The owners of more than 180 animals that were seized from a compound in northern Jefferson County on Thursday have told law enforcement officials they will contest the seizures in district court.
Sheriff’s Department Major Lafayette Woods Jr. said James and Tara Best told deputies late Thursday they had hired an attorney who will represent them at a forfeiture hearing before Jefferson County District Judge Kim Bridgforth on Friday morning. That hearing is scheduled for 9 a.m.
The Bests were issued misdemeanor criminal citations for animal cruelty after deputies served a search warrant on Mail Route Road, which runs off NCTR Road, at 9:30 a.m. Thursday, but Woods said those charges are expected to be upgraded to aggravated animal cruelty, a felony, because of the conditions the animals were living in.
After deputies served the warrant, a large group of volunteers from the Humane Society of the United States moved in to assess and take custody of the animals, which Woods said were living in “deplorable conditions.
“When you opened the doors, the smell of ammonia and feces was overwhelming,” Woods said. “It was on the walls, in the cages, on the floor. It was some of the worst conditions I have ever seen an animal have to live in, let alone a human being.”
According to Woods, 121 dogs, two cats, 20 horses, 11 exotic birds, one turtle, 19 chickens and nine rabbits were recovered by Humane Society workers. All the animals except the horses were removed from the property Thursday night and will be kept at an undisclosed location until the ownership of the animals is determined. All the animals are considered to be in the custody of Jefferson County.
Woods said the horses could not be removed until further testing by a veterinarian but they were also expected to be taken out by Friday. In the meantime, the Sheriff’s Department Command Post was moved to the site and deputies were to be on duty all night.
“When I walked into the room where the birds were, one of them said hello,” Woods said. “These were tropical birds and not used to cold weather because they were all huddled up together and shivering.”
In response to a question from a reporter, Woods said no dead animals were found on the property, which he said consists of three separate structures like mobile homes that have had additions made to them.
“We had several complaints from neighbors about the number of animals and Deputy Terry Wingard answered several of those calls,” Woods said. “That’s where we got our initial information and then presented it to a judge who authorized the search warrant.”
An estimated 55 to 60 people from across the country were involved in the operation, which Woods described as a “major undertaking for Jefferson County.
“It would cost Jefferson County $100,000 just to house the animals, not including the costs of feeding them and providing them medical attention,” he said. “I can’t say enough about the work of the Humane Society coming in here and helping us to get this done.”
Several people on Facebook commenting about the story indicated that the large number of animals was the result of residents at the house taking in strays until the conditions got out of hand.
Woods said he could not comment on that because the investigation was ongoing, and he didn’t “know what was in the mind of the residents.”
Additionally, although the address of the house is listed as “Busy Bee Pets,” Woods said he didn’t know if the Bests were running a business from the location.
“We haven’t seen any business records yet so we have not been able to verify that,” he said.
Woods said the Bests were cooperative with deputies when the warrant was served and “were obviously concerned about the welfare of their animals.”