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Abuse-Case Animals Adored

While two plead in sweeping cruelty case, two recovered donkeys find a caring home.

May 22, 2003|Kristina Sauerwein | Times Staff Writer

As the owners of the Tiger Rescue sanctuary in Colton pleaded not guilty to animal cruelty charges Wednesday, the two miniature donkeys they allegedly starved and abused got a new home with a Hemet woman who plunked down $1,100 for the pair at a public auction.

More than a dozen donkey lovers bid on the creatures at the Ramona Animal Shelter in San Jacinto, where each had a starting price of $100.

Although most donkeys fetch $100 to $200, Lora Simington says she believes she got a good price. She even rejected a $5,000 offer from an animal rights activist who drove from Venice in hopes of acquiring the animals and sending them to a donkey rescue shelter in Texas.

"I love donkeys," Simington said. "I had a donkey before I had my first horse" at age 12, when she lived in La Crescenta.

Workers at the San Jacinto shelter -- where the docile creatures have convalesced since last month's rescue -- spent the days leading up to the auction primping up the unnamed donkeys.

"They were in terrible shape," said Dennis White, Riverside County's supervising animal control officer. The creatures were 40 to 50 pounds underweight, their hooves were 10 inches overgrown, and they behaved in a frightened manner, he said.

On Wednesday, the donkeys basked in loving caresses from adoring visitors. Thanks to sweet grain, alfalfa, carrots and an occasional apple, they had gained weight significantly. Their hooves still turned outward, but not nearly as bad as when they seemed to curl, according to one worker.

The donkeys were seized last month from a home in Glen Avon, where federal and state authorities said they also discovered 90 dead tigers, including 58 cubs stuffed into a freezer and other tiger remains in the yard. Also found were leopards, domestic cats and a goat, all allegedly malnourished.

John Weinhart and his partner, Marla Smith, who lived at the home and ran the Tiger Rescue sanctuary for exotic felines in Colton, pleaded not guilty Wednesday in Riverside County Superior Court to 63 charges, including 16 felonies for animal cruelty.

They also face a felony charge of child endangerment for allegedly exposing their 8-year-old son to unsafe conditions, including keeping two alligators in a bathtub. Their home also allegedly had feces-covered floors and two full-grown tigers roaming in the yard.

Weinhart and Smith are each free on $15,000 bail on condition that they have no contact with animals, said Paul Dickerson, the Riverside County deputy district attorney who will prosecute the couple. A preliminary hearing has not been set.

If convicted, Dickerson said, Weinhart and Smith could each get up to 16 years in prison.

On Wednesday, the priority of the animal lovers who came to the auction was that the donkeys go to loving homes.

Bidders had to complete a four-page county adoption application. It asked them to list their caretaking experience with donkeys, their water source and their veterinarian's phone number.

Would-be donkey owners also had to agree to one year of supervision by county officials, who would return the animals to shelters if any problems were detected.

"We want them to have good people caring for them," said White, the supervising animal officer, adding that money from the donkey sales will be used to defray costs of caring for them. The donkeys "are just sweethearts," he said.

Donkey lovers at the auction appeared pleased with Simington's background.

She lives on 2 acres and her husband is a veterinarian. She scratched the donkeys behind the ears, right where they like it. She was determined to keep the two together.

"That's the most important thing to me," said Virginia Bowen, a Murrieta computer consultant who donned a gold donkey pin. The creatures "have been through so much. They've formed a bond.... To separate them might make them sad."

Even Riverside County animal control officers were relieved. "I'm really delighted she got it," said John Stephens, a senior animal control officer who conducted the auction. "I really think it's important that they stay together."

At one point during the auction, after Simington's winning $475 bid for the white-patched donkey, it seemed as if someone else would get the companion.

But Simington kept outbidding, eventually shelling out $625 for the black-patched donkey.

"They're sweet," she said. "I will take very good care of them."

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