GAINESVILLE – The owners and operators of the now closed Haven Acres Cat Sanctuary near High Springs have been ordered to repay the costs of a June 7, 2011 seizure in which some 697 cats were removed from the property.
A judge ordered on March 29 that Haven Acres owners, Pennie and Steve Lefkowitz, pay $626,770 in restitution to the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), which led the massive feline seizure.
The first $100,000 of restitution is tied to the couple’s 15-year probationary period, according to court records. The remainder is being entered as a lien of record.
Also under the terms of the plea arrangement, the couple pled no contest to 47 animal cruelty charges related to the couple’s sanctuary. The judge withheld adjudication in the case. The couple may not own, possess, support, cohabitate, feed or rescue cats. They may not work or volunteer with an animal facility supporting any other animal rescue, reopen Haven Acres Rescue or its web site. If animals are dumped on the couple’s property, they are to contact animal services. The judge also imposed other animal ownership restrictions on the Lefkowitzes.
Alachua County Humane Society (ACHS) Executive Director Eric Van Ness said his agency, which placed nearly 300 of the seized cats into adoptive homes, was pleased to hear the terms of the plea, but offered clarification as to the relationship between the ACHS and the HSUS.
The ACHS and the HSUS are not related, Van Ness noted, adding that the ACHS is not a chapter or subsidiary or otherwise connected to the HSUS.
“The Alachua County Humane Society is a completely independent, non-government, private not for profit,” he said.
In an email, Van Ness said, “The restitution is to be paid over time to the Humane Society of the United States…the Alachua County Humane Society does not receive funds from HSUS and will not receive funds from the restitution.”
Van Ness said it is important for the public to know that the ACHS, a local organization working to end euthanasia in Alachua County, must fundraise to support its efforts and would not be the beneficiary of the court-ordered restitution.
Initiated by Alachua County Animal Services, the massive seizure of felines at Haven Acres occurred on June 7 and required the help of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) and the HSUS, which both took lead roles in the operation.
Of the original 697 cats taken from the sanctuary, more than 70 of the felines reportedly died or were euthanized after veterinary staff determined they were beyond treatment, he said.
The Lefkowitzes, whose eight-acre enclave at 21023 NW 168th Lane is surrounded by the City of High Springs, had used their property as a sanctuary for more than 400 cats and other animals since 2002. The county’s permitting of the sanctuary resulted in a lawsuit filed several years ago by the City of High Springs.
The Lefkowitzes were granted a special exception for a private animal shelter in August 2007 by the Alachua Board of County Commissioners, to which the City of High Springs quickly filed an appeal, resulting in an ensuing lawsuit with the couple.
Many complaints had been made over the years by neighbors and High Springs city officials.
Neighbors complained of a strong odor emanating from the property. For several years, city officials warned Alachua County officials that they worried the ‘sanctuary’ could be a public health threat.
City officials also expressed their concerns over the couple’s practice of burying deceased cats on their property.
Over the years, the living conditions of the cats had been reported as questionable by some. The Lefkowitzes, however, refuted claims that the cats lived in unsanitary conditions, saying litter boxes were changed regularly and their cages were appropriate housing.
Officials conducting the seizure first believed the number of cats to total about 500. By the second day of the seizure, the final tally was 697 felines. That’s more than triple the 200 cat limit Haven Acres was permitted to keep by Alachua County.