Killing a Dream
By Dale Swisher
A cat started it all. Nothing much to look at, just an ordinary calico cat that wandered into a home, a heart, and a new life.
Craig Grant had to decide if he was going to care for the cat his son could not take, or leave it to an uncertain, but likely cruel fate. But it wasn’t his decision to make. It was Pepper’s. And Pepper became Craig’s cat.
And one cat became two, and then two more, and finally the flock overwhelmed the heart and became bigger than the house. So Craig did what he knew he was meant to do. He became the savior of cats. The shepherd of lost kittens. The kind of man with the kind of dream America needs. He knew he had to save, not kill. Create, not destroy. Define your dream, marshal all your resources, and do it.
So with this goal in mind, Craig used all his savings, his creativity, and his persistence to build what would become Caboodle Ranch, the largest free-range cat sanctuary in the world (Guinness Book of World Records, 2012).
He searched for the right kind of property. One with no restrictions on the numbers of animals. Maybe in a poor county, where he could offer jobs to local people and others could benefit. And in 2003, he found the right spot. Thirty acres of woods in Madison County, Florida. This was ranch country, so his daughter named the spread the Caboodle Ranch. And a magical place was born.
There were a few cats at first, but as the word got out that there was a place that could give cats a second chance at life; a place where feral cats, sick cats, old unadoptable cats, could live without cages and without the constant threat of the needle, well, in 2003, the cats started coming.
By January of 2012, 653 cats lived a happy, safe life at Caboodle Ranch. By March of 2012, the ranch had been raided and the cats were gone. Where did the cats go? And why were they taken? There were two reasons, one local and one political.
It’s been more than two years since the raid, but the reasons why the Madison County Board of Commissioners, in 2011, decided the county really, really needed an ordinance to control the number of animals allowed on 2 ½ acres or more are unclear. Not all animals would be regulated—not the cattle or goats, or bison, but the cats and dogs. It was very important to have this ordinance, even though there were only two places, Caboodle Ranch and Goliath and Bebe’s World, which would need to be regulated. So in 2011 the Excess Animal Habitat Ordinance was created. The EAH would limit the number of cats/dogs on 2 ½ acres to 30, but a sanctuary could apply for a permit to have more than that, if it could meet all the requirements that the county could think of.
So Craig applied for the permit and began to work.
With the encouragement of the Animal Control Officer, Craig sweated and worked, spent thousands on fencing and barns, made arrangements for his vet to come and chip and vaccinate all the cats. He believed it when the authorities said he was making great progress on fulfilling all the requirements of the EAH. He believed it when the County Board gave him a completion date deadline of March 27, 2012. He thought they were working together to make Caboodle Ranch even better –a place that could be an animal tourism destination along with Goliath’s World (which got its permit.). It surely would improve the Madison County economy, especially since Loretta Swit became Ayla’s Acres (Goliath’s new name) celebrity spokesperson. Imagine what a joint venture between the largest free-range cat sanctuary in the world and Ayla’s Acres could do for the county. But it was not to be and we still don’t know why the County Board participated in the deceit.
The political reasons for the raid
In 2011 and 2012, some Florida legislators wanted to pass a law making it illegal for shelters to kill an animal when a qualified non-profit no-kill rescue organization was willing to save that animal. Some people didn’t want that law, known as the Florida Animal Rescue Act. No-kill shelters might end up as hoarders by taking in more animals than they could handle. It could happen. It might be kinder to the animals if they died before they could suffer the abuse of over-crowding. May I see a show of paws?
Can you guess which famous animal welfare organization prefers to kill the animals in its shelter rather than adopt them out? Any ideas on which organization believes no one should have a companion pet? Or which would rather people go naked than wear fur?
So the organizations that opposed that bill thought about how that proposed law could be stopped. What if someone made an incriminating, misleading video of a sanctuary, then persuaded the sheriff to take the video as evidence of abuse to the state attorney? And the state attorney, before deciding to retire rather than face a Grand Jury investigation, decided to press charges against the sanctuary. A huge, dramatic raid would be a perfect public relations event for all. Let’s do it.
So they did.
Craig did not know that while he was working with Animal Control to complete the EAH requirements, an undercover spy for PeTA was volunteering at the ranch. She said she was an animal lover and would be glad to clean the sick ward, socialize cats, and generally give her all to help Caboodle Ranch. In reality, Lauren, not her real name, was trying very hard to video neglect and abuse—or anything that could make the ranch look like an overcrowded, dirty, hoarding facility.
It took Lauren five months to make a short video showing Ms. Plume, our sweet, three-legged cat, running away and scraping her body on the ground, cats with URIs, and an unused maggot ridden refrigerator. That was enough to finally get the attention of the sheriff, who told me later, “I just wanted to get rid of the place.” (For a factual look at the conditions of the ranch, please go to You Tube: Madison Voice Caboodle Ranch Videos.) The fact that the maggot ridden refrigerator was in a locked trailer waiting to be discarded, that Ms Plume was NEVER made to run and bump her hip, and that the vet had seen the cats with the runny noses and they were getting the required meds---well, those facts were irrelevant and the video was assumed to be a fair and honest representation of Caboodle Ranch.
So while Craig was anticipating receiving the EAH permit, the county sheriff, and the ASPCA (headquartered in New York City) were coordinating a raid. Though the County Board of Commissioners gave Craig a deadline of March 27 to finish all the requirements for the permit, “the rescuers” struck a month before the deadline. So much for trust in your government.
On February 27, 2012, the rainiest day in Florida in months, the Sheriff’s Department, the ASPCA, and hundreds of volunteers from rescue groups flown in from all over the country, poured onto the ranch like storm troopers. Though the sheriff, who was not at the raid denies the charge, Craig and another witness said a deputy put a gun to Craig’s head while he was carrying a large bag of cat food. It was terrifying and is a factor in Craig’s diagnosis of PTSD.
Craig was handcuffed and arrested for animal abuse. (His bail was set at $250,000, which is $100,000 more than that for George Zimmerman, accused of the Trayvon Martin killing.) The raiders chased the terrified cats, caught them and put them into carriers, and then into a truck. They turned over the charming little buildings; they tore down part of the fencing; they carted away Craig’s files, his money, his medicines, and his dream.
And partly because of the publicity from the raid, the full Florida legislature did not debate the Florida Animal Rescue Act, so animals in Florida are still being killed regularly when some could be saved. That’s a win for PeTA; a loss for animals.
More of the story
Craig’s absurdly high bail was reduced, and his son was able to get money out of the ranch account before the state had it frozen. (Craig learned later that the plan was to totally impoverish him so he could not make bail.) Craig was released from jail that day, but the cats were put in cages in an unused shelter in Jacksonville and Craig was faced with criminal charges of animal abuse, even though Dr Dick Green of the ASPCA, stated on camera, that the majority of cats did NOT look like those in the PETA video. But it was too late and too embarrassing to admit the raid was not necessary.
Everyone was assured that this would be over soon, and the cats, at least those that were adoptable, would soon be happier than they ever dreamed. Those, that were still alive, that is. We were told that Ms. Plume was one of the first cats to be killed at the shelter because she wasn’t perfect. Imagine what happened to the unadoptable, the old, the feral, and the aggressive cats. How many of their lives were extinguished in a heartbeat? Will the ASPCA ever account for any of them?
As time went on, there were hearings to be heard, trials to be tried, and all the while the cats were in cages in a hot building in Florida through March, April, May, June, July, and part of August, 2012.
Free-range cats now cowered in cages, like the prisoners they were. They had vet care, just like they did at the ranch. They developed URIs and ringworm months after they were captured, though ASPCA vets were caring for them. They had ample food, just like they had at the ranch. They had volunteers to watch over them, but they didn’t have their Papa. They didn’t have their freedom, and some of them soon, wouldn’t have their lives.
A civil custody hearing would determine their fate, and sadly, the ASPCA with its millions of dollars, its on-staff attorneys, its paid consultants, prevailed in the hearing before Judge Parker. The cats were remanded to the Sheriff, who gave them to the State attorney as evidence in the cruelty trial. The state attorney thought about it for oh, a minute or so, and decided that maybe the cats weren’t needed as evidence after all, so she released them back to the Sheriff, who didn’t want them either. In no time at all, the sheriff gave ownership of Craig Grant’s animals to the ASPCA, to do with as it chose. Clearly the state’s claim that the cats were evidence in the criminal case against Craig Grant, and should be kept in the shelter until the criminal trial was held, was a sham.
The ASPCA, the victorious rescuers of already rescued cats, they announced the incredible victory over a hoarder, a criminal abuser, someone, as one of the ranch enemies ranted, who “should never, never even hold a cat again.” So on August 11 and 12, 2012, they held fee-waived adoptions (contrary to their own recommendations) in several sites in Florida, and hundreds of Caboodle cats were given to anyone who could convince the staff that they would never ever feed a Caboodle cat to a python, or use them as bait for fighting dogs. And away the Caboodles went. In order to house the Caboodles, many of the adoption sites had to “eliminate” some of their existing animals. The losses continued to mount.
In a particularly nasty move, the ASPCA announced before the adoptions, that those who had left cats at the ranch and wanted to reclaim them, could call with chip numbers or other identifying documents, and the cats could be picked up before the adoptions started. But not if you were a Caboodle supporter. An ASPCA rep told one supporter that she would not be allowed to get her cats back. Why? Because of her involvement with the ranch. Any questions she had should be directed to Tim Rickey, ASPCA Senior Director of Field Investigations. It was his decision.
On August 9, when the Madison County judge was told of this discrimination, he issued an Order stating that denying Caboodle Ranch fans the right to adopt strictly because they supported the ranch was forbidden, that the Caboodle cats were not to be moved all over the state, and that Craig Grant’s personal cats were not to be adopted and were to be held by the ASPCA until the judge approved their return to their rightful owner. The August 9 Order Modifying Stay was not distributed to the adoption sites by the ASPCA attorney. It was ignored.
Instead, names of Ranch fans were copied from FaceBook, put on a list and given to the adoption sites. Visitors at the Clearwater site were asked for ID at the door, and Caboodle supporters were turned away. They were not even allowed in the building to see if their cats were there. Is that not contempt of court?
In order to avoid responsibility for violating that August 9 Order, the ASPCA filed a motion on August 27, 2012, in the Madison County Court, stating it wished to amend the August 9th Order. After all, the ASPCA shouldn’t have to obey an Order from backwater Madison County Florida.
The motion requested the judge to determine that the Madison County Court did not have jurisdiction over the ASPCA in this matter. Hearings were set, then postponed, but finally, on April 22, 2013, eight months after the adoptions, a newly elected judge, Andy Decker, agreed with the ASPCA and wrote an Order to Amend the August 9 Order. He said it was perfectly legal and acceptable that the new Order could “hereby amend to remove any and all language that purportedly applies to the ASPCA. And, the ASPCA is hereby dropped as a party to this action. “
And with the raid, the accusations, the hearings, the trials, the legal fees, they—the unknowns who wanted Caboodle to be a memory—they broke the man. They “disposed” of almost all of his cats, and in spite of the court order of August 9 demanding that the ASPCA make a good faith effort to locate and identify Craig’s personal pets, Tommy, Meatball, Toot, Snoop Dog, and Crackers, Craig hasn’t seen any of his cats since June of 2012. The ASPCA will not reveal if they are alive and has not offered to return them to Craig. Did they have them killed?
Also taken in the raid were Craig’s purebred Great Pyrenees dogs, which were trained to guard the cats from animal predators. Where are the dogs today? They are gone too; we were told one of the ASPCA helpers merely claimed them, regardless of who actually owned them. Another despicable act by the ASPCA.
But, getting back to the really important issue—the money. By late summer, 2012, the ASPCA claimed the costs for caring for the animals exceeded $1,400,00.00. Almost a million and a half dollars. Imagine that. Their spreadsheet showed costs of $700,000 on car rentals, $150,000 on airline tickets, $15,000 on pheromones to calm the cats and just a teeny, tiny bit on Dilly Bars from Dairy Queen.
In the county court, the sheriff filed a motion that asked for recovery of the ASPCA's costs of $1.4 million without departing from the previous statement that the ASPCA's services were being provided "free of charge."
At the August 28, 2012, hearing on the motion for costs, again in front of Judge Parker, the ASPCA representative was not able to substantiate the items listed on the spreadsheet with receipts or proof of costs. Even after Judge Parker coached the witness, it became clear that he was not able to testify to the accuracy of the expenses. Judge Parker stopped the hearing and said he would reschedule it “to allow the ASPCA time to make a better case.” The ASPCA got a do-over.
At the ‘do-over,’ the sheriff filed (a) a revised motion for costs, now claiming that the sheriff himself, not just ASPCA, had incurred $1.4 million in animal care expenses.
At the rescheduled costs hearing on November 30, 2012, David Collins, attorney for the ranch, successfully argued that the Sheriff did NOT expend any costs in this case; therefore the county is not entitled to any reimbursement from Caboodle Ranch. And he proved that the statutory process for the ASPCA to be involved in Madison County, Florida, had NOT been followed. Therefore, in his Findings of Fact, signed on 12/31/12, the judge decreed that the ASPCA was NOT a legal agent of the county, and it could not expect any reimbursement from the ranch.
So the question remains, how could an organization that is not a legal agent of the county, take someone’s property? Wouldn’t that constitute trespass and theft?
And, according to Florida Statute Chapter 57.051, “unlawful exaction is prohibited.” The Sheriff, as Petitioner, “has willfully and unlawfully charged or levied fees against Caboodle Ranch in excess of those that the Petitioner has actually incurred, in the amount of $1,427,670.02. Accordingly, Caboodle Ranch is entitled to recovery of four times the unlawful charge levied by the Petitioner, i.e., $5,710,716.08.” Caboodle Ranch supporters will NOT let this opportunity be lost and we are interviewing interested firms to handle the suit.
The threat of a criminal trial had been weighing on Craig for months. There have been numerous pre-trial hearings, which accomplished nothing but postponements. There were suggestions from various prosecutors (we are on the 4th now) that Craig will be transported to another state for outstanding warrants (total lie). That more and more charges will be added if he doesn’t plead guilty to animal cruelty. Again, a fabrication. The stress of dealing with the local judicial system was, at times, overwhelming.
Let’s look at the actual statute that Craig is being charged with violating,
Florida Animal Cruelty Statute Chapter 828 states: “A person who unnecessarily overloads, overdrives, torments, deprives of necessary sustenance or shelter, or
mutilates, or kills any animal, or causes the same to be done, or carries in or upon any vehicle, or otherwise, any animal in a cruel or inhumane manner, is guilty of a misdemeanor of the first degree, punishable as provided in s. 775.082 or by a fine of not more than $5,000, or both.”
The arrest warrant for Craig Grant describes one cat that seemed depressed and lethargic and another cat had eye surgery and did not have an E-collar (not prescribed by the ranch vet). There were four cats listed as needing care, but 653 were taken.
Were the cruelty charges anywhere near the level required by the statute?
It is clear that the newly elected State Attorney, and the latest Assistant State Attorney assigned to the case, agreed that the charges were ridiculous. On May 15, 2013, the ASA met with Craig Grant and his attorney and offered Craig a Deferred Prosecution Agreement. Much like probation, it required Craig to obey Florida laws, pay some court costs, take his meds, and in a year, if all goes well, the charges will be totally dismissed. The ASA and Craig’s attorney both said it was a wonderful offer, and the best that Craig could get. And, the agreement noted that Craig could have the maximum number of cats allowed—30.
Craig signed the document. He relied on the state attorney and his own attorney to guide him. He left the meeting thrilled with the prospect of having those terrible charges dismissed and being able to have cats again. And on May 31, 2014, the DPA was terminated and all criminal charges were dismissed. It’s as if the raid, the loss of pets, the killing of cats, the destruction of the ranch—all that was a terrible mistake. But, the prosecutor said, you can start a new Caboodle anywhere you’d like. Though you’ve lost your savings, your property, your reputation, you can pull yourself together and build a new Caboodle. Who among us would have the strength and financial ability to do that again?
There are more legal issues brewing. Still to come is a decision in the appeal of the custody hearing, which was filed in October of 2012. So far it’s taken almost two years for the court to review the entire 12-page appeal. Could it be that one of the parties wants the decision postponed? If the county loses the appeal, and the court agrees that taking all of the animals, sick or healthy, was illegal, what’s the remedy for Caboodle Ranch? “Oh what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive.”
And the deception continues. Craig was served with an Order To Show Cause, on May 31, 2014, the same day he received the wonderful news that the criminal charges were dismissed.
The Order to Show Cause was a complaint by the Animal Control Officer, stating that Craig had violated the Custody Order forbidding Caboodle Ranch from having live animals. As evidence, he attached a story from Caboodle’s FaceBook page about a cat that had escaped the raid and over a year later, found its way back to the ranch. He also included pictures of the little houses that had been damaged by the raid. Craig was cleaning and painting them, and the ACO assumed that meant Craig was intending to reopen the ranch without petitioning the court, as required in the custody order.
Prior to the hearing, Craig met with his attorney and the county attorney, where a deal was made that the Caboodle Ranch charity in Florida must close by July 1, 2014, that the current cat population at the ranch, now between 35 and 40, are safe now, but must be moved to the new location within 90 days.
Craig signed the agreement, but is not sure that why the charity designation can be canceled in that manner. He is seeking additional legal advice.
Why did the state attorney tell Craig he could open Caboodle anywhere in Florida or any other state after the criminal charges were dismissed? Where is truth, fairness and honor in Madison County? It appears that the desired goal was reached. Get the ranch out of our town. Apparently the legal system is good to its own.
How could this tragedy have been avoided?
The Sheriff could have visited the ranch, as he was invited to come unannounced at any time, to see for himself if the destruction of the ranch was warranted.
The County Board of Commissioners could also have visited the ranch. It could have been truthful about its intentions. There could have been discussions on the benefits of the ranch to the county, or how to rectify any shelter problems. They could have seen what dozens of film crews saw, what thousands of tourists saw, and with some imagination, they might have realized what an asset Caboodle Ranch was for the county.
In my opinion, the ASPCA deserves condemnation for its participation in the raid. With its experience in the animal rescue business, though its shelter in NYC could use some help, it should have seen that a facility with heated and air-conditioned barns, fencing, fresh water supplies, feeding stations, part-time vet care, could easily have had any deficiencies fixed. Shelter In Place. With the millions the ASPCA gets in donations, it could have partnered with Craig, or given him a grant enabling him to hire more staff, or get more administrative help. It could have saved hundreds of cats, instead of guaranteeing suffering and death for many.
The crime at Caboodle Ranch was not the alleged abuse of beloved cats, it was the lack of imagination and foresight by the “animal rescue” organizations, which chose to destroy instead of build and create. And which then used the raid on Caboodle as a plea for more donations—after all, the ASPCA recently had to pay a judgment of over nine million dollars to the Feld Organization, and it needed to recoup some funds.
There is already a book called An American Tragedy, so I won’t borrow that title, but the name fits. Caboodle Ranch has been taken from Craig Grant, but also from all the people who had lost jobs, then houses, and found a home for their beloved pets at the ranch. It’s lost to the shelters that were overcrowded, that knew Craig would take in their excess cats. It’s lost to the tourists and visitors who came by the hundreds, and then spent their money in local shops. So the community lost as well.
Out of the ashes of the tragic raid, a new Caboodle Ranch will one day be born, but not in Madison County, Florida. And a new group of unwanted, unloved or just plain unlucky cats, will be given a second chance at life. And, as he was meant do to, at the helm will be Craig Grant, a man with a second chance, doing what he knows he was born to do, save every cat life he can.