BROOKSVILLE — A Hernando County couple who operated a nonprofit animal shelter from which more than 200 animals were ordered removed in October will face criminal charges in connection with two distressed horses found on their property.
Assistant State Attorney Jason Smith said he is charging Carol Mas and her husband, Estebahn Agustinho, with two counts each of misdemeanor animal cruelty. If convicted, they could face up to a year in jail and a $5,000 fine.
Smith said the charges are based on evidence and photos submitted by Hernando County Animal Services after a monthlong investigation into Our Animal Haus, a shelter Mas and Agustinho operated on their 12-acre ranch.
During a mid October visit, animal control officers discovered an elderly chestnut mare named Ginger so weak she could barely stand. Officers removed the horse from the property on Lanark Road, but it was too late. A few days later, the horse was euthanized after a veterinarian deemed it too ill to be saved.
Another horse was later taken from the property and treated for malnutrition at Animal Services headquarters, and it has since been placed with another owner.
Officers also uncovered incidences of chronic malnutrition in nearly the entire animal population. In addition, many animals were found with untreated wounds and chronic, life-threatening diseases, and there were numerous cleanliness issues in areas where animals were housed.
County Judge Kurt Hitzemann in late October ordered the removal of more than 40 dogs, 98 cats, 48 birds, three horses, a donkey and other pets from the property.
Mas, who did not respond to an interview request Friday, has repeatedly railed against Hernando County Animal Services on her Facebook page and other Web sites, saying her actions were unfairly misinterpreted by authorities.
The investigation into Our Animal Haus was the first in a recent spate of inquiries into troubled animal rescue facilities in Hernando County.
On Nov. 12, Hernando County Animal Services employees responding to a complaint at a home on Tranquility Lane in Brooksville found nine horses in poor condition because of a lack of proper food. Two of the horses were down and were euthanized on the advice of a veterinarian.
Jerry Conley, 58, and Jillian Medina, 25, the owners of the rescue facility, called Living Ranch, both face eight counts of misdemeanor animal cruelty.
On Monday, animal control officers removed a dozen distressed animals from the Brooksville home of Douglas Holt, 46, and Lorri Schiller, 39, operators of the nonprofit corporation Disaster Animal Rescue/Response Team of Florida and Hoofs, Paws and Claws Inc. Officers also found the decaying carcasses of two guinea pigs, a ferret and a chinchilla inside the residence.
All three rescue facilities suffered from financial woes, a trait that has become all too common, said Joanne Schoch, executive director of the Humane Society of the Nature Coast.
Schoch said many people don't realize the amount of money, time and effort needed to keep an animal shelter in operation.
"It can't all be about having a big heart," Schoch said. "You need to have policies, guidelines and supervision. It's a business."
One of the things Schoch would like to see is a statewide coalition that could keep better tabs on small nonprofit shelters.
"There has to be a way to control it better than it is now," Schoch said. "In the end, it's the animals that ultimately pay the price when a shelter runs into trouble."
Logan Neill can be reached at email@example.com or 848-1435.