For years, two Central Coast animal sanctuaries run by the Dancing Star Foundation had reputations as good places for old and ill animals. Care was unstinting, the facilities well-kept and the budget ample.
But over the last few months, economic declines have forced layoffs at the sanctuaries near Paso Robles and Cayucos in San Luis Obispo County. Even worse, some former workers said, Dancing Star began to euthanize cows, horses and burros whose care was deemed too expensive.
The foundation denies the claim, saying that only animals with severe, intractable medical conditions have been put to death.
"Economics were never a factor," said Roger Gillott, the foundation's spokesman. The allegations "are offensive to us because they are completely contrary to our most deeply held beliefs, and are belied by the facts."
The controversy, playing out in area newspapers and online, has raised alarms among animal activists across the country. Farm Sanctuary, an organization based in Watkins Glen, N.Y., aimed at ending cruelty to farm animals, said that Dancing Star had agreed Wednesday to review its practices and signed off on a euthanasia moratorium. Dancing Star said no more killings had been planned anyway -- an assertion that former employees dispute.
Jason Hamaker, a ranch maintenance supervisor, said his bosses started talking last fall about cutting back on medications and feed for some of the older animals. The sicker the animals became, the more justified their deaths by lethal injection would appear, he said.
"They said they wanted a total of 50 gone within a couple of months, and then another 30 after that," he said. In the last four weeks, according to Hamaker, 23 animals have been put down.
In a rough winter month in the past, there might have been three euthanizations, he said.
Hamaker, a five-year employee, said he was fired Wednesday.
Sheldon Rowley, who was laid off three weeks ago, said Dancing Star was "an incredibly run sanctuary" until last month. "They said if we didn't thin out the herd, animals wouldn't get the care they needed," he said. "First we were told it was financial, and then we were told it was a quality-of-life issue."
Gillott declined to discuss numbers, but said more animals than usual had recently been euthanized because so many were aging and infirm when they arrived years ago.
"We believe the humane thing to do with animals in extreme pain is to put them to rest," he said. "In recent weeks, we've asked whether we've been lax in the past -- not as aggressive as we should have been -- from an overabundance of love for the animals."
The accusations came to light last week on CalCoastNews.com.
The report, which also revealed the hefty salaries given to Dancing Star executives, stirred anger in the animal welfare community. In 2006, Michael Tobias and Jane Gray Morrison, a husband-and-wife team who have collaborated on numerous films and books, received $275,000 and $235,000, as president and vice president. Chief Finance Officer Don Cannon drew $219,450.
"Those salaries are just way out of line," said Kim Sturla, founder and director of Animal Place, a sanctuary for farm animals in Vacaville, Calif. "It's shameful -- it just reflects badly on all of us animal nonprofits." Sturla said those three salaries exceed her sanctuary's entire annual operating budget.
Gillott said those salaries have been cut twice since the latest nonprofit tax filing in 2007.
With about 320 animals on more than 1,000 acres, the sanctuaries were started in 1993 by Sue Stiles, an heir to the McClatchy newspaper fortune. Tobias became president of the foundation, which also funds cancer research at UCLA, when Stiles died in 1999.
The complaints from sanctuary employees have prompted an inquiry from local animal welfare officials.
Eric Anderson, head of San Luis Obispo County Animal Services, said his department concluded that the euthanized animals were "either beyond treatment or had conditions for which euthanasia would be at least one of the considerations that could responsibly be made."
Russ Mead, an attorney for Farm Sanctuary, visited Dancing Star for two days last week, investigating conditions at both sanctuaries. "It's the best-funded place in the country for animals and the staff appears to be caring," he said.
However, he said he was unable to determine whether the euthanized animals -- he knew of 14 in the last two weeks -- had been properly selected. "There was only so much I could do because they were dead," he said, adding that a decision to put down several additional animals apparently was reversed during his visit.
Euthanasia is occasionally practiced at sanctuaries, often after prolonged consultations among staff members and veterinarians.
Tristen Weltner, one of two veterinarians who administered the lethal injections, said they were given only to "the more debilitated and poorer quality-of-life animals." In its defense, the foundation released descriptions of seven horses that had been identified in news reports. They were as old as 27, according to the foundation, and suffered from partial blindness, crippling arthritis, limb deformities and other "severe" conditions.
But Hamaker and other former workers were skeptical.
"The cows had some lameness, but we never put a cow down before for being lame," Hamaker said.