VENTURA — Vandals broke into the child-care center at Patagonia Inc. Thursday night and apparently bludgeoned to death two guinea pigs and two rabbits kept by the youngsters as pets, police say.
The guinea pigs were found dead in their outdoor cages Friday morning by a parent dropping off her child at the clothing manufacturer on Ventura's west end.
At first, teachers thought the cold had killed the animals. But when they rushed to remove the dead pets from the cages before children arrived, they found blood.
Then teachers noticed that the rabbit hutch, also outdoors, had been kicked in, and the rabbits were gone.
But the rabbits frequently escape, so the teachers sent the 16 kindergartners to the playground to search for the missing bunnies.
It didn't take long for them to find the rabbits' bodies.
Jazz lay apparently stoned to death in the sandbox. Snowball's legs protruded from under a big tire nearby.
"It looked like someone had been jumping up and down on [the tire]," said Susan Welbourne, an administrative assistant at the center.
The cruel acts left children crying and adults horrified.
"I was shocked," said Emily Boyes, whose daughter Brooke, 5, attends the child-care center. "It's just so senseless. It leaves you feeling [nauseated], asking why. It's different from slashing tires, or breaking a window. It's a life you've destroyed."
Added Lu Setnicka, head of public affairs for Patagonia:
"There is tagging that goes on. But to climb in--it's clear that this is a children's center--and blatantly take the animals out of their cages, and crush them to death--this is just going too far."
Ventura Police Sgt. Randy Janes said animal killings in Ventura are rare, but not unheard of. He recalls that a cat found last year looked as if it had possibly been killed by criminal means. But that was nothing like this.
"I don't recall ever having been involved with multiple animals being killed at the same time," Janes said. "Typically it is animal predators--a pack of dogs that take on sheep or small animals."
According to the California Penal Code, a person who maliciously maims, mutilates, tortures or wounds a living animal, or maliciously and intentionally kills an animal, can be imprisoned or fined up to $20,000.
In addition to the pets' being found dead, several sprinklers were found broken and the car tires of Patagonia co-founder, Yvon Chouinard, had been slashed.
Meanwhile, teachers and parents struggled with what to tell the stunned children.
"We told them we didn't understand," Welbourne said. "We told them someone had come and hurt our pets, and we don't know why."
Trudy Rother--director of the Kids Club, which includes a kindergarten day-care program in the morning, as well as an after-school program--said the older children are angry and the younger children are scared.
The children loved the two guinea pigs--Harry and Baldy--and the two rabbits--Jazz and Snowball.
Teachers said the children often played with the animals outside. When pets at the center die naturally, of old age, a quiet ceremony is held, including placing them in a shoe box and burying them.
But this time the animals were so mutilated that there will be no such ceremony.
"We are talking about putting up a bunny statue, or putting in a plant in the bunnies' memory," Welbourne said. "We are not looking at boxes and burials on this one."
The center is planning to bring in a child psychologist early next week so the children can talk about their feelings.
But Boyes remains unsettled.
"You want to protect your child. They're innocent still," she says. "I'm kind of worried that this is something that will really affect my child--in ways that I might not even be able to see or understand."