An animal cruelty investigation was ongoing and charges were expected next week against a Tate County woman after Tate County Sheriff's Department and county Animal Control officials, teamed with nonprofit Animal Rescue Corps, raided a rural residence near Looxahoma east of Senatobia on Thursday.
The raid rescued more than 200 animals found suffering in horrific, neglectful conditions.
"Terrible, terrible," was the description of Michael Cunningham, public information officer for the Washington-based Animal Rescue Corps, at the scene of the raid dubbed "Operation Dog Days of Summer."
He said the floors of structures housing animals "had six inches of dog feces, were crawling with maggots and littered with broken glass."
Cunningham said Friday "at least a dozen dead animals," not counting chickens on the floors, were found. "There were skeletal remains scattered all over."
"I'd gotten information that it was pretty bad, but when I got here it was worse than what we expected, way worse," said Tate Sheriff Brad Lance.
With a search warrant issued by Justice Court, the rescue team arrived at the site about 9:30 a.m. Thursday and were there into the night.
Found without adequate food, water or shelter were more than 202 animals, including 153 dogs, litters of puppies and pregnant dogs; one donkey; 13 cats, along with kittens; about 50 chickens plus 28 other fowl, including at least two turkeys and three parrots; and seven rabbits, said a Rescue Corps media statement.
On Friday, animals were receiving veterinary scans to determine the severity of their ailments, and getting appropriate vaccinations and necessary medical treatment. A team of veterinarians at the scene Thursday did initial evaluations and animals were rushed to an emergency shelter facility at SERVPRO in Hernando.
According to the Rescue Corps statement, this was what greeted the rescue team at the rural site on Miss. 305 just north of Hwy. 4 in eastern Tate County:
"The animals were running loose around the overgrown property, held in dilapidated pens strewn throughout, and in filthy conditions inside barn rooms, in the property owners’ house and in an abandoned country store on an adjacent property.
"The animals were all extremely dirty and suffering from heavy infestations of internal and external parasites, such as fleas, ticks and worms. Many adults and puppies were suffering from alopecia (loss of hair, said Cunningham) and anemia as a result of their heavy flea and tick infestations."
Some of the animals were emaciated and suffering from malnutrition; at least one puppy was in critical condition and had to be rushed to a nearby clinic, and all of the cats had upper respiratory and eye infections."
Rescue Corps President Scotlund Haisley said in the statement that the animals "endured extreme suffering for a very, very long time. These animals didn’t have a minute to spare. They were not surviving here, they were dying here."
Cunningham said six or eight structures on the premises were searched. He said the team performed "on-site investigation, extraction and emergency sheltering." The intent is "a solution," to help rescued animals recover, find them permanent homes "and not to return animals to a puppy mill. We shut them down."
Sheriff Lance said preparations for the raid and rescue began several weeks ago when Rescue Corps received a tip of a suspected puppy mill and contacted his office.
An undercover investigation preceded the raid, according to the Rescue Corps statement. "We gathered our assets and took action, and the raid went off without a hitch," said Lance.
The sheriff said Tate County "takes all cases of abuse and cruelty very seriously. The evidence presented showed clear violations of state laws and we didn’t hesitate to act.”
Handling the sheriff's inquiry are Chief Investigator Bill Ellis and Investigators Jeff Farrow, Stephanie Huddleston and Fred Boskey.
Lance described the owner of the raided property as "a single adult female" who, while not formally running a business, "was known to raise and sell dogs" and other animals.
The sheriff said that after reports and assessments are reviewed early next week, "charges will follow. We expect to file charges."
Neighbors expressed sorrow for the animals and some sympathy for the woman.
"She's not a bad person, but I think she just got overwhelmed, and had some issues," said Greg Smith, an employee of the R.R. Donelley printing firm in Senatobia who was reared in the area and recently returned to live. He said he's known the woman since his youth.
"It's a sad, sad situation, that these things could happen to innocent animals," said Tony Watts, a retiree who is owner and promoter with XTreme Outlaw Wrestling. "Having animals is like having kids. They depend on you and you have to take care of them."
Both said that while unaware of the dire straits of the animals, people in the neighborhood could "hear and smell" that something amiss was going on.
Lance said "there should have been some sort of intervention by her friends or family, but unfortunately this didn't happen."
Aiding with the rescue were volunteers from Chicago, Kentucky, Virginia, Maryland and Tennessee, plus Mississippi animal-welfare groups including Tunica Humane Society, which sent logistical support and a large van to transport animals.
Rescue Corps documented the property and the animals before transporting them. The group will provide daily care until legal custody of the animals is determined and the animals can be placed with shelter and rescue organizations that will ultimately adopt them into loving homes. For anyone wishing to foster or adopt, Rescue Corps will publish its list of shelter and rescue placement partners on its Facebook page once the animals are transferred to these groups.
The Bissell Pet Foundation provided a critical grant to fund Operation Dog Days.
Redemption Road Rescue provided equine services, transport and shelter, and Snowden Grove Animal Hospital and Four Paws Animal Health Center provided veterinary services. The City of Hernando and Mayor Chip Johnson provided free water service for the former SERVPRO where the animals are being temporarily housed.
Monty and Sue Steen donated the building completely free of charge to the Animal Rescue Corps, according to local realtor Jamie Tipton.
"It's really good what they are doing," added Tipton. "They are very well organized."
Johnson said he went down to the SERVPRO building with rescue officials Thursday night and was visibly shaken at the condition of the animals.
"It was just heartbreaking," Johnson said. "We hooked them up with some of our animal foster families and volunteers. Hernando and Tunica and DeSoto County as a whole have a very organized group to look out for and care for these animals."
Lance praised the help from Rescue Corps and other volunteers.
"It's a good thing there are groups like that," said Lance of Animal Rescue Corps.
Cunningham said Animal Rescue Corps, a 501(c)3 group also known as ARC, was well-suited for the Tate challenge. "We work with law enforcement to address large-scale cases of animal abuse and neglect, that go beyond the resources of the community affected."
Lance, sheriff since 2008 and a veteran of countless crime and accident scenes, said he was appalled by what he saw and he was also moved emotionally.
"On those animals, it was almost like you could see an expression of relief on their faces," said the veteran lawman. "They were getting cared for, at last."
For more information about Animal Rescue Corps, visit www.animalrescuecorps.org.
Henry Bailey is Contributing Writer and Editor for the DeSoto Times-Tribune. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org and at 662-429-6397, Ext. 241.
Community Editor Robert Lee Long contributed to this story.