BROOKSVILLE — The owners of a troubled animal sanctuary are unfit to possess the more than 200 animals in their care, Hernando County Judge Kurt Hitzemann ruled Thursday.
Carol Mas, one of the owners of the nonprofit Our Animal Haus, was visibly shaken as Hitzemann delivered his ruling in a case that began with complaints that Mas and her husband, Estebahn Agustinho, had failed to provide proper food and living conditions, which led to the deterioration of some of the animals' health.
Hitzemann said that although he saw no malice in the couple's actions, he believed the neglect was due to having too many animals. They face no criminal charges.
"I think you're in over your head here," Hitzemann said.
Hitzemann's ruling followed testimony by Hernando County Animal Services supervisor Patrick Pace, who said nine visits to the 12-acre ranch on Lanark Road, east of Brooksville, revealed numerous instances of animal neglect, including severely malnourished animals, filthy bird and cat cages, and untreated, diseased and injured animals.
Two weeks ago, officers removed a severely malnourished chestnut mare named Ginger from the property. She was later ordered euthanized after a veterinarian determined she was too weak to save.
"Things never really improved much," Pace said. "We would tell them what needed to be done, but they wouldn't cooperate."
Pace said that the neglect, coupled with Mas and her husband's penchant for keeping the carcasses of deceased animals inside a freezer, was consistent with the behavior known as animal hoarding syndrome, a pathological disorder that involves a compulsive need to collect and control animals with little regard to their health and welfare.
Mas, who appeared at the hearing without her husband, denied the claim, saying that her financial woes and the impending foreclosure of her home caused the downfall of what she considered to be a "good rescue."
She pleaded with Hitzemann not to shut down the operation, saying that with a little help, she could right the situation.
"The worst I can be accused of is keeping (homeless animals) off the street," Mas said.
A former pop singer in the late 1970s, Mas earned some short-lived notoriety as Carolyne Mas with a song called Stillsane. She and Agustinho began collecting unwanted pets in the late 1990s and moved to Florida in 2003. Three years later, Mas bought her present home, where she divided her time between caring for her ailing aunt and an ever-growing menagerie that included nearly 100 cats, 40 dogs, 50 birds, five horses and a donkey, plus an assortment of domestic and exotic pets.
In September, the Web site Huffington Post brought Mas some national attention with an article that focused mainly on Mas' musical past, but also detailed some of the financial challenges her shelter was facing.
Hitzemann did allow a small loophole for Mas in his ruling Thursday. She could negotiate to keep a small number of pets, but is forbidden to own any more than that in Hernando County for a period of three years.
Animal Services director Liana Teague said her agency will begin moving animals off Mas' property today. The animals' fate will depend on their overall health and whether they are fit to be adopted.
The livestock, which includes an adult horse, three ponies, a donkey and a cow, will be sold at auction to help defray some of the $5,700 in expenses the county has incurred so far investigating the case.
Logan Neill can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (352) 848-1435.