Pot-bellied pig case sparks local scrutiny
Friday, March 6th, 2009
Issue 10, Volume 13.
Activists say the case, which took weeks to resolve, underscores some of the heart-wrenching challenges that can crop up when horses, pigs and other large animals are abandoned or left unattended.
Riverside County Animal Services officials – who were involved in the French Valley probe – said the response also underscores the heightened public scrutiny that has spun out of deepening economic woes and a high-profile animal abuse case that unfolded earlier this year in Temecula.
"It has raised a lot of people’s awareness," said John Welsh, a spokesman for the county animal control agency.
Concerns over the French Valley pigs drew the involvement of neighbors, the county, animal activist groups, the real estate company that listed the property and a law firm that gave the agent advice on a newly enacted state law.
The concerns surfaced in mid-February when some Pourroy Road residents grew worried over the fate of about 16 potbellied pigs left on a nine-acre parcel that had been foreclosed upon days earlier.
One of the pigs had died and some of the others appeared to be old, hungry and lean, said Marianne Parker, who lives in the area.
Parker and other neighbors began feeding the pigs and contacted county officials, the real estate agent and animal rescue groups.
But qualms over whether the pigs could legally be removed from the property prompted ReMax agent Chris Murray to contact sheriff’s officials and a Sacramento law firm that advises banks on foreclosure regulations.
Murray wanted to ensure that he was meeting the requirements of a new state law, the so-called Animal Protection Bill, which took effect Jan. 1.
That law, sponsored by then-Assemblyman Mark DeSaulnier (D-Martinez), allows bank representatives and real estate agents to immediately seek help for animals abandoned on foreclosed properties.
A fact sheet on the new law, which was sought to eliminate ambiguities in previous regulations, cites cases of abandoned animals, many near death, that have been found by bankers and real estate brokers.
The law also allows law officers to prosecute people who abandon animals in these circumstances.
Murray had sought legal advice because potbellied pigs, which are often kept as pets, are classified as livestock.
"He’s a real estate agent, not a livestock manager," Tracey Louper, a clerk for the law firm, said in a telephone interview.
Louper said Murray also fed the pigs while he took steps to obtain a release from the former property owner.
While the new law provides much-needed clarity, further amendments might be need to address lingering gray areas that banks and real estate agents are beginning to encounter, Louper said.
The bill’s author, who is now in the state Senate, would be receptive to making changes aimed at increasing the law’s effectiveness, an aide said.
"You can never address all the complexities of an issue in one piece of legislation," Shara Perkins, DeSaulnier’s communications director, said in a telephone interview.
Animal services officers and supervisors repeatedly visited the Pourroy Road property after the agency was contacted, Welsh said. But investigators concluded that the pigs’ condition did not warrant immediate seizure.
As a result, they were allowed to remain at the site until arrangements could be made with a rescue group that offered to take the animals, Welsh said.
About a dozen of the pigs were picked up last week. Another four pigs remain loose on the property and steps will be taken to lure them into a pen for eventual capture and relocation.
Michael Piceno, who is active with the Southern California Association for Miniature Pot-bellied Pigs, said the French Valley case was his first exposure to the new law.
He said information about its application has been slow to spread.
"This was my first time to deal with it," said Piceno, who lives in San Bernardino County. "[Animals] are considered property and you have to look at that, too."
As in some other high-profile cases, Welsh acknowledged that his agency’s handling of the French Valley case could spark some second-guessing by neighbors or regional animal activists.
"Lately there’s been a lot of discussion out there on various [animal control] cases," Welsh said. "There’s sometimes the perception that more can be done or not enough has been done in certain cases."
He said officials hope residents and activists trust the agency’s judgment as investigators examine animal welfare conditions on a case-by-case basis.
No two investigations are the same, and it would be hard to apply ironclad guidelines in all instances, he said.
Welsh said the new law has become a welcome tool for animal control officials.
He said his agency frequently cautions media outlets against using anecdotal accounts to jump to a conclusion that pet abandonment cases are spiking as foreclosure rates rise.
"That’s really hard for us to monitor," he said.
Welsh said a recent Temecula case where hundreds of dead and starving cats and dogs were discovered has heightened public scrutiny of animal neglect and abandonment cases.
Such public attention – as well as a groundswell of interest in potential neglect cases – helps his agency identify and protect animals that might need care.
The Temecula case, which occurred within the jurisdiction of another animal control agency, drew widespread media attention as a 66-year-old man was arrested and charged with felony animal cruelty.
That charge is still pending against Elisao Gilbert Jimenez, who lived in a rented home in the Nicolas Valley area, and he is slated to appear in court again on Tuesday.
"When you have a situation that is that dire, it makes people more attentive," Welsh said.
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