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Valley Perspective : Crackdown on Extremist Animal Groups Warranted : Lawsuit over weapons charges is step in right direction

March 03, 1996

In November of 1994, Times reporter Josh Meyer brought needed attention to an alarming problem: extremist animal welfare groups that had used a legal loophole to operate without oversight, swear in untrained officers and stockpile weapons caches.

The loophole allowed groups of non-governmental peace officers around the state to operate with quasi-police powers and to engage in all manner of questionable, even ridiculous behavior.

One group confiscated the seeing eye dog of a blind Westchester man, leaving him unemployed and mostly homebound for five months. The reckless actions of other such groups resulted in ruined crime scenes and tainted evidence. And one group foolishly broadcast radio appeals for animal lovers to converge at the scene of the 1993 Malibu/Calabasas wildfire. At that very time, firefighters had been desperately trying to keep roads clear so that residents could be evacuated from the vicinity of the blaze.

Meyer's reporting unearthed the fact that these groups had used an obscure, 80-year-old state law that had been meant to give humane societies a free rein in signing up deputies. As a result of his stories, the California Legislature passed a law that reins in such groups. The law, which took effect this year, limits their powers and requires officers to undergo the same training and psychological screening expected of all legitimate California law enforcement officers.

But that step, while clearly warranted, addressed only some of the more obvious issues raised by the activities of these groups. Other concerns can be put succinctly. Is it right and proper for an animal welfare group to use hundreds of thousands of dollars in charitable donations to stockpile an arsenal of weapons? Is it right to use such donations to engage in other activities that have little to do with protecting animals?

Thanks to the state attorney general's office, we may have some answers.

It has filed a civil lawsuit against Van Nuys-based Mercy Crusade Inc., saying it illegally used $400,000 in charitable donations to purchase more than $173,000 in weapons, including assault-style rifles. We find the courts to be an entirely appropriate arena for such a matter, given the fact that many police departments do not use such weapons because of their potential for mass destruction. Moreover, the group's explanation for its need for such firepower boggles the mind. The group says it must have such weapons to protect animal shelters in the event of another urban riot.

There's more. The lawsuit alleges that a director of the group used another $130,000 in charitable donations to fund personal business loans and maintain his aircraft. Moreover, the attorney general's office says the group may have falsified its charitable-contributions reports to state officials.

Mercy Crusade has consistently denied any wrongdoing in its actions.

To us, it has long been clear that a safer future for all Californians lies in restricting, rather than expanding the circulation of firearms. Mercy Crusade has long been active in sheltering abused and neglected animals, and in the promotion of spaying and neutering. Its alleged firepower and defensive requirements are another matter entirely, however, and they are fair game for further legal scrutiny.

One group confiscated the seeing eye dog of a blind Westchester man, leaving him unemployed and mostly homebound.

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