Nearly 20,000 animals in Lake Elsinore that are alleged to have suffered severe neglect and abuse at the hands of their owner have been humanely euthanized, an official confirmed.
Approximately 600 reptiles and 18,400 rodents once owned by Lake Elsinore-based Global Captive Breeders were euthanized via lethal injection by licensed veterinarians, said Willa Bagwell, executive director for Wildomar-based Animal Friends of the Valleys.
The grim task of assessing, cataloguing and euthanizing the animals was carried out over the course of eight days after an initial investigation into alleged neglect and abuse began Dec. 7 at the Global Captive Breeders facility located at 530 3rd Street, Bagwell said.
“The animals were too sick, too toxic, too critical to move,” she said of the decision to euthanize on site.
Global Captive Breeders owner Mitch Behm surrendered custody of the reptiles and rodents to Animal Friends of the Valleys on Dec. 15, authorizing the organization to end the animals’ suffering, confirmed city of Lake Elsinore spokesman Justin Carlson.
“After careful analysis, a team of veterinarians, reptile specialists, and animal cruelty investigations experts determined that due to the extreme neglect, cruelty and dangerously unhealthy long-term conditions, contaminated environment and the potential for further suffering, euthanasia was the safest and most humane option for the animals and the community at large,” Carlson said.
Bagwell, who has been involved in the investigation since it began, described the scene and smell at the 3rd Street facility as “horrific.”
“We had animals that had been dead for weeks with maggots crawling out of them,” she said. "There was terrible suffering in unimaginable conditions."
Of the animals that were still alive when the investigation began, Bagwell explained most were too sick, too weak to eat.
Bagwell said the facility has now been cleared out and the animal carcasses transported by a licensed renderer. Law enforcement officials have seized control of the 3rd Street building where a criminal investigation is ongoing, she said.
“Felony charges will be filed,” Bagwell said.
Calls to Behm’s office have gone unreturned and there are no immediate reports of his arrest.
Officials with People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals have confirmed the Lake Elsinore case marks the largest seizure of rodents in U.S. history, Bagwell said.
"GCB was a reeking hellhole for the rats, snakes, and other animals who were left to starve, drown, and die among the rotting corpses of other animals," said PETA President Ingrid E. Newkirk. "The individuals responsible for this staggering cruelty must be prosecuted and banned from laying their hands on another animal."
PETA alleges Orange County resident Behm videotaped himself in the 1980s throwing mice, rats, and rabbits into a bathtub with ferrets, who attacked and killed them. Behm admitted to conducting these unapproved "experiments" in part for his own "enjoyment," but the statute of limitations had expired by the time law-enforcement authorities discovered the video footage, PETA alleges.
When the Lake Elsinore investigation began earlier this month and officials started speaking with potential witnesses, some in the 3rd Street neighborhood came forward to complain of foul smells emanating from the building, Bagwell said.
“People need to file complaints right away,” Bagwell urged, noting that early tips may save animal lives.
“It has been a grueling and emotional week for AFV staff and all the volunteers involved in this heartbreaking process who have had to endure witnessing how these animals suffered,” she continued.
According to its website, Global Captive Breeders sold reptiles and rodents to the public via delivery.
“I feel strongly that we have a case of animal suffering and death due to human greed,” Bagwell said, adding that anyone interested in purchasing exotics should be educated on how to care for them and research reputable breeders before buying.
PETA officials began an undercover investigation into Global Captive Breeders two months ago and were first to bring the Lake Elsinore case to AFV’s attention. Over the course of the last week the animal rights’ organization, along with officials from the Marin Humane Society, have helped provide resources locally, Bagwell said.
“There were about 30 to 60 people each day at the facility,” she added.
"By far, this is the most severe and large-scale single facility forcing animals to live in vile and horrific conditions that I have experienced in my nearly 30 years as an animal cruelty investigator," said Captain Cindy Machado, Marin Humane Society animal services director and an expert in investigations of cruelty to animals who assisted in coordinating and leading the response and investigative teams at GCB. "We found evidence of animals drowning; dying in enclosures; rotting and decaying in cages; living for days without water; deprived of simple, basic care; and living in high levels of contaminated air—by far exceeding the level of suffering we have ever encountered."
In a released PETA statement, the organization contends that during its two-month investigation in Lake Elsinore its investigators "documented a failure to provide animals with adequate space, food, and water; injured and sick animals deprived of veterinary care; and reptiles left to languish and die in filth-encrusted tubs, surrounded by their own waste and the maggot-ridden remains of other animals. GCB workers, including its manager, shot at rats with a BB gun, froze them alive, bludgeoned them with metal tongs and gun handles, and smashed them against hard surfaces in an attempt to kill them."
The city of Lake Elsinore, Riverside County Sheriff’s Department and Cal Fire/Riverside County Fire Department are among the agencies involved in the ongoing investigation.