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Woman Charged With Cruelty to Animals

August 04, 1988|JAMES RAINEY | Times Staff Writer

Five misdemeanor counts have been filed against a Hawthorne woman accused of keeping a yard full of malnourished and lice-infested animals, which authorities suspect were to be used in religious sacrifices.

Catalina Sierra, 55, will be arraigned Aug. 15 in Inglewood Municipal Court on charges of animal cruelty and illegally keeping barnyard animals in a residential neighborhood. If convicted of all counts, she could be sentenced to up to four years in jail, Hawthorne Assistant City Atty. Ronald Pohl said.

Agents for the Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals said Sierra's yard on Imperial Highway appeared to be the scene of sacrifices for Santeria, a secretive Afro-Cuban folk religion that is increasingly evident in the Los Angeles area.

But Sierra said in an interview that she is not a practitioner of Santeria, and that her animals were well cared for.

"Why aren't they chasing all these gangs and drug dealers around here?" Sierra asked in Spanish. "Why don't they leave me alone?"

Police raided Sierra's home last month after neighbors complained to the SPCA about a foul smell and flies hovering around the back yard. SPCA investigators seized 22 chickens, two goats, a piglet, a lamb, two cockateels and a parrot. Sierra also removed 50 pigeons and doves from the home at the suggestion of humane officers, SPCA agent Cori Whetstone said.

The animals' pens contained no food or water or had water contaminated with feces and algae, Whetstone said. The yard contained feathers, goatskins, blood and other evidence of animal slaughter, she said.

The home is listed in the telephone directory as a botanica, a type of religious curio shop that often caters to Santeria devotees.

But Sierra said that the home is not a botanica and that she kept the animals for milk and food.

Pohl said the case does not hinge on the intended use of the animals. "People are free to believe whatever they believe," he said. "Whether this is religiously motivated I don't know, but for the purposes of this prosecution it does not matter."

Sierra was charged with violating two state laws, one that requires adequate care for penned animals and another that prohibits mutilation of domesticated animals.

She also faces three counts of violating the Hawthorne Municipal Code by keeping more than 24 birds, keeping domesticated animals within 35 feet of a property line and failing to maintain a clean environment for animals.

Citing an increase in the discovery of disfigured and slaughtered animals, the Los Angeles Board of Animal Regulation has scheduled a hearing Monday on an ordinance--aimed at Santeria followers--that would outlaw ritual animal sacrifices.

Santeria devotees have challenged a similar law in Hialeah, Fla., saying that the ordinance violates their First Amendment right to freely practice their religion.

Santeria priests, called Santeros, say animals are kept and sacrificed humanely, and that the rituals are no worse than the commercial slaughter of livestock.

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