SPCAs have an image of being animal rescuers. And there's no question that the many Societies for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals around the country do a lot of good work, rushing in to save animals from abusive people.
But some people who've had animals taken away by animal rescuers say some SPCAs have acted like petty tyrants on power trips. They say they use their police powers to take away people's animals, even when the animals don't need rescuing.
I found that hard to believe, but lots of people have been saying that their local SPCA has wrecked their lives.
We spent a year investigating the SPCA, looking at 50 cases from New York to California. Many people think that SPCAs have a national headquarters, but SPCAs are really separate, independent operations located in towns across the country. Some animal owners claimed that when they became overextended in caring for their animals, an SPCA accused them of neglect, confiscated their animals and sold them.
The SPCAs then keep the money.
One case we followed involved a New Jersey SPCA office accusing horse owner Joe Stuebing of starving his animals.
He said the horses had lost weight simply because they were sick and he was overwhelmed. But a local SPCA filed charge after charge against him for what it said was inhumane treatment. Then they took custody of his horses, some of which were champion bloodlines valued together at almost $1 million.
Stuebing says that the day after the SPCA took custody of his horses at Stuebing's own barn, they invited people to his farm to take his horses out from under him. "This was like an equine shopping mall. Like it was ripe for the pickings," Stuebing told "20/20."
"They are a self-righteous group of people that are in it for money," said Stuebing. "They don't care about the horses. They don't care about anything else, except money."
That's a charge we heard repeatedly from people who lost animals.
Sometimes the owners hire lawyers and file appeals, but they rarely win. Judges usually side with the SPCAs. After all, the animal rescuers are the experts, aren't they?
Dave Garcia has confiscated thousands of animals in several states. He heads rescue operations for the Dallas SPCA, one of the biggest such organizations in America.
You get a sense of how important he considers his work when you listen to his opinion about the kind of people who abuse animals.
"If they beat a dog to death, then it's just a step up to beat a co-worker, or beat a classmate or and then a step up to … kill someone and then a step up to do a mass murder," Garcia told "20/20."
On local television, Garcia is often portrayed as a savior rescuing animals. And he has saved a lot of animals from abusive people.
"I should not have to warn someone to take care of their animals," said Garcia. "If they're here to make money with them, then take care of them."
Garcia led an effort to get Texas politicians to pass a law saying once a Justice of the Peace approves one of the SPCA's confiscations, an owner can't do anything about it.
Under Garcia's leadership, the Dallas SPCA has seen penalties against animal owners quadruple.
The SPCA invites television crews along on their raids confiscating animals. Such broadcasts spur the public to make big donations -- a total of $6 million in 2003 to the Dallas SPCA -- which helps pay Garcia's $80,000 annual salary.