Did the reputations of two major humane societies go to rat poop or to snake poop? Inquiring minds & people who care about animals want to know.
TUCSON, Arizona; SAN DIEGO, California––Humane Society of Southern Arizona board chair Robert Garcia in an October 5, 2023 pledged to “explain everything that we know as of October 5, 2023, about the transfer of approximately 318 small mammals from the San Diego Humane Society to the Humane Society of Southern Arizona on August 7, 2023.
Circumstantial evidence has suggested for two months now that most of the small mammals, instead of being offered for adoption as the San Diego Humane Society intended, ended up with a breeder of reptiles and rodents used to feed snakes.
San Diego & Tucson humane societies cut a deal
“In July 2023,” recounted Garcia, “the San Diego Humane Society contacted the Humane Society of Southern Arizona, requesting assistance to transfer these small animals, which included mice, rats, guinea pigs, rabbits, etc. The transfer was agreed to by then Humane Society of Southern Arizona chief executive officer Steve Farley and overseen by our former chief of operations, Christian Gonzalez.
“The Humane Society of Southern Arizona board was first made aware of the transfer on August 31 by [Farley],” Garcia said, “who communicated to us that the small animals were successfully transferred to a private, family-run rescue group in Maricopa County operated by a Trevor Jones. We were further told that the Humane Society had successfully worked with Mr. Jones on small animal transfers on at least two previous occasions.”
Didn’t see a thing?
The first problem with Garcia’s statement is that it calls upon the public to believe that 24 days elapsed between the almost unprecedentedly large transfer of animals to the Humane Society of Southern Arizona and the Humane Society of Southern Arizona board knowing anything about it, even though questions about the transfer had already been raised for weeks via social media.
Continued Garcia, “It is typical for shelters in a community or region to work with each other to transport animals to improve their opportunities for adoption. We later learned it is not typical to transfer animals in such a large quantity.
“On September 1, 2023,” Garcia said, “the board was contacted by an employee expressing concerns about the transfer. At the same time, concerns were growing by members of the community contacting the Humane Society of Southern Arizona, myself, and other board members regarding the health and well-being of the animals.
No records of adoptions
“At this time,” Garcia declared, “we began monitoring the situation and attempted to get more detail on the transfer and the parties involved. Our former chief of operations,” Christian Gonzalez, “contacted Trevor Jones to request information on the status of the animals and was told that 254 animals had been placed, but that there were no records of the adoptions.
“By September 2, 2023,” Garcia narrated, “Jones returned the remaining 64 animals who had not yet been adopted. A rescue group from San Diego collected 28 of those animals; today all but three have been placed with other rescue agencies or adopted.
“Around the same time,” Garcia said, “we also discovered that Trevor Jones was an individual who routinely facilitated animal adoptions, primarily through personal relationships at his church and in the community, and was not a licensed rescue operation.
“On September 26, 2023,” explained Garcia, “the [Humane Society of Southern Arizona] board directed the commencement of a formal, independent investigation by an outside experienced and credible consultant to get to the heart of what took place from August 7, 2023 forward.
“On September 29, 2023,” Garcia said, “the Humane Society of Southern Arizona board first learned of Colten Jones from the media, believed to be the brother to Trevor Jones, and owner of The Fertile Turtle, a reptile farm,” in operation at least since 2017, known for breeding multiple varieties of python.
“Later that same day,” Garcia continued, “I immediately called an emergency board meeting, and the board placed [Steve Farley] and [Christian Gonzalez] on suspension.”
Farley & Gonzalez “terminated”
Six days later, Garcia said, “ After reviewing the [investigator’s] report, including the details and discrepancies in what [Farley] and [Gonzalez] told the board about this situation, the board unanimously took corrective action and terminated” their employment, “due to their egregiously negligent actions against the mission of the Humane Society of Southern Arizona, their failure to follow protocols, and other reasons.
“These actions,” Garcia acknowledged, “not only undermine the integrity of this organization, but also threaten to undermine the integrity of animal rescues on a much larger scale.”
The Tucson-based Humane Society of Southern Arizona, founded in 1944, boasting of having rehomed more than a million animals, now claims assets of about $25 million, raising more than $6 million per year according to recent IRS Form 990 filings.
Former Arizona state senator
Farley, a former three-term Arizona state senator, came to the Humane Society of Southern Arizona after unsuccessful runs for state governor and Tucson mayor.
Earlier, Farley according to his LinkedIn page was “inventor of a photographic glazed ceramic tile process called Tilography,” was “creator and construction manager for 26 large-scale municipal public art projects around the country since 1998,” and was “founder of Southern Arizona Transit Advocates,” which campaigned “for a comprehensive regional transportation system of roads, buses, bikeways and sidewalks, and the starter light rail line which opened in Tucson in 2015.”
The Humane Society of Southern Arizona, again according to IRS Form 990 filings, paid Farley $154,000 in salary and fringe benefits.
Christian Gonzalez, a 12-year Humane Society of Southern Arizona employee and reptile hobbyist, was paid approximately $98,000 in salary and received nearly $5,000 per year in benefits.
Also leaving the Humane Society of Southern Arizona, Garcia said, was communications manager A.J. Flick, a Tucson Citizen reporter from 1993 to 2009, who had apparently only recently joined the humane society after several years of editing food industry periodicals.
“Regarding the San Diego Humane Society,” Garcia said in his open letter and also told a Tucson media conference, “they asked us for help in finding animals a permanent home. As our sister organization, we wanted to help them. They are not responsible for what happened due to the poor judgment and inappropriate actions of the Humane Society of Southern Arizona’s former leadership.
Looking for new leaders
“We have begun a search for a new interim chief executive officer, and plan to announce our selection soon,” Garcia added. “Rest assured that we will hire new interim and permanent leaders that will establish better protocols and communication with our board to make sure that all animals rescued and placed by the Humane Society of Southern Arizona will be placed in safe environments.”
Garcia also pledged that the Humane Society of Southern Arizona would “conduct an audit and invite stakeholder input to make additional improvements to regain the public’s trust.
“Internally,” Garcia said, “we are going to meet with our staff, volunteers, donors, and other key stakeholders to work with us to develop stricter criteria” for working with adoption partners.”
San Diego Humane Society not happy
But Gary Weitzman, DVM, president and chief executive officer of the San Diego Humane Society, did not sound mollified in speaking afterward with San Diego Union Tribune reporter Emily Alvarenga, though Weitzman did allow that Garcia’s statement “feels like the first time that things are moving toward a more productive conversation.”
Disclosed Alvarenga, “The San Diego Humane Society is planning to hire a private investigator to find out what happened to hundreds of rabbits, guinea pigs, rats and hamsters.”
Pledged Weitzman several days before, “We will pursue this as far as we need to, to find out where our animals went.”
Added Alvarenga, “The San Diego nonprofit is also looking to pursue legal action, Weitzman said [earlier] this week.”
70 microchipped rabbits
Fueling the fire, Alvarenga indicated, “In a response to a demand letter sent on September 18, 2023 from the [San Diego Humane Society]’s attorneys, the [Humane Society of Southern Arizona] attorneys” alleged on September 25, 2023 that, “‘The San Diego Humane Society has dragged the Humane Society of Southern Arizona through the mud as the San Diego Humane Society diverts negative attention created by its own spotlight.’
“Though the incident has garnered publicity in both San Diego and Arizona,” Alvarenga recounted, “Weitzman pointed out that no adopters have come forward to say the animals are safe.
“He also noted that although the roughly 70 rabbits his organization transferred to Arizona had microchips, none of those that were allegedly adopted have updated the owner information — which adoptive families would typically do with new pets.”
Impetus for overhaul
Protest over the disappearance of the small mammals was driven in part by Bisbee Animal Shelter board president Kelly Galligan.
The Humane Society of Southern Arizona “is much needed in this part of Arizona,” Galligan told Alvarenga, “and we can’t afford for them to go down, so the board needs to do their job.
“I think,” Galligan said, “that this is just going to be the impetus for the overhaul that was really needed anyway with the leadership.”
A Change.org petition demanding action from the Humane Society of Southern Arizona board had attracted nearly 20,000 electronic signatures by the time Garcia released his open letter and took the podium to address Tucson media.
“Largest single transfer of animals in our history”
“It was the largest single transfer of animals in our history,” San Diego Humane Society spokesperson Nina Thomspon told Eddie Celaya of Tucson.com for the San Diego Humane Society.
“We had been told by the Humane Society of Southern Arizona that they were going to work with their rescue community, their rescue partners, plural, to place these animals.”
Wrote Celaya, “Farley says they began looking almost immediately for a place to house the animals. By July 12, 2023, they found one. Only one.”
“Too good to be true”
Emailed Farley to Celaya, “A family-funded, family-run non-501c3 rescue in a close-knit community that works with many families in their community to help animals stepped up to find homes for all 318. The Humane Society of Southern Arizona has worked with them for more than a decade,” raising the possibility that other unaccounted-for animals might also have become live snake food.
“They insist on no publicity because they do not want animals dumped at their door,” Farley told Celaya.
Responded Thompson, “The plausibility of one single rescue placing so many animals in such a short period of time seems too good to be true. The San Diego Humane Society is a huge organization, but we can’t place that many animals in such a short period of time.”
“Rescue community started asking questions”
But that in itself raises the question of why the San Diego Humane Society sent 318 small mammals to the Humane Society of Southern Arizona in the first place.
The San Diego Humane Society serves a metropolitan area of 3.3 million people. The Tucson metropolitan area is barely more than one million people.
And the Humane Society of Southern Arizona rehomed only 279 animals other than dogs and cats in all of 2022, 271 in 2021, and 172 in 2020, Farley’s first year in charge.
“The rescue community started asking questions,” Thompson told Celaya, “saying, why haven’t there been any adoption events? Why aren’t there any postings about these pets on social media? Where did these pets go?”
“Won’t rat them out”
The San Diego Humane Society on September 8, 2023 asked the Humane Society of Southern Arizona in a news release to account for the 318 missing small mammals, threatening legal action if it did not receive the information by September 25, 2023.
Insisted Farley to Celaya, “We have not and will not provide info on the rescue because they requested privacy at the beginning, and they now fear for their safety due to threats they have read on the internet.”
However, picked up Danyelle Khmara of the nonprofit radio station AZPM.org, “Animal advocates, through an anonymous tip line and digging on the internet, were able to identify who received the animals, which was later confirmed by the Humane Society of Southern Arizona.
How long was this going on?
“A family in Apache Junction received the animals. The Humane Society of Southern Arizona says they have had a relationship with brothers Trevor and Colten Jones for more than a decade,” Khmara reported.
That would roughly coincide with Christian Gonzalez’ tenure at the Humane Society of Southern Arizona.
Gonzales told Khmara that the Jones brothers “have volunteered by bringing pet food to the humane society,” she said, “and have taken on the care of a few exotic animals in the past, such as turtles and birds.
“What the Humane Society of Southern Arizona has called a rescue,” Khmara noted, led by the Jones brothers, “does not have any official designation or non-profit status, and has not been vetted in any formal way.
“As well,” Khmara finished, “Colten Jones runs an informal business online called The Fertile Turtle, which has advertised selling both live and frozen animals for snake feed.”
“Feed only dead prey,” says expert
Feeding rodents alive to snakes, and even implying that one is doing it, fell out of vogue decades ago among most serious snake caretakers.
Wrote Chris Mattison, widely regarded as one of the world’s leading experts on herpetological diets, in The Care of Reptiles & Amphibians in Captivity (Blandsford Ltd. 1987, page 68):
“A responsible attitude would seem to be to feed only dead prey unless a captive is in real danger of starving to death through want of live food. Every live food animal should be removed from a cage immediately if a snake shows no interest in it, and be provided with adequate accommodation, food, water, bedding and warmth until it is to be used.
Live feeding not necessary
“Of hundreds of rodent-eating snakes kept over the years,” Mattison wrote, “I cannot remember one which could not eventually be persuaded to accept dead prey.
“Apart from the moral issue,” Mattison continued, “the feeding of dead prey has several advantages: live rats etc. have been known to injure or kill snakes with which they have been left; dead prey may be purchased in bulk and stored frozen until required (but must be properly thawed before feeding or enteritis may ensue); and the task of maintaining furry (and often smelly) animals is eliminated, leaving more time to enjoy the reptiles and amphibians.”