Owners of a troubled animal rescue are being allowed to retain guardianship of the 200 animals on their property, as long as they cooperate with Hernando County Animal Services inspectors.
Carol Mas, co-owner of the non-profit Our Animal Haus sanctuary, appeared before county Judge Kurt Hitzemann on Friday to answer accusations by officials that she and her husband, Estebahn Agustinho, failed to provide proper food and living conditions for the animals in their care.
Animal Services supervisor Patrick Pace said a monthlong investigation at the 12-acre property on Lanark Road had uncovered incidences of chronic malnutrition in some animals, untreated wounds on a horse and donkey, and numerous cleanliness issues where animals were housed.
On Oct. 16, a severely malnourished chestnut mare named Ginger was ordered removed from the property by Animal Services. The horse, estimated to be 18 to 20 years old, was later euthanized after a veterinarian who determined it was too weak to save. Another horse and seven cats were removed from the property Wednesday.
In a rambling response, Mas spent nearly 20 minutes in court countering most of the agency's claims. She said the euthanized horse had arrived at her property underweight two years earlier, but she and her husband, who did not appear at the hearing, never thought the animal was suffering.
"For a very old horse, it was active," Mas said. "She liked to graze, and that's what we let her do."
Assistant County Attorney Erica Moore had asked the judge to find Mas unfit to care for the animals, but Hitzemann delayed any such action until Mas could appear before him next week with her attorney.
Although she admitted that her $476,000 home had been foreclosed on, Mas denied she was in financial distress, saying an unidentified "financial backer" had agreed to pay for improvements to the property.
Mas and her husband moved to the property in 2006 to establish Our Animal Haus. The couple's menagerie grew to include 40 dogs, 98 cats, 48 birds, five horses and a donkey, plus an assortment of domestic and exotic pets, including rabbits, ferrets and a prairie dog.
Pace said a Sept. 16 visit revealed growing problems as the couple became more and more overwhelmed by the work and expense involved in caring for so many animals. Photos entered into evidence showed piles of animal feces in several areas of the home's living quarters.
Another set of photos showed several of the 27 dead animals that officers discovered inside a freezer. Mas explained that she kept the animals there because she was unsure of laws regarding animal burials on her property.
Under Hitzemann's order, Mas must give unfettered access to animal control officers and may not take in any new animals. Animals that have been seized will remain in custody of Animal Services and may be euthanized if so recommended by a veterinarian.
Mas is due to appear again before Hitzemann on Thursday.
Logan Neill can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 848-1435.