Animal control or out of control? San Diego Humane Society and SPCA has law enforcement powers, huge war chest

Humane Society officer checks on a dog in distress.

San Diego Humane Society and SPCA has law enforcement powers and huge war chest

In addition to having a warm and fuzzy public relations profile, The San Diego Humane Society and SPCA has a few items on its non-profit resume that comes as a surprise to most people.

The Humane Society and SPCA has a large, and growing, state-authorized law enforcement arm and more than $54 million sitting in cash reserves despite, or due to, its non-profit designation. The most recent publicly reported financial statements showed $65 million in income for the fiscal year ending June 30, 2013.

It’s not illegal to have such a large amount of cash stored in coffers, but is unusual.

For example, the nearby Rancho Coastal Humane Society, founded in 1960, has $2.2 million in reserves, according to spokesman John Van Zante. Non-profit groups, especially those without the voluminous and ongoing fundraising campaigns of the San Diego group, generally spend much of their revenue on services and education while holding much lower amounts of reserves.

As for enforcement, powers, don’t blink when you see the badges and uniform for Humane Society enforcement personnel could pass quite easily as municipal police officers. Aside from the official looking uniforms, officers carry pepper spray and stun guns. They also have official arrest powers pursuant to state law.

Make no mistake, the Humane Law Enforcement Department represents a significant revenue generating operation, and is considered a major, although sub rosa, or beneath the surface, part of the Humane Society business structure.

How it works

San Diego Humane Society and SPCA Chief of Humane Law Enforcement Steve MacKinnon.

San Diego Humane Society and SPCA Chief of Humane Law Enforcement Steve MacKinnon.

“State law gives our in-house Humane officers police powers,” San Diego Humane Society and SPCA Chief of Humane Law Enforcement Steve MacKinnon said. “We’ve been around for five to six years. About three years ago, our CEO wanted us to become more active.”

Mackinnon was named Humane Law Enforcement chief in January 2014. He hooked on with the Humane Society during a stint in earthquake-ravaged Haiti while attached to the UN Policing Task Force, also serving briefly at Kosovo. Before that, he Santa Paula, Calif. Police chief from 2005 to 2012.

MacKinnon became embroiled in a political struggle with the mayor and some city council members. He was fired. He said the firing was related to his exposing corruption at City Hall. An independent consultant hired by the city, in fact, exonerated him, and he sued for wrongful termination and damages in 2012.

As for his new agency, the law enforcement veteran of more than 35 years said, “We get some surprised looks directed at us,” when Humane officers show up at the scene.

“We do have the power to forcibly enter the car,” MacKinnon continued. “We make a quick assessment and if we see any kind of distress we take action. We have on occasion broken out windows and seized the animal.

“We then transport them to one of our campuses.,” MacKinnon continued. “Very often, we notify the local police department. We look at our enforcement action as educational. During the summer, it’s a daily event or almost daily, one or two (actions) a day.”

Society officers can seize animals from private residences as well. First, they issue a pre-seizure notice. Once the animal is seized, the owner gets a notice and has 10 days to ask for a hearing. An administrative officer conducts the hearing.

Hearings can take place at San Diego County Department of Animal Services hearing rooms in San Diego, Bonita or Carlsbad. With the Escondido Humane Society take-over last year, hearings now also can take place at Escondido City Hall.

Animals can be seized for alleged owner cruelty with owners take to court to answer animal abuse charges. They are subject to fines or even jail time. Courts can mandate payment of animal medical bills.

“It’s a mixed bag,” Mackinnon said. “We’re doing a lot of education with police departments, fire departments. People who come by are surprised. We’re trying to get the word out as a resource.”

Oceanside to Escondido, San Diego to Valley Center

Humane Society enforcement personnel checking animals.

Humane Society enforcement personnel checking animals.

Critics say the Society uses its enforcement powers in an arbitrary fashion, acting first and asking questions much later with education not a consideration. The implication is the Society is using its enforcement wing to generate revenue with unfortunate animal owners subject to unnecessary penalties and fines.

“There are two roles of our Humane Law Enforcement department,” Schry said. “Humane Officers investigate animal cruelty/neglect cases county-wide. They have the power to enforce when it pertains to animal-related crimes.

“Separately, every city contracts with an animal organization to care for the stray animal population in that city,” Schry said, “so, San Diego Humane Society holds the contracts in the cities of Escondido, San Marcos, Poway, Oceanside and Vista.”

Schry added: “The contracts cover expenses directly related to the first five days of care for an animal. Each animal is in our care for an average of 30 days, some are with us for much longer. Beyond the city’s obligation of five days of state-required care for strays, ongoing care for the remaining 25 days for the animal becomes San Diego Humane Society’s responsibility.”

The San Diego Humane Society and SPCA took over the Escondido Human Society in July 2014. The group added patrols in Escondido, Poway and San Marcos as a result. This went along with powers in Oceanside, Vista and valley Center.

Immediately after the Escondido takeover — officials called it a merger, but the San Diego group took over all Escondido operations — reports began circulating of Society enforcement officials breaking into cars at strip malls along the Highway 78 corridor from Escondido to Oceanside, especially around San Marcos, taking animals out of locked cars.

Other incidents reported soon after the Escondido take-over included a horse rescue owner who said Society officers came to her ranch and euthanized the horses. Dog owners reported humane society officers breaking into cars and taking out pets regardless of the circumstances if the owner were absent.

Society officials called this unavoidable to rescue animals. However, some pet owners who didn’t want their names disclosed, said they were gone only briefly and shocked when they returned to vehicles with smashed windows and pets missing.

Enforcing budgets and procedures

The enforcement budget for the group’s three main campuses at San Diego, Oceanside and Escondido is about $1.6 million. Escondido has an $885,000 contract.

Each campus has five officers, a sergeant and captain who report to McKinnon. Offices also have five dispatchers and an administrative assistant. The department has more than 25 employees, and is growing as more grant money, contracts and donations roll into coffers.

Some of this comes as a surprise even to animal professionals not to mention the common citizen. Some veterinary professionals around Valley Center not only didn’t believe, but disputed the fact the Humane Society operated around Valley Center when contacted for comments.

“We do cases in Valley Center as they come up,” Mackinnon said, “especially on ranches where we have a number of investigations in that area. Horses and livestock, especially, represent about 25 percent of our countywide cases.”

Valley Center undercover

One notorious investigation was done in conjunction with the San Diego County Department of Animal Services in August 2014.

Mirra Novak-Smith and partner Keith Sudak had 31 horses and a handful of llamas, geese and miniature cattle on their 40 acres in a very remote area near Hellhole Canyon Preserve. Miles of single-lane, dirt road lead to the area.

Following numerous visits to the property, according to published reports, the horses, mainly mares, were seized and taken to the county large animal facility at Bonita. Enforcement officials said the horses were malnourished with ribs showing. They made the seizure decision, though, they said, because the Valley Center couple stopped cooperating with them.

Officials conducted their own version of a media blitz with reports on all San Diego TV stations August 25, 2014 showing the horses at Bonita.

“We’ve known of this person for several years, San Diego County deputy director of Animal Services Dan DeSousa said. “We would get her into compliance and then things would tend to lapse.”

DeSousa said the owner could face charges ranging from misdemeanors to possible felonies. No charges appeared to be filed or fines assessed.

Knowledgable horse rescue owners and trainers looking at photos of the horses immediately after seizure said it wasn’t unusual for ribs to be showing a bit, especially in the top summer August heat.

What’s more, animal control officials gave the couple two weeks “to reimburse the county for the cost of the seizure and for the care of animals, including veterinarian expenses.”

Cost was variable and if the fees weren’t paid in two weeks, the animals would be considered abandoned and government property.

Horses taken from a Valley Center ranch and kept by Animal Control at Bonita.

Horses taken from a Valley Center ranch and kept by Animal Control at Bonita.

     Publicity rules

In point of fact, county officials only publicized the seizure two weeks after it happened, then used the publicity to sell the animals to new owners. Most of the confiscated mares weren’t so unhealthy as to have to be euthanized, and were healthy enough to be adopted out within weeks of the late August media blitz, according to sources.

One trainer, who was subject of a continuing series of Human Society enforcement visits, said once Human Society officials found a situation not to their liking, they routinely moved the finishing line for compliance no matter what actions the owner took.

Similar to Novak-Smith, this horse rescue said it finally stopped allowing officials access to the property because they considered this harassment and not good faith efforts to help animals.

A recent visit to the Novak-Smith property found people there, just not those people. A neighbor who didn’t want to be identified, said the couple moved out the day after their animals were seized.

Asked whether the animals were in poor health or if the property weren’t suitable, he pointed to the property, laughed and said. “They had 30 horses on 40 acres, so is that too much to handle? No.”

Novak-Smith’s social media accounts said she had moved to Montana.

Dealing with the Society

Valley Center and North County veterinarians who deal, or don’t, with the Humane Society were somewhat enigmatic when asked about the group. Dean of the Valley Center horse vet crowd with 30 years of local service, the ever-folksy Dr. William M. Talbot, said, “I don’t deal with them on equine problems. If there is a problem, the Human Society will call their vets. I have not been that person.”

Talbot added: “The Humane Society has got quite a bit of power. They can kind of shut you down. I haven’t had problems with them though.” Owners say they’re picking on them…..Sometimes people don’t have the money, they get very possessive…Most people are more likely to overfeed their horses than starve them. they’re killing them with kindness.

Nicki Branch of FalconRidge Horse Rescue, a non-profit humane equine sanctuary in Valley Center, and member of the San Diego Horse Coalition, noted that the Humane Society and San Diego County Department of Animal Services, “do work together, they’re housed in the same building. If the county can’t go out on a call, the Humane Society handles it.”

As for Society enforcement figures, Society officers responded to 1,712 reports and submitted 25 cases were submitted for prosecution in 2012-13. Officers saw 10,848 animals in the field and seized 310. they issued 675 violation notices and held 16 hearings. they also did 21 inspections and engaged in 27 educational speaking engagements.

Other field services included 517 animal bite quarantines, 558 citations and 8,490 field service assistance calls including animal welfare checks in Oceanside and Vista.

The total number of animals examined by a society veterinarian were 13,407, Some 4,722 human society animals were spayed or neutered and 2,534 such services were done for the Department of Animal Services.

Adoption consultations were provided 517 times. some 414 dental procedures were done, 2,401 lab procedures, 931 radiographs, 191 orthopedic surgeries, 465 other surgeries.

The society works closely with specially selected vets, but officials didn’t reveal who those people were and vets interviewed for this story denied being part of any Humane Society programs. Society officials also declined to disclose how much money they pay associated vets.

“When an animal is rescued by a Humane Law Enforcement officer and taken into our custody, our staff veterinarians administer veterinary care,” Schry said.

“Our staff veterinarians receive a salary and are not compensated based on the type or number of cases they see,” Schry said. “Our veterinarians are specifically trained in forensic medicine and work very closely with our own Humane Law Enforcement Officers as well as officers from the San Diego County Department of Animal Services.”

Schry added: “In general, veterinarians are professionally obligated to report suspected cases of animal abuse and neglect to authorities within their jurisdiction. Our Humane Law Officers investigate situations of animal abuse and neglect as well as enforce anti-neglect and anti-cruelty laws.

“All Humane Officers appointed by humane societies must be approved by a Superior Court judge in the county where the officer will be employed,” Schry said.

Tale of the Society financial tape

Gary Weitzman, DVM, president and CEO of San Diego Humane Society and SPCA.

Gary Weitzman, DVM, president and CEO of San Diego Humane Society and SPCA.

Which brings the story to an overriding fact of Humane Society and SPCA life. The group is a multi-million financial enterprise with almost $60 million sitting in various financial instruments, and not going back into services.

In a wide-ranging series of interviews with Humane Society spokesperson Kelli Schry and officials, they said that the most recent audited financial statements showed $35 million in investments and nearly $1.5 million in cash.

However, the latest financial statements released in connection with non-profit federal tax statements showed $59.3 million in assets as of June 30, 2014, up from $54.1 million on June 30, 2013.

The 2014 assets sheet showed $1.5 million in cash or cash equivalents, $35 million in investments, $11.7 million in net property and equipment and $9.8 million in net receivables. Another $841,810 was from beneficial interest in trust.

Annual support revenues for the group as reported on tax documents was $16.8 million in 2014. Bequests accounted for $9.5 million. Contributions accounted for $3.6 million. Special events cost $675,257 to put on and raised $1.5 million for a net profit of just less than $900,000.

When asked specifically about annual donations, Schry said, “Twenty percent of our annual income in 2014 came from general contributions of $4,993,732. Bequests comprised 44% of our income at $10,833,232.”

“Other revenue” for the group in 2014 was $7.5 million with $3.6 million from investment gains. The next largest chunk coming in was nearly $1.8 from field services and licensing.

Other revenue included nearly $600,000 from interest and dividends, $675,000 from adoptions and animal care, $405,000 from veterinary health services. nearly $200,000 from educational program fees, and $533,721 in retail sales with almost $300,000 spent on sales.

Investing and expenses

Schry said the Humane Society “has been investing both in its shelters, in new safety net services, as well as in the communities who depend on us for care of their animals. We’ve built new hospitals, new spay/neuter programs, and nurseries for newborn, orphaned animals.” She also cited a new open admission shelter policy as part of the investment strategy.

“We understand the best practice is to have at minimum twice your annual operating budget in investments in order to provide adequate income for the organization’s mission should a financial crisis befall us,” Schry said, “but we believe it’s more important to invest in lifesaving programs for San Diego County’s homeless animals.

As for expenses. Society tax documents list $1.3 million for adoptions and animal care, $1.3 million for investigations and field services and $1.2 million for community outreach.

The Society paid $1.3 million in management and general services, $2.2 million for donor development and fundraising and $613,800 for marketing and public relations.

Bottom line, net assets of the society for its last reporting date of June 30, 2014 was $50,455,408. The society reported an increase of $4.8 million in net assets in 2014 compared to 2013.

During this period, the society raised $14.1 million from pledges, bequests and trusts. Property and equipment owned by the group was egged at $11.7 million. That included $4 million in land and improvements, $11.1 million in buildings and improvements, $3.1 million in furniture and fixtures, $1.2 million for trucks and automobiles, $1.4 million in computer hardware and software and $225,145 in machinery and equipment.

Investments reported for fiscal year 2014 included $1.5 million in cash and cash equivalents, $13,7 million in common stock, $8.6 million in mutual funds and $11.2 million in fixed income. The Society reported net investment and dividend gains at $3.9 million, up from $3 million in 2013.

Functional expenses

San Diego Humane Society and SPCA Escondido office.

San Diego Humane Society and SPCA Escondido office.

“We work hard to be a well-managed organization, responsible stewards of donor dollars and have maintained a 4-Star Rating on Charity Navigator — their highest rating — for the past five years,” Schry, the Society spokesperson said.

“We have a Board of Trustees’ investment policy based on best practices whereby we are allowed to spend a portion of the annual earnings of the portfolio within an operating year,” Schry said.

“We rely on this portion of the portfolio’s proceeds as a stream of income to augment our annual operating budget,” Schry added. “That money goes directly to our programming expenses to save homeless animals.”

The endowment fund has skyrocketed in recent years. It was $112,670 in 2008 and 2009, skyrocketing with the reorganization to $2 million in 2010-11, $3.5 million in 2011-12 and 2012-13.

Breaking down “functional expenses” of the San Diego Human Society and SPCA for the fiscal year ending June 30,2014 found more than half of all expenses were employee and managerial salaries.

Some $7.1 million of the total $13 million went to salaries in adoptions and animal care. Another $789,661 went to investigations and field services salaries, $712,477 went to community outreach salaries.

Management and general salaries were listed at $827,650, donor development and fundraising salaries were $888,295, marketing and public relations 327,765. The 2013 figures were similar.

Salaries were by far the largest functional expense. Otherwise, occupancy and utilities took out $1 million, veterinary medicine and care nearly $1 million along with animal feed, supplies, equipment and habitat at just over $930,000.

The latest IRS Form 990 filings listed salaries for top management. President and CEO Gary Weitzman received $151,537 in 2012-13. Senior vice president Kelley Risely received $116,981. Executive vice president Charlotte Haries received $142,256. Director of Behavior Petra Mertens received $149,993.

Director of veterinary medicine Cynthia Mitchell received $115,625, Senior vice president and COO Kim Shannon received $132,584. Chief Development Officer Michelle Stuart received $130,756.

Top management received other benefits. Weitzman got more than $27,000  Harris got around $13,700. Mertens got nearly $13,500. Of that, the only specified income was moving expenses from Weitzman, although the amount of that benefit was not listed specifically.

For the 2012-2013 IRS 990 form, the Society listed 1,563 volunteers and 271 staff members. It said 42,615 animals were “impacted” along with 273,544 people by its operations. Of those, 357 “animals rescued for their protection,” 2,417 animals relinquished by owners, 1,596 animals transferred from other agencies and 4,778 stray animals admitted.

The Society said 2,288 were adopted, 3,547 cats were adopted, 576 small animals and horses were adopted and 1,307 animals were returned to their owners. Another 253 animals were returned to other agencies.

Some 983 animals were euthanized. “A small percentage of animals are euthanized,” the society said in its filings. In fiscal year 2012-13, 11 percent of our animal population fell into this category.”

Summing up

Say what one will, the Humane Society is a large revenue generating operation reaching across San Diego County yards and ranches in sometimes surprising ways. As the group’s efforts continue to expand, it will prove interesting to see whether more people notice the scope of its animal-related operations and revenue generating programs, or if it will be business as usual in coming years.

Humane Society publicity photo.

Humane Society publicity photo.

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