It’s a battle that’s been raging in Lassen County for several years regarding what’s been called at different times and different places an animal rescue, a breeding and sales site for specialty wolfdog hybrids or simply an out of control puppy mill in the high desert near Ravendale.
And now, after appearances before the Lassen County Board of Supervisors, legal wrangling in Lassen Superior Court, the execution of an abatement warrant that may have seen a number of animals euthanized, a stipulated settlement agreed to by the dog owners and the county, a court appearance by animal rescue representatives and another new abatement warrant signed by a Lassen County Superior Court judge, the matter may be coming to a final — at least for now — resolution.
The issue for Lassen County is simple — it’s the number of animals allowed on a particular parcel as governed by county code.
According to Lassen County Code section 18.108.025, no more than 25 dogs 6 months of age and older can be kept on a single parcel of land.
Lassen County Counsel Bob Burns described the issue and the county’s frustration.
“There were groups of dogs who were at large, the neighbors had been menaced, neighbor’s animals had been attacked, and I believe, killed. It’s a health and safety issue,” Burns said. “The county would prefer these animals be placed somewhere humanely rather than be euthanized if possible, but this problem has been going on for years, and we have essentially run out of patience.”
On the other side are animal rescue groups scrambling to find homes for them before the abatement warrant’s deadline.
According to an Oct. 11 press release from Betsy Klein, of the Plan B Foundation, its “Massive dog rescue in Lassen County defies the odds.”
According to the foundation’s release, a coalition of groups, including Plan B to Save Wolves, W.O.L.F. Sanctuary of Colorado, Apex Protection Project, Pets Return Home, Wolf Mountain Sanctuary and the Omen Creek Wolf Sanctuary and other individuals from the rescue world are trying to remove as many animals as possible before Lassen County executes its abatement warrant.
According to the release, “So far, The High Desert Wolves Rescue Team has been able to vet and transport 99 animals to safe havens around the country. With the deadline looming and 37 animals slated for placement pending vetting and 25 still needing placement, time is of the essence and help is desperately needed.”
“It’s amazing what can be accomplished in an emergency,” Klein wrote. “Originally, our small team of rescuers was given under a week to save 161 animals from High Desert Wolves. We have 62 dogs on the property and two weeks to save them. We have 37 slated for various rescues pending confirmation of their facilities and their sustainability.”
Despite their efforts, the county is ready to move.
“It’s our (Lassen County) intention to execute and enforce the warrant we acquired from the court,” Burns said, “and the judgment contemplates reducing the number of animals to no more than 25 (that are) 6 months or older, and, according to a stipulated judgement agreed upon by the owners and the county, all those animals will be spayed or neutered. Our purpose is to try and prevent this from reoccurring.”
Burns said at an abatement warrant hearing on Oct. 5, the most recent rescue group said they could place most of these animals if they just had 30 days.
“We said we could live with that if that’s what the court was inclined to do,” Burns said, “and so the court issued an abatement warrant and we were given through Nov. 5 to execute it. We indicated it would be our desire to execute that warrant on Friday, Nov. 2 or Monday, Nov. 5, and they needed to make provisions for whatever animals they could, and I understand they’ve been making some provisions.”
But Burns said while the rescue groups say they have commitments to take some of the dogs, many remain on the site in Ravendale.
“We’ve agreed to be somewhat patient if it looks like some progress is being made, but this is a problem that’s been going on entirely too long. Do we want to euthanize these dogs? Absolutely not. But are these warm, fuzzy little pets? No. A majority of these dogs are for all intents and purposes feral. They’ve not been socialized. They’ve been in cages their entire lives. Many of them won’t let you get near them. These are not adorable, loving little critters.”
Back in July 2012, North County residents Charles Cooper and Debbie Valenta sought a zoning variance from the planning commission and then the Lassen County Board of Supervisors to allow them to keep 75 wolfdog hybrids on their property about 12 miles northeast of Ravendale. The supervisors denied the variance.
Valenta told the board her kennel has been in operation for more than seven years, and its wolfdog rescue operation is unique because it’s the only one of its kind.
Valenta asked the board to give her eight months to move her animals to another county, and the board’s gave her the time to come into compliance.
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 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 Burns at the time. “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, at the time. “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.”
In response in January 2017 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.”
Both Burns and Egan declined to discuss the fate of the animals seized by the county. When asked that question, Burns simply said, “We abated the nuisance.”
Valenta said she also didn’t know the fate of the animals, but she said the county officials did not have enough pens for the dogs and had to make several trips to collect them. She said she believed the animals were taken to a county shop in Ravendale where they were euthanized.
“Two and two as far as I can figure out make four,” Valenta 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.”