Hernando nonprofit animal sanctuary suffers fiscal woes

BROOKSVILLE — On his visit to Our Animal Haus shelter on Friday, Hernando County Animal Services supervisor Patrick Pace said it was obvious the chestnut mare named Ginger was in distress.

The horse, estimated to be 18 to 20 years old, appeared to be extremely emaciated, he said. It struggled to stand and there were signs that the animal suffered from diarrhea.

Two weeks earlier, Pace said he told owners Carol Mas and Estebahn Agustinho that the horse needed to be seen by a veterinarian. Since then, severe malnutrition had weakened the animal to a point that it could not stand up.

Pace called the Hernando County Sheriff's Office to send a livestock trailer to remove the horse from the property on Lanark Road, but it was too late.

Brooksville veterinarian Jennifer Weldon later examined the horse and found it was too far gone to save. Ginger was euthanized on Monday.

Despite a court order to do so, Animal Services said the couple has failed to provide proper food and living conditions to the nearly 200 animals under their care at the 12-acre ranch on Lanark Road.

The month-long investigation of the shelter, Pace said, "has kept us busy."

"It's a difficult situation," Animal Services director Liana Teague said. "We know that they are overwhelmed. We've tried to help, but we haven't had much response so far."

Community Services director Jean Rags on Wednesday said that Animal Services officers removed several more distressed animals from the shelter, including a horse and six kittens. Rags said the animals were taken to Animals Services for treatment.

On Friday, Mas and Agustinho are set to appear before County Judge Kurt Hitzemann to answer civil accusations of animal abuse and neglect.

Assistant county attorney Erica Moore said the shelter is not allowed to take in animals until existing problems are corrected. She said that while the owners are facing only civil penalties now, that could change.

"We're keeping the State Attorney's Office in the loop," she said.

• • •

Animal Services officers saw signs of deteriorating conditions on a Sept. 16 visit, reports say. Since then, Pace said, things have worsened as Mas and her husband continue to struggle financially.

According to Teague, the shelter is home to 40 dogs, 98 cats, 48 birds, five horses, a donkey, plus an assortment of domestic and exotic pets, including rabbits, ferrets and a prairie dog.

Despite repeated offers of food and other assistance from the county, Teague said, Mas and her husband have consistently failed to provide adequate care for the animals.

In addition to signs of chronic malnutrition of some animals, officers have documented untreated wounds on a horse and donkey. They have also cited the couple for not properly vaccinating those animals that are required by the county to have vaccinations.

Since the investigation began, Mas and her husband have not responded to repeated interview requests by the Hernando Times.

However, in a September interview, Mas talked extensively about her dream to establish an animal sanctuary, as well as her life as an aspiring rock singer-songwriter.

Once touted as "the female Bruce Springsteen,'' Mas, 54, had pretty much given up on her music career years ago. Save for a minor hit single, Stillsane, in 1979, Mas, who performed as Carolyne Mas, never established a strong following.

She said she preferred that people know her as a "woman with good heart.''

Such was the idea behind establishing Our Animal Haus, Mas said. A life-long animal lover, she viewed the shelter as a calling, a way to "give animals that no one wants a chance to live long, happy lives.''

Mas said that as the economy worsened, people begged her take in pets they could no longer afford to care for and to spare them from euthanasia at a public shelter.

Mas admits it has been a struggle to survive.

In 2003, an attempt to start a shelter at a house in New Port Richey was thwarted when Mas and her husband were found to be violating a city code by having 25 dogs and 33 cats living in out buildings on the property.

Three years later, she bought the wooded property in Hernando County and set up Our Animal Haus.

It had a barn for larger animals, and the couple invested thousands of dollars in fencing and out buildings for their ever-growing menagerie.

By the end of last year, Mas' financial woes began to deepen. Unable keep up with mortgage payments on the New Port Richey home, she turned it over to the bank.

Employees who helped with animal care were let go because the couple couldn't afford to pay them. Mas even put her prized musical instruments collection up for sale to make ends meet.

In September, the Web site Huffington Post brought Mas some national attention. The article by Holly Cara Price focused on Mas' musical past, but also detailed some of the financial challenges the shelter was facing. Mas said she was disappointed that the article didn't generate more contributions.

"It's been horrible," Mas said. "We just scrape by. Whatever extra money comes in goes to feeding the animals. There's nothing left after that."

• • •

According to Animal Services, officers responding to anonymous complaints first inspected the shelter in February, but found no violations.

Officers returned again in March and May and again in August when they learned Mas had been soliciting donations of food via her Facebook page.

Again, they found no violations.

Since Sept. 16, Animal Control has visited Our Animal Haus five times. According to Pace, who has been present at most of the visits, Mas and her husband seemed cooperative at first. But the more problems officers found, the more resistant the couple became.

According to reports, the couple was cited for a number of cleanliness issues related to bird cages and other areas where animals were housed. In addition, the shelter lacked adequate flea control.

Knowing the couple was struggling to pay for food, Pace said he offered to distribute some of the animals to other shelters.

Mas, he said, rejected the offer.

Logan Neill can be reached at lneill@sptimes.com or 848-1435.

Hernando nonprofit animal sanctuary suffers fiscal woes 10/21/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, October 21, 2009 10:31pm]

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