Humane Society ‘devastated’ after investigation shows dozens of small San Diego pets likely fed reptiles

Dozens of young animals transported from San Diego to the Humane Society of Southern Arizona in August likely became food at a reptile farm in Maricopa County, the group said Thursday.

During a news conference, Robert Garcia, the attorney who chairs the HSSAZ board, said his group transferred 323 animals to Colten Jones, one of two brothers who run Fertile Turtle, a reptile business in the Phoenix area. Of those animals, only 62 were returned to the HSSA after the group began asking questions, and the nonprofit “has worked since their return to determine the fate of the missing animals.”

“We have now received new information that sheds light on the possible outcome for the remaining animals,” Garcia said. “The day after receiving these animals, Colten Jones sent a text message asking for help preparing a large quantity of guinea pigs and rabbits for food.”

October: The Humane Society fires Farley for his “extremely negligent” treatment of missing small pets

“We know that Mr. Jones runs a reptile breeding company called Fertile Turtle,” Garcia said. “Part of this business includes selling live and frozen animals for reptile feed.”

“The board, staff and volunteers of HSSA and SDHS share our community’s outrage and this latest piece of information that clearly indicates Mr. Jones’ intent to use these animals as feed rather than find them adoptive homes,” Garcia said. “We are heartbroken for every one of these animals and every individual who shares our concern for them.”

“We could never have imagined anything like this happening in terms of organizing,” Garcia said. “I feel so sad for the animals and sad for our community and sad for our organization whose mission is to protect and save animals. So yes, I’m devastated. Our communities have been devastated and our people have been devastated and where we now know and have information about the likely outcome, that’s not what we wanted.”

In early August, the Humane Society of San Diego asked for help finding homes for dozens of small “pocket pets,” including rabbits, guinea pigs and other small animals. HSSAZ agreed to help and by August 8, the California organization had “conducted a mass transfer—the largest in the history of the San Diego Humane Society”—to relieve pressure on overwhelmed shelters by sending 318 animals from San Diego to Tucson.

Young pets have a “new opportunity to find loving families,” the San Diego group said in a press release promoting the move.

However, weeks after the transfer, SDHS began requesting information about animal adoptions. The organization said that among the animals were 70 rabbits that had electronic chips implanted in them, but the registration data for those chips had not been updated.

It quickly became clear that the animals had been shipped to a “private, family-run group” in Maricopa County, as first reported by Arizona Public Media, and employees and supporters of the California rescue group were not satisfied with the limited information about the animals’ status.

The company associated with this group, Fertile Turtle, did not respond to Sentinel’s requests for comment. The company, which posted snakes for sale at prices up to $2,000, has deactivated its social media pages since the controversy began.

In the following weeks, the organizations faced increasing pressure to account for the missing animals, including days of protests at the San Diego Humane Society. By early October, HSSAZ had fired CEO Steve Farley and accepted the resignation of Christian Gonzalez, the chief program officer at the private animal shelter in Tucson who oversaw the relocation.

During a press conference in October, Garcia said Colten Jones and his brother Trevor said 254 animals had been placed in homes, although they had not provided “adoption records,” he said. Furthermore, none of the dozens of missing rabbits have been found, an SDHS spokeswoman told the Sentinel.

The HSSAZ board did not learn of the involvement of Colten Jones — the owner of the reptile farm — until weeks after the transfer, and Farley and Gonzalez were placed on leave that day, in part to ensure people could come forward with information without fear of retaliation.

The HSSAZ board “discovered that Trevor Jones was merely an individual who routinely facilitated animal adoptions, primarily through personal relationships at his church and in the community and was not a licensed rescue,” Gareca said last month.

He added that the organization’s “overzealous employees had nothing to do” with transporting the animals to Phoenix, and that there were “ongoing threats to the employees’ mental and physical safety.”

Garcia said “poor judgment” by “previous leadership” “threatened the continued work of our organization.”

“We have a responsibility to search for concrete answers about the fate of these animals,” Garcia said. “We have consistently reaffirmed our commitment to pursuing legal action when necessary.”

Garcia said Wednesday that HSSAZ may take legal action against the former employees and Jones, however, he demurred when asked to name HSSAZ employees who may face legal action.

“I don’t want to mention names,” Garcia said.

He added that the San Diego and Tucson organizations will work to “strengthen civil and criminal procedures.” The organizations also asked people with relevant information to contact the Tucson Police Department.

Garcia also told reporters that an investigator from HSSAZ was in regular contact with Colten Jones, who denied the allegations. The text message from Jones asking for help treating the animals came from a Tucson reporter, Garcia said. \

“Well, the information certainly tells us what intent was with the animals,” he said. “We have repeatedly asked Mr. Jones to provide us with information to the contrary, but he has not. So we can only make decisions based on the information we have.”

He added that an internal investigation is ongoing, and said a report is scheduled to be published in early December.

“These investigations and associated recommendations are necessary to ensure that this tragedy does not happen again and that those responsible are held accountable,” Garcia said. “We will take legal action as appropriate. But beyond that, we will focus on our mission. We have hired a great interim CEO who is making a huge difference in helping us change our culture, and making sure this never happens again.”

Farley “in the doghouse”

Farley served as a state representative and then state senator from Tucson, leaving the Legislature because of term limits. He has been named Humanitarian Legislator of the Year several times. Best known for his public art projects—including tiled photographic murals at the Broadway entrance to downtown—he continued his unsuccessful primary campaigns for governor of Arizona and mayor of Tucson. Farley was also removed from his position on the Pima County Animal Care Center Advisory Committee.

When he was hired 3.5 years ago, he said he “couldn’t be happier to be in the kennel.”

Gonzalez has worked for the local Humane Society for 12 years, according to the organization’s website.

As the group’s COO, he has been a “driving force over the past 16 months to help find better ways to care for pets in need of temporary shelter,” HSSAZ said.

“His other real passion is spending his time caring for and rescuing reptiles. He has been involved in rescuing and placing hundreds of reptiles across the country,” the website said.

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