“OPERATION DESERT DOGS” – RESCUE OR PUBLICITY STUNT?

Palm Springs city officials, Friends of the Palm Springs Animal Shelter and Animal Rescue Corps plan a “rescue”, but is that what it really was?

How it All Started

In September 2010, a Palm Springs man, Richard Rutgard, got a dog from the Palm Springs Animal Shelter. The dog, later named “King Kong”, was a three month old large mixed breed dog. About six months later, in early 2011, Rutgard came across two abandoned female dogs that had wandered into the yard at his house in the north end of Palm Springs, California. He took the dogs in and named them “Ginger” and “Daisy”. Admittedly, he should have had the female dogs spayed, but he didn’t think too much about it because staff at Palm Springs Animal Shelter had given him a certificate of sterility when he got King Kong. His not spaying Ginger and Daisy didn’t justify what was done to him.

If the documents are hard to read, click on the full-screen icon below each one to see it better.

King Kong Certificate of Sterility and Receipt by marlukha

It wasn’t until both Ginger and Daisy got pregnant that Rutgard realized that King Kong hadn’t been neutered. It turns out that King Kong had undescended testicles (or some similar condition) that apparently went unnoticed by shelter personnel. Staff at Animal Medical Hospital (which was identified as the facility that performed the sterilization) didn’t catch it either, if he was indeed taken there for any kind of exam before being adopted to Rutgard.

One day while Rutgard was at his warehouse not far from a warehouse he owned near his home, he saw a large black dog being attacked by 3 other large dogs in the street. He ran over to the severely injured dog, put him in his car, and took him to VCA Desert Animal Hospital in Palm Springs for treatment. It took a major surgery to re-attach his rear leg, which was nearly severed, as well as additional treatment to fix the dog, who Rutgard named “Bowser”. Bowser eventually recovered, but he had extensive scarring from the incident.

In November 2011 Ginger gave birth to 6 puppies. Less than a month later, Daisy gave birth to 10 puppies. Needless to say, Rutgard was not sure what to do with all those puppies. He didn’t want to just turn them over to the Palm Springs Animal Shelter because he knew that there had recently been a lawsuit against the City of Palm Springs for violating a number of provisions of state law related to animal shelters. The suit also included a claim for false advertising against the Friends of the Palm Springs Animal Shelter for claiming that the animal shelter was “no kill”, when in fact the kill rates were very high.

The puppies grew very fast and it didn’t take long to see that they were going to be very big dogs. The puppies ate and ate and ate. And they ate very well. Rutgard fed them fresh beef and chicken daily along with 4 different types of premium kibble. In fact, in the year or so that he had the puppies, he spent approximately $30,000 on food for the dogs alone! During that period, Rutgard also spent approximately $30,000 on veterinary care, mostly provided by VCA Desert Animal Hospital, with some veterinary treatment at VCA Valley Animal Medial Hospital in Indio as well. It’s important to note that Dr. Douglas Kunz, DVM was Medical Director of VCA Desert Animal Hospital during this time, and still is. He is also the President of the Board of the Friends of the Palm Springs Animal Shelter (“Friends”), which currently operates the city animal shelter by contract with the City of Palm Springs. Dr. Kunz’s relationships with Friends, the City of Palm Springs, and Rutgard are very important to this story.

When the puppies were a few months old, Rutgard began contacting rescue organizations to see if any would be able to take the puppies for placement with other people. He had very little success finding homes for even one dog, much less all of them, so he felt like he didn’t really have a choice, but to keep them until he found safe places for them. Palm Springs Animal Control did nothing to try to help him, in spite of the fact that they were aware of his dilemma. Instead, they began harassing him, telling him that he had too many animals and was over the limit of animals he could keep at his home.

In August 2012, after receiving a citation from Palm Springs Animal Control for operating an illegal kennel, Rutgard contacted a local television station, KESQ (CBS affiliate), about the situation. They came out to his house to interview him about the City officials’ harassment of him for a problem that they actually created. Here is a link to the print story and the video: http://www.kesq.com/news/Palm-Springs-Man-is-in-the-Dog-House/16045814. After the story aired, Palm Springs city officials began harassing Rutgard even more, never once offering any help or suggestions for finding homes for the puppies.

Palm Springs Man is in the Dog House by marlukha

The City of Palm Springs zoning code defines a kennel as “any lot or premises on which four (4) or more dogs or cats at least four (4) months of age, are kept, boarded or trained, whether in special buildings or runways or not.” Animal Control Officer Tedd Nickerson did an inspection of Rutgard’s home in late September 2012, noting that the property had been cleaned and that he had too many dogs and also suggesting that Rutgard apply for a conditional use permit to be allowed to have more than 3 dogs. Nickerson also noted on the inspection paperwork that the City was willing to work with Dr. Kunz to spay and neuter Rutgard’s puppies at a preset rate. It finally appeared that the City was going to do something to help Rutgard with his dogs. At least they were offering to help him get the puppies fixed for a reduced rate of $50 each. Or, so Rutgard thought.

Palm Springs Citation September 27, 2012 by marlukha

How it Really Worked Out

Unbeknownst to Rutgard, there was a major upheaval in the City of Palm Springs with its Animal Control and Friends of the Palm Springs Animal Shelter and who was going to run the new animal shelter facility that had been built at a cost of more than $8,000,000, mostly of taxpayer money. Friends really wanted to run the facility, and gave all outward appearances of being committed to turning the shelter into a progressive, no-kill facility. The board members of Friends talked a really good game. They held fundraisers and said all the right things.

But, they didn’t do all the right things. In fact, they did all the wrong things. Somewhere along the line, apparently in early 2012, Friends got the bright idea to hire a “consultant” to tell them how to run the shelter. In their infinite wisdom, they chose to hire a man named Scotlund Haisley, president of Animal Rescue Corps (“ARC”), most likely based on a personal affinity for him by one of the Friends’ board members, Tanya Petrovna. It apparently didn’t occur to the rest of the board of Friends to do their due diligence and actually check Haisley’s qualifications (or, more aptly, his lack of qualifications) for the job. If they had, they might have thought twice about hiring him to do anything for them.

All it takes is a few minutes on the internet for any person with a few functional brain cells to see a whole lot of red flags associated with Haisley. He parted ways with the Humane Society of the United States (“HSUS”) in 2010 after working in its emergency services division for a few years. It’s unclear whether he was fired or his departure was strongly urged by HSUS president Wayne Pacelle. What is clear is that during his three year tenure with HSUS, his conduct was questionable at best. So much so that Haisley and HSUS were named as defendants in at least three lawsuits in federal court for deprivation of property under color of law without due process, among other things, stemming from “rescues” they conducted under dubious circumstances. (For those that are really interested the lawsuits are: Christensen v. Quinn, et al; Garwood v. State of Indiana; Pang v. Burns, et. al.) At HSUS Haisley refined his vigilante animal “rescue” tactics, which were praised by Wayne Pacelle at the time, who said that he liked Haisley’s cowboy ways.

That is, until Haisley and his cowboy ways landed himself and HSUS in court one too many times. Then apparently it wasn’t so good. In the short time that Haisley was heading up HSUS’s emergency services, several people in that division quit, citing Haisley’s recklessness and lawlessness and the danger that he created for them and others. Haisley wasn’t going to let something like a few lawsuits (at least one of which is still ongoing) get in his way, after all, they didn’t cost him anything because HSUS hired attorneys to deal with them. In early 2011, Haisley went out on his own, recruited a few true believers, and started his own “rescue” group, and ARC was born.

By his own admission, Haisley doesn’t have much in the way of education, nor does he have much in the way of certification or training that qualifies him to teach others how to run an animal shelter or do much of anything else. But, that’s not enough to stop someone like Haisley from selling his services to others. To some, he must be very convincing, because people seem to take him at face value and not check his credentials before getting involved with him.

Haisley Responses to Interrogatories in pending federal lawsuit by marlukha

Who knows what Haisley told Friends he could do for them, but whatever it was, they fell for it. Given the history and collective wisdom of Friends’ board members, it’s not surprising. They had already blown at least one great opportunity to hire a progressive shelter director. In any event, at some point, Friends, ARC, Palm Springs Animal Control and Palm Springs Police Department all decided to work together, not to help Rutgard, but to stage a “rescue” of his dogs. By late 2012, Palm Springs Animal Control had stepped up its game and began citing Rutgard more, which in retrospect was clearly just intended to lay a foundation for a plan that would be executed in early 2013.

In December 2012, Animal Control issued notices to Rutgard, claiming that neighbors were complaining about his dogs barking. As usual, they did nothing to offer to help find homes for any of the dogs, although they did capitulate and take in two of Rutgard’s dogs on separate occasions in late 2012. Rutgard took them to the animal shelter to relinquish them after he was told by VCA Palm Springs that Dr. Kunz would no longer honor the reduced rate sterilizations that had been agreed upon by the City and Dr. Kunz. The justification given to Rutgard was that the shelter was no longer being operated by the City of Palm Springs (Friends took over running it on November 1, 2012), so VCA would no longer honor any agreements made by the City. (He found out much later, after a thorough review of his invoices and payment records, that VCA Palm Springs had only actually done one sterilization surgery for the reduced rate of $50. He paid hundreds of dollars each for several more.)

On January 6, 2013, Animal Control Officer Leslie Tisdale called Rutgard on his cell phone to tell him that he had to get home right away because his dogs were in the front yard and some of them where fighting with each other. Rutgard was at the grocery store getting more chicken for the dogs and arrived home within a few minutes to see Tisdale and some police officers in front of his house. Their presence right at his fence was making his dogs very agitated. Apparently two of the dogs had gotten into a fight, which was likely provoked by the presence of uniformed officers right outside the fence. Two of the dogs needed veterinary care, and Tisdale ordered Rutgard to take them to VCA Indio, telling him that she would call there to make sure he took the dogs there. Why should it matter to her where someone takes his dogs? Why would Palm Springs Animal Control concern itself with what animal hospital a person takes his animals? That would become clear in a couple weeks.

Palm Springs Police issued Rutgard a citation, alleging violation of California Penal Code §597(b), for “animal neglect/crimes”. The alleged violation was amended the following day to Penal Code §597.1, failure to provide proper care and attention for animals. The reason for the change in “violation” also became clear later. Rutgard had taken his dogs to Dr. Kunz at VCA Desert Animal Hospital for a couple years and continued to do so after he ended up with the puppies. What Rutgard didn’t know was that Dr. Kunz had been in contact with Palm Springs Police Department and had been reporting to them that Rutgard was neglecting his dogs. Apparently it didn’t occur to the police to ask Kunz how he would know that or how much money Rutgard had paid to VCA facilities in Palm Springs, where Kunz is Medical Director, or to the VCA Indio facility. Nor did it occur to them to ask Rutgard how much money he had really spent on veterinary care in the past year. But, then, why should they when they were all working together?

If they had bothered to think about it, it might have occurred to them that the fact that Rutgard spent approximately $30,000 on veterinary treatment for his dogs in a year pretty well defeats a claim that he was failing to provide proper care and attention. But, by early January 2013, the plan was in full swing and Friends, Dr. Kunz, ARC, and the others weren’t going to let the truth get in the way of their publicity stunt. After receiving the citation in early January 2013, Rutgard was advised by an attorney to immediately get any and all veterinary records from both VCA facilities. VCA in Indio gave him the requested records right away, but the bulk of the records he needed were with VCA in Palm Springs, which is where Dr. Kunz is Medical Director. Rutgard tried several times to get records from that facility and was repeatedly told he couldn’t have them with different bogus reasons given every time. Staff initially told him he couldn’t have the records because he owed them money, which wasn’t true. Even if he had owed money to them, they couldn’t legally refuse to give him any records. Another time a staff member told him that he couldn’t have the records because the Palm Springs Police told VCA staff not to give Rutgard his records. Since when can a police department dictate policy for a private veterinary clinic? Still, no records from Dr. Kunz’s facility. Coincidence?

On January 12, 2013, Animal Control posted a Notice of Intent to Seize pursuant to California Penal Code §597.1, on Rutgard’s property. The reason that the code section on the citation was amended several days earlier is because PC §597.1 has a provision that permits a hearing to justify seizing animals, either before or after the seizure. In this case, city officials opted for the pre-seizure hearing, probably just to give the entire operation an air of legitimacy. Rutgard continued to try to get records from VCA Palm Springs, because those would have been evidence that he had actually provided more care for his dogs in a year than many people do in a lifetime.

The pre-seizure hearing was scheduled for January 16, 2013 at 1:30 PM. On the morning of the hearing, a rescuer from the San Diego area met Rutgard at his house to take three of his dogs. Two of his other dogs were at VCA in Palm Springs. One dog, Maxwell, had been there for weeks with no explanation whatsoever of why he was being kept so long. When Rutgard asked staff, they wouldn’t tell him why. That didn’t stop VCA from charging Rutgard for “boarding” Maxwell though. On the morning of January 16, 2013, Rutgard loaded nine of his dogs in wire crates and onto his flatbed truck to take to the animal shelter, because he had been told by shelter personnel that he could relinquish his dogs. Furthermore, PC §597.1 actually instructs a person to bring the animals to a pre-seizure hearing for inspection. When he got to the shelter he was told that they wouldn’t let him relinquish his dogs. He went to VCA Palm Springs to try one last time before the hearing to get veterinary records, but was, once again, told he couldn’t have them.

The Pre-Seizure “Hearing” and Decision

The “hearing” was a hearing in name only. It was nothing more than a charade. The City of Palm Springs was represented by an attorney, Kane Thuyen of Woodruff, Spradlin & Smart (the law firm that Palm Springs uses as its “City Attorney” at a cost of about $1,000,000 per year to taxpayers) as well as Palm Springs Animal Control Officers Tisdale and Nickerson. The hearing officer, Rodell Fick, a local attorney, was selected and paid by the City to administer the hearing and render a decision. Rutgard had brought with him some records from VCA Indio and at least payment receipts from VCA Palm Springs to show that he had, in fact, provided extensive veterinary care for his dogs. The hearing officer didn’t want to see his evidence and didn’t accept it when Rutgard offered it. In his decision, Fick stated, “No relevant exhibits were formally submitted by R. Rutgard for review.” What does that mean? What does he mean by “relevant”? And what does “formally submitted” mean? Apparently trying to hand evidence to the hearing officer and his rejection of it doesn’t count somehow, or maybe it’s just not “formal” enough.

Decision from the Pre-Seizure Hearing on January 18, 2013 by marlukha

On the other hand, the City produced what Fick referred to as “Exhibit 1”, which consisted of 57 pages of evidence that they conveniently forgot to give to Rutgard as due process requires. Undoubtedly just an oversight. It didn’t matter anyway, because the decision to seize Rutgard’s dogs had already been made well before the hearing. In fact, in a police report dated January 16, 2013 10:43 a.m., Officer Tisdale wrote:

“Palm Springs Animal Control, with the assistance of the Palm Springs Police Department and the Animal Rescue Corps intend to seize all dogs and puppies and any other animals found at the property where the animals are being kept at [address omitted] as well as from any veterinary service providers where Mr. Rutgard has animals for treatment as per CA P.C. 597(b) Crimes Against Animals and will be charging the owner, Richard Rutgard, of [address omitted] with animal cruelty.”

What? Officer Tisdale knew the outcome of the “hearing” a full 2 hours and 47 minutes before it even started. How could she possibly have known the outcome of and administrative hearing in advance? The answer is very simple: It was all part of the plan.

PSPD January 16, 2013 Police Report about Seizure of Rutgard's Dogs by marlukha

When City officials and the hearing officer were finished making a mockery of due process, at the end of the “hearing”, Officer Tisdale told Rutgard to take his nine dogs to the shelter because they would let him relinquish them then. When he got to the shelter about 15 minutes later, he was once again told by staff there that they wouldn’t take his dogs. Rutgard was told that some rescue groups would be coming out to his house the following Tuesday or Wednesday to take some of his dogs. That struck Rutgard as odd, but he could never have predicted what Friends, ARC, Palm Springs Animal Control and Palm Springs Police Department had planned for him and his dogs!

To Be Continued………

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