus on providing a refuge for elderly and handicapped farm animals. She opened one sanctuary in Paso Robles for burros, and another in Cayucos which hosts horses, cows, dogs, burros, pigs, and a goat. In January, more than 200 animals were cared for at the Cayucos sanctuary, situated south of Harmony on 700 rolling acres along U.S. Highway 1. A herd of burros wandering among the oak trees is often visible from the highway below.
“Stiles took care of animals in dire need,” said Kathy Duncan, a Morro Bay resident who took her 27-year-old horse to live out its days at Dancing Star. “Sue knew all the animals by name. She asked me to visit when I could, bring carrots, and pet the animals.”
Dying of cancer, Stiles choose Tobias to preside over her non-profit foundation. Tobias is a world traveler and author of 35 books and numerous documentaries focusing on environmental history and animal rights. In 1996, Tobias received the “Courage of Conscience Award” for his commitment to animals. His wife and vice president of the foundation, Morrison, is an ecologist and filmmaker.
The IRS statement claims the foundation spent $2,552,939 on the animal sanctuary in Paso Robles. However, the summary of charitable activities does not mention the Cayucos sanctuary.
“Tobias is stating that the foundation does not have the funds to support these animals that Sue had taken under her wing,” an employee said. “He and his wife have ordered the mass killing of horses, burros, and cows. Originally, it was 20 animals. Then it was five cows and five horses or burros every week until we reached 50 animals. We are nearing that number. Now, there is a new list. We feel this will continue. We also feel their intentions are to close the sanctuary.”
The first round of animals “were stacked like cord wood, until they were bloated, before they were hauled away,” an employee said.
Dancing Star managers informed veterinarian Gary Evans and numerous employees that adopted animals will reduce the numbers slated for execution. Officials claim they investigate possible adoptive families before releasing the animals. Employees state that animals are handed over to anyone with a trailer.
“Employees and friends in utter desperation are allowed to adopt these animals without any paperwork or inspection of the living conditions of where these animals are going,” an employee said. “These employees are making $9 an hour. They can barely feed themselves. It is total chaos.”
Next week, five cows are slated to be killed on Monday, and five horses are on the list for Thursday. The next wave, reported to be 30 animals, is supposed to drag out over a few months.
“Because of the economy, they say they can’t afford to feed the animals and provide medications,” ex-employee Sheldon Rowley said. “Then others say it is quality of life. Now these animals have to look perfectly healthy or they are dust.”
Two local veterinarians have been hired to perform euthanasia. Both horse veterinarian Tristen Weltner and cattle veterinarian Gary Evans assert that all the animals that have been put down have had health problems, though both have also noticed a change in the treatment of animals at the sanctuary during the last month.
“I was told they were out of money,” Evans said. “Sue Stiles would not approve of the way things are being done. Her whole deal was rescuing animals. There were a number of animals born and raised there.”
Both Evans and numerous employees noted that while foundation officials are firing staff and eliminating animals, they are spending funds on the construction of new barns and upgrading existing facilities.
“They built a new barn for $120,000 then killed the animals in the barn below,” Rowley added. “They are building shelters with no limits. However, they are putting down the animals with health problems and the older ones. You can see were the money is going.”
Sources claim the last round of killings included a group of viable animals.
Carmel was a wild horse and as such required the use of a squeeze (a cage that tightens around an animal’s body) to put her down. Carmel fought and fell in the squeeze, her legs caught in the bars. Her eyes were wide and wild with fear. The vet tried to inject enough drugs to drop the winter-coated mare, but Carmel continued to fight and only part of the killing drugs could be administrated on the first try. During Carmel’s long and painful death, employees stood by weeping.
An 8-year-old paint, Grace, was on and off lame due to a leg deformity. The spirited mare ran back and forth while her barn mates were slaughtered, unaware of the fate she faced. She loved to play and appeared not to be in pain.
Grace didn’t fight as her caregivers stroked her neck to distract her from the prick of the veterinarian’s deadly needle. She fell to the ground amidst the tears of Dancing Star employees.
Both Grace and Amigo, a gelding his caregivers said “was full of life and not ready to go yet,” received a shot of poison through a vein in their necks during the last round of animal eliminations.
“I think they are trying to close the sanctuary,” an employee said. “They are killing healthy animals. It is a sanctuary; all the animals have some problem. We signed on for an animal sanctuary, not a cowboy slaughter ranch. We love the animals; they don’t care.”
When the soft-spoken Tobias took over after Stiles’ death, he promptly banned volunteers and fired all employees hired by the sanctuary’s founder, an employee added. New employees sign an agreement they won’t tell anyone anything about the sanctuary, including that they work there.
“We signed disclosures that we can’t talk to the press,” an employee said. “They can fire without cause. We know we are going to lose our jobs. Two ladies were pushed out for going on maternity leave. Jerry (Smith, sanctuary manager) wants to shoot all the animals. They want us to go away so they can do what they want to.”
During the past month, as Dancing Star officials exterminated animals, they also initiated the staged firing of employees. Smith laid off four caregivers last weekend, bringing the total of dismissed employees to more than 14.
“These questions have nothing to do with you,” Dancing Star manager Smith said when asked by a Cal Coast News reporter why sanctuary officials are systematically killing off their charges and firing employees. “This doesn’t concern you. It is none of your business.”
President Tobias, vice president Morrison, and vice president of finance Don Cannon did not return requests for comment.
Sources claim that after receiving an inheritance of more than $60 million, Stiles chose to dive into philanthropy with a focus on providing a safe haven for aged and infirm farm animals.
“She told me she had inherited money from her aunt who was one of the owners of the [McClatchy] Bee newspapers,” Duncan added. “Sue thought the need was a sanctuary for farm animals. She had a board of directors who were supposed to keep the sanctuary running. This is not what she would have wanted.”
“The foundation mission is to promote and safeguard the earth’s biodiversity, including respect for and the protection of animals. The foundation provides aged, disabled, infirm, or unwanted animals with food, shelter, and veterinary care,” according to the foundation’s 990 form.
Jane Goodall wrote in a preface to Tobias’ book, World War III, “I hope that those reading this book will join Tobias on the path toward the more sustainable and compassionate future, trying to live again as we once did, in harmony with nature, and no longer at war.”
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"The fate of animals is of greater importance to me
than the fear of appearing ridiculous;
it is indissolubly connected with the fate of men."
- Emile Zola (1840-1902)