Sara Whalen devoted her life to saving abandoned animals at her Pets Alive sanctuary just one hour outside New York City in the peaceful Catskill mountains.
When the 64-year-old died of brain cancer in March, though, she left behind a shocking legacy: 600 sick and neglected animals were found locked in filthy kennels or wandering aimlessly in the cold.
No one -- least of all those who financially supported the sprawling 80-acre facility in Middletown, N.Y. -- knew the once-reputable sanctuary had quite literally gone to the dogs.
When the Utah-based Best Friends Animal Society was called to help, its members found 200 dogs, 60 of them confined to unlit, cramped rooms, as well as 200 roaming cats, many of them with heart conditions. Shivering outside in the cold were 25 horses, 100 chickens, an assortment of goats, pigs and exotic birds.
"The place looked like Auschwitz," said Leslie Farney, 51, of Warwick, N.Y., who just adopted an 18-year-old border collie named Maddie. The dog has Lyme disease, parasites in his bones and has been unable to eat because his teeth have fallen out.
"She has been in a closet, and that's how she acts," Farney said. "She doesn't have the strength to bark."
For more than 20 years Whalen exposed farm animal abuse and puppy mills, and served as the only retirement home for New York City's carriage horses.
One of the sanctuary's longtime supporters, Grammy-winning pop singer Rob Thomas, and his wife, Marisol, had raised funds for the no-kill shelter. Most animal shelters euthanize abandoned pets after 48 hours.
"It's so heartbreaking," Thomas told ABC News. "It was a double whammy. We were all in the dark."
Thomas is the driving force behind the band Matchbox Twenty.
The couple's charity, Sidewalk Angels Foundation, supports the homeless, children's hospitals and Pets Alive, where they adopted an abused terrier named Tyler in 2003.
"We have rabid fans eager to help," Thomas said. "It's a great network. Everyone listens to music and it's great to have a megaphone."
"We help both the two-footed and the four-footed creatures," Marisol Thomas said. "We help the forgotten ones."
For the last 20 years, the chain-smoking Whalen cared for hundreds of abandoned and abused animals, including a boar and dozens of pigs, goats and cows.
She was reputed to have dressed her horses in homemade bonnets, taught potbellied pigs tricks and shared her "tumbledown house with incontinent dogs and leukemic cats who must be quarantined," according to a New York Times story in 2001.
A divorcee, Whalen maintained the sanctuary on her monthly spousal support checks and donations, according to earlier reports. She had one live-in volunteer, a weekend helper and at one time a teenager ordered to perform community service after he shot a judge's dog.
"We loved Sarah so much," said Marisol. "She was a woman who had good intentions, but she couldn't handle it on her own."
Best Friends sent in an emergency team in early March. The organization has committed to stabilizing Pets Alive for 90 days. Immediate veterinary bills came to at least $150,000, according to founder and president Michael Mountain.
The whistle-blower was Kerry Clair. Clair had worked for Whalen but had quit in 2000 over a disagreement on how to care for the dogs. When Clair heard her former friend had cancer, she returned to find the squalor.