On Oct. 22 the Missouri Attorney General filed a petition with the courts against Safe Harbor Animal Sanctuary and Safe Harbor Director Alice Wybert, for a temporary restraining order, preliminary and permanent injunction, and civil penalties.
The petition alleges that Wybert failed to maintain adequate veterinary care for the animals of Safe Harbor; did not provide adequate housing facilities; displayed inadequate health and husbandry practices; and lacked adequate record keeping. Several specific violations from the Missouri Department of Agriculture were listed under each charge in the petition.
In layman’s terms:
-The facility was not clean enough according to state standards.
-Animals were going without proper veterinary care with some dying as a result.
-Isolation procedures were not being followed to keep sick animals out of the population with healthy ones.
-The number of cats at the facility was too high, sometimes almost four times the amount the state allows.
-Wybert failed to keep the proper paperwork on all animals at the facility. Not only were common records not kept on many of the animals, some paperwork simply was not there. Many of the cats at Safe Harbor were not documented at all.
Closure of the facility was announced on local news outlets and Safe Harbor’s Facebook page on Oct. 30, just after 5:00 p.m.
Wybert made a statement during an interview with a local news station on Friday that she felt the petition was based on complaints, made out of spite, by disgruntled board members who were voted off the board. According to reports no such vote was ever taken although more than one board member had voluntarily relinquished their seats in recent months. Furthermore, Wybert contends that the petition is only “one side of the story” when in fact the 18 page petition is full of carefully documented violations, written during multiple investigations, by the Missouri Department of Agriculture. Wybert also states during the interview that all of the violations have been corrected. But if that were true, the sanctuary would not be closed under court order at this time.
Disgruntled board members or not, no complaint made by individuals alone will produce the result of such a complaint being filed by the Attorney General’s office. A petition of this magnitude is most certainly the direct result of a long term and ongoing investigation into the operations of Safe Harbor Animal Sanctuary.
The petition filed by the state shows only two signatures; Rachel Cook, DVM and the other, Cassie Driskill, both animal welfare officials for the Missouri Department of Agriculture. Cook is the veterinarian for the state and Driskill is the inspector for the Department of Agriculture. The presence of these officials in the case, along with the extensive list of violations of the Animal Care Facilities Act, indicates that the suit filed was a direct result of multiple and repeated unresolved violations by Wybert and Safe Harbor Animal Sanctuary.
Unrest between Wybert and unidentified board members did not take place until months after multiple inspections and violations began to pile up against Safe Harbor. In fact, it was Wybert’s failure to notify the board of those violations, and her refusal to comply, that sparked problems between Wybert and various board members of the sanctuary. Board members say they have nothing to do with the state’s investigation but some support the action being taken by the MDA and say it’s a long overdue.
As early as the fall of 2013 the Missouri Department of Agriculture had warned Safe Harbor to reduce its numbers. Since then the department has inspected Safe Harbor on multiple occasions, each time noting violations against the sanctuary. On each return visit the state found that previous violations had not been corrected and that the animal population had actually grown.
Throughout months of inspections Wybert was repeatedly instructed to reduce numbers, seek vetting for multiple animals, and perform adequate cleaning protocols. With numbers well over the legal limit for the state’s allowed population, Wybert ignored the department’s orders and continued to take in more animals.
As far back as Dec. 13, 2013 there were orders given by the MDA for veterinary care of animals that Wybert never accomplished. Many violations noted ocular and nasal discharge from a large number of the cats, a symptom of a highly contagious respiratory infection. Multiple cats displayed the symptoms, not in quarantine, but in general population. Cats with such an illness will most certainly infect other cats in their company. Many cats at Safe Harbor Animal Sanctuary died as a direct result of inadequate veterinary care, even after the MDA ordered it. Reports of other highly contagious diseases have been noted at the sanctuary but remain unconfirmed.
During a May 15, 2014 visit by the MDA, cat John Otis was observed as being very thin and was passing liquid stools. Wybert indicated that the John Otis had been diagnosed with chronic diarrhea in January of 2013 but could not produce vet records to show he had seen a vet since that time. MDA officials ordered Wybert to see to it that John Otis was seen by a veterinarian by May 19. On July 25, John Otis died and Wybert was unable to produce any documentation to show that he had been seen by a vet after the May 15 order to do so.
While there is no doubt that Safe Harbor Animal Sanctuary and Wybert has saved countless animals over the years, the situation at Safe Harbor has spiraled out of control. So much so that the Department of Agriculture had no choice but to take legal action against Wybert and Safe Harbor. The condition Safe Harbor is in today did not happen overnight, and was certainly not caused by members of the sanctuary board.
The MDA has worked with Wybert for months to rectify the situation but without her willingness to comply the situation has only grown worse. The Oct. 22 petition was a last ditch effort on the MDA’s part to keep the situation contained and eliminate the risk of any more animals being taken in and further compounding the problems Safe Harbor faces.
Many people will agree that Alice Wybert, who has run the sanctuary for many years, has a big heart and good intentions, and will not turn an animal away. But big heart or not, Wybert’s refusal to comply with state regulations, or use common sense, has inevitably put more animals at risk over the past several months or longer, than she can hope to save. It defies logic to continue to take in animals when one is not providing proper care for the ones they already have. It is most certainly her actions, or inaction, that caused violations so repeated and severe to prompt the petition filed by the Missouri Attorney General, and not the complaints of any unofficial individuals.
On Oct. 31, the court ordered a temporary restraining or as follows:
THE PARTIES AGREE AND ARE ORDERED: Defendant Alice Wybert and Defendant Safe Harbor Animal Sanctuary (“Defendant Shelter”) shall be restrained and prohibited from: Accepting, taking, taking-in, receiving, admitting, acting as donee, grantee, or acting in any way as a party in receipt of a conveyance of any animals into their custody and control, until further order of this Court; Holding out for sale, selling, gifting, donating, adopting, transferring, or in any way conveying the animals in their custody and control to any other person or entity; except for those dogs provided for the Puppies for Parole programs; until further order of this Court; Removing or transferring any animals located at 359 Cree Lane, Jackson, Missouri, or between any other Safe Harbor Animal Sanctuary shelters, facilities, properties, locations, or to the private residences of any of the owners, members of the board, employees, or volunteers; Conducting any ACFA regulated activity, except for the those responsibilities under the ACFA statues and regulations required to be performed to ensure continuous, ACFA-compliant care for the animals in Defendants’ custody, until further order of this Court; Operating or managing Safe Harbor Animal Sanctuary in a manner that interferes with Defendants’ ability to adequately perform Paragraph D above. Defendants are further Ordered to, within one day, produce to the Department a written inventory of all animals in Defendants’ custody and control as of the date of the filing of this matter, including the identification of the animal, its location including address, and its health condition. Defendants shall have full access to Regions Bank accounts and funds necessary for only the day-to-day operations of the Defendant Shelter, and must make an accounting thereof provided by 5:00 pm on the following Monday when any funds are spent; The term of this Agreed Order to last, by consent, for thirty (30) days from the entry of this Agreed Order. Thirty days after the entry of this Agreed Order, or as soon thereafter as may be heard, this matter is set down for hearing in the Circuit Court of Cape Girardeau County, Missouri, for a permanent injunction and trial, by consent of the Parties and as permitted by Missouri Supreme Court Rule 92.02(c)(3). SO ORDERED by Judge William L. Syler.
The next court date for Wybert and Safe Harbor Animal Sanctuary is scheduled for Feb. 9, 2015.