OJAI — Former cat breeder Glenda Brunette got reacquainted Friday with 35 old friends--and five new ones--in an emotional reunion at the Ventura County Humane Society animal shelter.
With sheriff's deputies and shelter staff looking on, Brunette and about 10 relatives and friends reclaimed 35 cats that a court ruled were illegally seized during a June 1995 raid on her Ojai avocado ranch.
She took home five more cats born at the nonprofit shelter during the three years it took her to win back her animals.
It was the first time Brunette had seen the cats, some of them with expensive pedigrees, since they were taken from her.
"Freedom, freedom," said friend Elizabeth Wikle as a beaming Brunette triumphantly emerged from the Bryant Street shelter with the first cat. "They've been in captivity for three years."
Brunette said she intends to keep just four of the cats, while the remainder will be found new homes by a West Hills-based animal rescue organization.
Her cats were confiscated when the private Humane Society, which is given some police powers under state law, executed a search warrant accompanied by armed sheriff's deputies.
They also took a dog and a dozen ducks, which were returned after a year.
But the cats remained as evidence after the district attorney's office filed misdemeanor animal neglect charges against Brunette.
The charges were thrown out Wednesday by a judge who ruled the Humane Society officers had no right to execute the search warrant.
"I don't ever want to go through this again--this has been hell," said an emotional Brunette as she cuddled a Burmese named Pixie Dancer.
"It was certainly the biggest fight of my life . . . . It's changed my life, it's changed the direction of my life."
The 61-year-old widow has filed a lawsuit in federal court against the Humane Society officers who led the raid and will soon put her 11-acre ranch on Fairview Road up for sale to help pay her legal bills.
"I've spent my entire nest egg, what my husband left for me in my old age," she said, adding that she is still afraid of local authorities and plans to move out of Ventura County.
Humane Society officials refused to talk to The Times on Friday and ordered a reporter and photographer from the shelter while allowing other journalists to remain in the building's lobby. The officials have been unhappy with Times coverage of the case.
Last November, The Times reported criticism of the nonprofit group's handling of the Brunette case, as well as questions about the society's law enforcement powers and financial management.
Brunette was out shopping in June 1995 when Humane Society officers, sheriff's deputies and county code enforcement officers cut a chain on her ranch gates and removed her animals.
Humane Society officials said Brunette was selling cats that looked sick, with eyes matted shut and fleas, according to court documents.
Brunette maintains in her civil suit that a vet who examined seven cats and some kittens the day after the raid did not substantiate the Humane Society's allegations.
Brunette was booked on two felony charges and one misdemeanor count of animal abuse. She was eventually charged with five misdemeanor animal neglect charges.
After the charges were dismissed earlier this week, Deputy Dist. Atty. Denise Payne said Brunette avoided prosecution because of a legal technicality.
Henry Rossbacher, Brunette's Los Angeles-based civil attorney, took exception to the statement.
"It's a total outrage for a deputy district attorney to say the Constitution of the United States is a technicality," said Rossbacher, a former U.S. attorney. "I don't think that law enforcement flouting the law and the Constitution shows a great respect for the rights of our citizens."
On Friday Brunette carefully identified each cat with its photograph before the meowing animals were carefully loaded into two trucks for their journey south.
"When you live alone, they are like your kids," she said. "People say, 'How can you know 40 cats?' You can."
Angel Puss and Pooch Rescue, which last year found homes for more than 4,000 cats, will find homes for the animals Brunette will not keep, said Executive Director Marge Weems.