Merced County mulls hearing date for Last Hope, while Facebook post by animal control raises questions

rgiwargis@mercedsunstar.comOctober 18, 2013 

Merced County officials are working with attorneys of Last Hope Cat Kingdom to set a public hearing to decide the fate of the rescue’s cattery permit, which allows it to keep five or more animals on site.

Meanwhile, a recently surfaced Facebook post conveys an animal control supervisor’s controversial reaction to the June seizure just hours later. The seizure resulted in the euthanization of 200 cats.

The Atwater-based animal rescue became the subject of a criminal investigation after Merced County Animal Control officials said they found sick and dead animals at the rescue site in June. About 301 animals were seized, 295 cats and six dogs.

Mark Hendrickson, Merced County director of community and economic development, said a public hearing on the rescue’s permit will be held in six to eight weeks. Issued in 2003 by the county’s Planning Department, the permit allowed no more than 125 animals.

Hendrickson said a definitive date has not been set because staff is working with Last Hope Cat Kingdom’s attorneys to set a date that works for both parties. Hendrickson, who will serve as the hearing officer in the case, will decide whether to revoke the rescue’s permit or to take no action.

Neighbors will be notified of the hearing by mail 10 days prior. The public is invited to make comments limited to five minutes. County animal control will present its case and Last Hope Cat Kingdom co-owner Renate Schmitz or her representatives will have the opportunity to defend themselves.

“As a hearing officer, my role is to provide a forum from which every side of the issue will have an opportunity to provide comment,” Hendrickson said, adding that he hasn’t seen any evidence from the case. “My hope with this whole process is that when it’s all said and done, that people will say it was a fair process.”

Hendrickson said he will do his best to listen, ask questions and be fair to both sides. “My goal heading into this is that the applicant (Schmitz) will be afforded due process,” he said Thursday.

Rick Blackwell, Merced County animal services manager, said the county won’t make a recommendation to revoke the permit but will present “limited” evidence from the case and provide witness statements. “All we’re going to do is put on a presentation of what we have. Whether they revoke it or not is up to the hearing officer,” Blackwell said. “We do intend to show some of the scene photos and provide some information along those lines.”

If the hearing officer decides to revoke Last Hope Cat Kingdom’s permit, the permit holder must wait two years before a new application will be considered.

On a related note, the Sun-Star recently obtained a copy of a Facebook post by an animal control supervisor just hours after the seizure on June 26 that paints a picture of her reaction to the incident.

Kristi Caseri, Merced County animal control supervisor, posted the following comment: “We are the champions my friends! And well (sic) keep on fighting till we win! Some day the idiots will all be dealt with.”

Caseri’s comment was in response to a status update from animal control officer Cerissa Hultgren, the investigating officer on the case, thanking several agencies, co-workers and volunteers for their help during the raid.

“Everyone was worth their weight in gold. We needed a small army but got it done with a few. Thanks again!!!” the Hultgren post reads.

Caseri did not return calls seeking comment Friday.

Blackwell denied that Caseri was calling Schmitz or her volunteers “idiots,” saying the post was intended to express relief after a long and stressful day of dealing with sick animals. He said she was referring to people who abuse animals as idiots.

“Whether I feel it’s appropriate or not, she has a right to express herself. It was on her private Facebook page and it has nothing to do with the department,” Blackwell said. “It’s a statement made by an individual about their feelings, and quite frankly, it had nothing to do with this case.”

Although the Facebook post has since been removed by Caseri, Schmitz said she saw it and was shocked that animal control management appeared to “celebrate” putting down 200 cats. “I was shocked that they celebrate something like this and say they are the champions,” Schmitz said. “It came to my attention and I showed it right away to Blackwell and I said, ‘This is what you people do here.’”

Blackwell said no disciplinary action was taken against Caseri because the post was on a private Facebook page and did not divulge information about the case.

The Last Hope Cat Kingdom investigation concluded in August and the case was sent to the Merced County District Attorney’s office. Supervising Deputy District Attorney Steve Slocum said Wednesday he’s finished reviewing the evidence but hasn’t made any decisions on filing charges.

Sun-Star staff writer Ramona Giwargis can be reached at (209) 385-2477 or rgiwargis@mercedsunstar.com.

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