Cruelty to Pet Owners?

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.

'Equine Shopping Mall'

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?

SPCA Leader Crafts Media Image

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.

One of those raids occurred at Renee Moore's dog kennel, with TV reporters stating 120 dogs lived in deplorable conditions.

But Moore's dogs are show dogs. Some of them were thin, she said, because they were nursing large litters of puppies. Vets and breeders told us it can be normal for a dog's ribs to show when a dog is nursing lots of puppies.

But the SPCA took custody of all of Renee's dogs, including award-winners -- worth up to $600 each. After the radio, her vet wrote that while "housing and sanitation needed improvement" and suggested a cutback in the number of animals, he also said "Moore does care about and care for her animals no starvation was evident." A judge upheld the confiscation.

Unable to afford a lawyer, Renee wrote her own lawsuit charging the SPCA with stealing, but the suit was dismissed. Renee's livelihood was destroyed. She and her husband were forced to sell their home and move into a trailer.

"I would like to see them punished for what they've done," said Moore. "And they humiliated me on TV and I'd like them to apologize to me on TV."

'20/20' Follows Garcia on a Raid

All this made us want to see firsthand how Garcia works. So we asked and received permission to go along on an SPCA raid.

Garcia didn't know that our cameraman was a veterinarian, Dr. Gaylon TeSlaa.

Early one morning last September, "20/20" accompanied Garcia as he went with a police officer to a Justice of the Peace to get the warrant needed to raid a dog kennel.

He claimed the owner didn't provide adequate food, water and shelter, and showed photos of what he said were filthy kennels.

After a brief informal hearing, Garcia got permission to raid, which meant he and an armed police officer could go to the kennel without any warning.

Garcia told us to expect to see animals that were urine soaked and fecal stained. "20/20" didn't see that.

TeSlaa said, while there was some neglect because the owner had been away for four days, it was correctable. Since her being away was an unusual event, and she says she'd returned each night to feed her animals he saw no cruelty and certainly no reason to confiscate the dogs. But Garcia saw cruelty and said the dogs needed to be saved.

"Under Texas state law, these animals have been cruelly treated. The definition of cruelly treated is having to live in your own feces, unsanitary conditions, no food or water," said Garcia.

But when people keep animals, there's routinely feces found in the cages. "That's part of having an animal," said TeSlaa.

Moments after the SPCA finished collecting the dogs, the owner arrived. Pam Chennault said she couldn't believe her dogs were being taken, including her favorite, Gidget.

Despite her protests, she was given an immediate court date and was not allowed to go to the van that held Gidget and her other dogs.

"She was my very first dog," Chennault said while crying.

Challenging the Raid

After raiding her kennel, Garcia took the dogs to the SPCA where the workers cited problems like fleas and mange.

Not that the technicians are experts. In fact, our vet was the only veterinarian in sight. "These pets were not abused. They were not in poor health. None of them were in life-threatening conditions," said TeSlaa.

When I mentioned there was no vet there during the raid, Garcia replied: "We had vets there."

But he didn't. The Texas SPCA later e-mailed us admitting that it didn't, but said in this case that vets weren't needed.

Chennault hired a lawyer and tried to get her animals back, but the court gave her only two hours to prepare her case. She was advised to settle and give her dogs to the SPCA. She did. Most of the dogs were adopted, a few were put to sleep. We don't know what happened to Gidget.

When I told Garcia that our vet didn't think the animals should have been taken, he said, "The judge did."

But the judge permitted the raid because of the data Garcia brought to them. I suggested that he "spins" the evidence. "No, I don't spin them," said Garcia. "The judge looks at the facts. Looks at the probable cause, and the judge makes the decision."

I asked him about the claim that he steals people's animals.

"No, I'm not stealing no one's animals," said Garcia.

He said he dismisses most complaints without any confiscation. Garcia said, "It's about the welfare of an animal."

Tell that to the 50 people we talked to who lost animals to Garcia and other SPCAs.

Joe Stuebing is fortunate that he doesn't keep his horses in Texas, where he would be under the thumb of the Texas no-appeal rule Garcia lobbied for. After a court ruled the SPCA could take his animals, he appealed, and won, because his farm was raided without a warrant. The SPCA still says he was abusing his horses, but today he has his horses back.

In Texas, Moore could not appeal, and she said she'll never get over what Garcia and the SPCA did to her.

"I was a dog breeder. I was a dog shower," said Moore. "My dogs were my life."

Remember, when considering donations: each SPCA is separately run. Also, the ASPCA is a different organization.