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.
"The situation is desperate, and I need help," Clair told Best Friends. Within a day, a team of 14 had arrived to set up triage units. After health assessments, animals were referred to local vets for treatment.
Whalen was protective of her pets and critical of her employees, Clair said.
"Every time I would find a good adoption and good home, there was always something wrong with it," Clair said. "I couldn't find a home good enough for her. You could volunteer for a year and not realize what was wrong, because she was careful to let you see only the good part."
"She had a good heart," she said. "Things just got away from her."
The Best Friends team began by separating species and setting up fencing and dog runs.
"We put a nice cover up for the dogs," Best Friend's Mountain said. "They were able to get into the open air that they haven't seen for a couple of years."
Best Friends has not decided the facility's future, but volunteers like the Thomases are urging the group to establish a sister sanctuary at Pets Alive. The organization is known for its animal education and protection programs.
That could cost upward of $5 million.
"We are still trying to pay the bills," said Mountain, who has reached out to 3,000 Pets Alive donors and adoptive owners for help.
So far, homes have been found for more than a dozen animals. Lorna Stuart-Jones, 51, of Allentown, N.J., adopted two paralyzed dogs, Zoe, a border collie, and Lucky, a poodle.
"When we drove away, the air was blowing in Lucky's face and he was putting his paw out the window," happy to say goodbye to the tumbledown facility, Stuart-Jones said.
Maryjane Robertshaw, 57, of Yorktown, N.Y., adopted an 8-year-old Newfoundland mix. "They have done an amazing job," she said of Best Friends.
No one is happier than the Thomases, who have pledged to call their "rich and famous friends" to raise money and will meet with the Best Friends board this spring.
As a child growing up poor in North Carolina, Thomas too often witnessed the "wanton abuse and ignorance" of pets.
"You see it all over New York City, too," he said.
"It could be like a paradise," Thomas said. "When we went up to visit last time, it was like the heavens had parted."
Click here to reach Best Friends and find a link to Pets Alive.