After years of discussion with the Lassen County Board of Supervisors and more than a year of wrangling in Lassen County Superior Court, the county finally took nuisance abatement action against an alleged North County ‘puppy mill’ in Ravendale on Wednesday, Jan. 3.
After a Dec. 18, 2017 hearing in Lassen County Superior Court, the county obtained an abatement warrant on Dec. 20 that was executed nearly two weeks later after the breeders —identified Charles Cooper, Debbie Valenta and High Desert Wolves according to court documents — failed to honor their agreement with the county.
“We’ve been working with this lady (Valenta) for seven years to prevent this situation from coming to a head in the manner that is has,” said Bob Burns, Lassen County counsel. “She had every ability and opportunity to prevent this … We’ve given her more than every opportunity to correct this. We constructed a stipulated judgment that contemplated phased down populations … and she’s kind of cooperated half-heartedly. Nevertheless, this is a crisis of her own making.”
“This is a person who has a puppy mill run amuck,” said Richard Egan, Lassen County administrative officer. “She has no market for the puppies, and that’s the essence of this problem. She can’t sell enough puppies to feed what she’s got, so we’re forced to come in and deal with this. It’s very regrettable the county has found itself having to become involved in this situation. It’s an absolutely irresponsible landowner, pet owner, who has caused us to reluctantly become involved. We did what we had to do to protect the constituents of the county.”
Valenta said her facility is an animal rescue — not a puppy mill — and in the last 20 years she’s placed more than 2,000 animals. In an effort to comply with the court’s order, she said she placed 62 animals since June and would have been in compliance except for “all the lies floating around out there” from people and organizations who were spreading falsehoods about her operation, calling it a puppy mill and alleging that she was an animal hoarder and her animals were not well cared for and diseased.
“This is just so wrong what they did,” Valenta said of the county’s action. “There’s no need for it.”
She said the county officials came onto her property, scared her animals and separated screaming puppies from their mothers. She said the county officials refused to walk through a bleach bath intended to prevent the spread of disease among her animals, and now, on Friday morning, two days after the county’s abatement action, she said she has dead and dying puppies and she plans to contact a veterinarian to find out what’s killing them. She suspects the county officials spread some disease through her facility because they refused to walk through the bleach bath.
Burns said he believed many of the the dogs had lived their entire lives in cages and were not socialized. He also said there were “anecdotal reports” of parvo and distemper among the dogs, “so consequently removal of these animals to our shelter represents a potential infectious hazard to our now safe animals.”
Regarding her work with wolf dog hybrids, Valenta asked if there was any reason they had to die simply because they had wolf blood.
Egan said Lassen County deputy sheriffs were on scene during the abatement to protect county staff — a move that raised concerns among some North County residents in the area who saw law enforcement officers with rifles near the property.
“No one was injured, no dog bites or anything,” Egan said. “None of our people were hurt.”
Burns said 30 or 31 dogs were seized, and Egan said the goal was to reduce the number of dogs to 75.
“We probably didn’t get to 75,” Egan said, “but we got close.”
Burns said there were 78 or 80 dogs left in an effort to make sure the county didn’t seize too many animals.
And Egan said in addition to the adult dogs, there are another 60 or so puppies at the property.
Both Burns and Egan declined to discuss the fate of the animals seized by the county.
“We abated the nuisance,” Burns said.
“This is a puppy mill,” Egan said. “We took the adult animals in excess of 75, and I guess that’s all we want to say about that. We had the county veterinarian with us to help determine if the animals were adoptable.”
Valenta said she also didn’t know the fate of the animals, but she said the county officials did not have enough cages to transport them and had to make several trips to collect the animals. She said she believed the animals were taken to a county shop in Ravendale.
“Two and two as far as I can figure out make four,” Valenata said. “I could be wrong. They could have had someone else meet them there and taken the animals another way, but I don’t think so. They took them off and killed them as soon as they got them off this property … There was no need for it. We were placing animals to homes and rescues.”
Despite the execution of this abatement warrant, it’s still not over.
“We will be back in June,” Egan said, when the requirements of the next phase of the agreement between Valenta and the county are to be met.
In an Aug. 15, 2017 letter to a Lassen Superior Court Judge, Burns said the county and the defendants Charles Cooper, Debbie Valenta and High Desert Wolves had reached a “concept settlement,” and he asked the court to take the matter off calendar, and the parties would complete a “stipulated judgment” for the court’s review.
According to the stipulated judgment, Lassen County Code declares any land use contrary to the provisions of Title 18 are unlawful and a public nuisance “per se,” which may be abated according to law.
The breeders acknowledged “for at least five years prior” they have had more than 100 dogs more than 6 months of age on their 20-acre property in Ravendale. Lassen County Code sets the maximum number of dogs older than 6 months at 25 per parcel.
The court accepted the stipulation of facts regarding the law and issued an abatement order.
According to the order, the defendants agreed — among other restrictions to come later — to reduce the number of dogs at the facility more than 6 months old to 75 by Oct. 1, 2017.
Burns said despite that agreement, the breeders failed to reduce the number of animals on the property and asked for more time. The county granted their request, and then a couple of weeks later they asked for more time again. The county also granted that request.
Burns said the breeders finally asked for a final extension and they would not be asking for any more, but after that extension expired Burns said there had been “no marked reduction” in the number of animals on the property, so the county applied for the abatement warrant. He said Valenta was present at that court hearing.
“The court granted the warrant, and that’s what we executed,” Burns said. “The judgment that was reached in the case that set the time frames was a stipulated judgment. It was a judgment that she agreed to rather than going to a full-blown hearing. She agreed to the date of Oct. 1 … ”
Egan said Valenta also was present on the property when the county executed the warrant.
Advertising wolfdogs for sale
According to its website, highdesertwolves.com, High Desert Wolves offers “hybrid cubs” for sale but they plan to retire before Oct. 1 and they’re offering as many as 55 animals at reduced prices.
The website reports, “This site is for all wolfdogs … We are also the first breeders in the world to offer true miniature wolf hybrid puppies for sale. Ever since we publicly announced our plan, there have been a lot of copycats, but do not be fooled. We started it all using smaller hybrids and small breeds that compliment the hybrids like the American Eskimo. The copycats are inbreeding to try to get the results we have already gotten … ”
In July 2012, Valenta sought a variance from the county code from the Lassen County Board of Supervisors.
She told the board the kennel has been there for more than seven years and that the wolf/dog rescue operation in Lassen County is unique because it’s the only one of its kind.
She said she loved the animals, and many of them were near death when she took them in. She said if the county did not approve the variance, many of the animals might not find other homes. She admitted she’s only allowed 25 dogs by county ordinance, but claims she has a substantial property right to have more dogs.
In addition, she said there were no issues that would affect the health and safety of the community.