UPDATED: 3 pm, Monday, Oct. 2
Humane Society of Southern Arizona CEO Steve Farley and Chief Programs Officer Christian Gonzalez were suspended by the group's board of directors following the launch of an investigation into an incident involving the whereabouts of 254 small pets.
The board said in a press release Saturday that it “understands 254 of the animals at issue were placed in adoptive homes,” and “is aware of no evidence to the contrary.”
In the almost two months since more than 300 rabbits, guinea pigs, hamsters, and rats were transferred from the San Diego Humane Society to the Humane Society of Southern Arizona, the board has refused to offer any evidence on the whereabouts or wellbeing of the animals, and continued to refused to answer questions on Monday about what evidence they had to assert that they had an understanding that the animals were placed in adoptive homes.
The night that the animals came to the Humane Society of Southern Arizona, or HSSA, on Aug. 7, the animals were immediately transferred to what HSSA called a small, family-run rescue, which they said wanted to remain anonymous.
Animal advocates and rescues throughout the state have said they don’t know of any such rescue that could find homes for that many rabbits and pocket pets in a short amount of time. And the board, along with CEO Farley, has failed to provide any information on where the animals went or on what procedures, if any, the Humane Society followed.
Among the animals transferred were 70 rabbits that had microchips with the San Diego Humane Society. None of the microchips have been updated, as an adoptive family might do with a new pet.
Animal advocates, through an anonymous tip line and digging on the internet, were able to identify who received the animals, which was confirmed by HSSA on Friday.
A family in Apache Junction received the animals. HSSA says they’ve had a relationship with brothers Trevor and Colten Jones for more than a decade. Gonzalez, who helped in the animal transfer to the Jones, says they have volunteered by bringing pet food to the Humane Society, and they have taken on the care of a few exotic animals in the past, such as turtles and birds.
After the public outcry began for information on the animals, the informal rescue returned about 60 animals they still had possession of to HSSA. Gonzalez said that the Jones told him they were able to find homes for the rest of the animals by calling friends and family.
Gonzalez says in retrospect, HSSA could have planned the transfer of the animals better and that it was not how they typically do things.
What the Humane Society has called a rescue, led by the Jones, does not have any official designation or non-profit status and has not been vetted in any formal way. As well, Colten Jones runs an informal business online called The Fertile Turtle, which has advertised selling both live and frozen animals for snake feed.
Animal advocates expressed concerns during a protest outside the chair of the board Robert Garcia’s downtown Tucson law office last week.
Animal advocate Mary Moran said many at the protest are “fearing the worst.”
“We just fear that these 250 innocent animals have become feed because we haven’t heard otherwise,” she said. “No one is being transparent. Who is this mystery, secret family? Why aren’t they coming forward and showing pictures of these beautiful little animals being adopted with people who were so anxious to adopt them. Where’s the proof?”
AZPM reached out to the Jones, but they have not responded to say what happened to the animals they received.
The San Diego Humane Society has also been pressing HSSA for details on what became of the small pets, which they had been taking care of for months before the transfer.
Brian Daugherty, Executive Vice President of the San Diego Humane Society, said they want proof of the animals being adopted out safely.
“We’re simply asking for evidence that verifies that and backs it up,” he said. “It is as simple as that. And the lack of transparency that’s come from Southern Arizona has been problematic from the get-go also the misinformation.”
The HSSA board said in its Saturday press release that soon after learning about the animal transfer and the concerns raised, it began monitoring the situation and working to gather information and conduct initial research into the events. But when asked, the board refused to answer any questions on when it began to look into the situation and what that entailed.
The board has been silent on this issue until Saturday’s press release and the independent investigator began interviewing people about the incident on Friday.
The HSSA board held a meeting Friday afternoon where they discussed hiring independent investigator Terry Flores, who’s with a Tucson-based company, to look into the incident.
The board’s press release said it suspended HSSA’s leaders Farley and Gonzalez pending the results of the investigation and to ensure that anybody with information inside or outside the organization could provide information without concern of retaliation.