Humane Society 'devastated' after probe shows dozens of tiny pets from San Diego likely fed to reptiles

Dozens of small animals transferred from San Diego to the Humane Society of Southern Arizona in August likely became food at a reptile farm in Maricopa County, the group said Thursday.

During a press conference, Robert Garcia, an attorney who chairs HSSAZ’s board, said his group transferred 323 animals to Colten Jones—one of two brothers who run the Fertile Turtle, a Phoenix-area reptile business. Of those animals, just 62 were returned to HSSA after the group began asking questions, and the nonprofit has “worked since their return to determine the fate of the missing animals.”

“We have now received new information that sheds light on the likely outcome for the remaining animals,” Garcia said. “The day after receiving these animals, Colten Jones sent a text message seeking assistance in processing a high volume of guinea pigs and rabbits for food.”

October: Humane Society fires Farley for ‘terribly negligent’ handling of missing small pets

“We know that Mr. Jones runs a reptile breeding company called the Fertile Turtle,” Garcia said. “A part of this business includes selling both live and frozen animals for reptile feed.”

“The board, staff and volunteers of HSSA and SDHS share our community’s outrage and this latest piece of information that clearly indicates Mr. Jones’ intention to use these animals as feed instead of finding them adoptive homes,” Garcia said. “We are heartbroken for every one of these animals and every individual who shares our concern for them.”

“We could not have conceived anything like this happening in connection with organization,” Garcia said. “I’m heartbroken for the animals and heartbroken for our community and heartbroken for our organization whose mission is to protect and save animals. And so yeah, I’m devastated. Our communities devastated our employees are devastated where we whether we now know and have information on the likely outcome, and this is not what we wanted.”

In early August, the Humane Society of San Diego asked for help finding homes for dozens of small “pocket pets,” including rabbits, guinea pigs and other small animals. HSSAZ agreed to help and by August 8, the California organization undertook a “mass transport — the largest in San Diego Humane Society’s history” — to alleviate pressure on overcrowded shelters sending 318 animals from San Diego to Tucson.

The small pets had “a new chance at finding loving families,” the San Diego group said in a press release touting the move.

However, weeks after the transfer, SDHS began asking for information about the adoptions of the animals. Among the animals were 70 rabbits who were microchipped, however the registration data for those chips was not updated, the organization said.

Soon it became clear the animals had been shipped to a “private family-run group” in Maricopa County, as was first reported by Arizona Public Media, and staff and supporters of the California rescue group weren’t satisfied with the limited information about the placement of the animals.

The business associated with that group, the Fertile Turtle, has not responded to the Sentinel’s requests for comment. The business, which has posted snakes for sale at prices of up to $2,000, has deactivated its social media pages since the controversy began.

In the following weeks, the organizations faced increasing pressure to account for the missing animals, including days of protests at the San Diego Humane Society. By early October, HSSAZ sacked CEO Steve Farley and accepted the resignation of Christian Gonzalez, the chief programs officer at the private Tucson animal shelter who oversaw the transfer.

During a press conference in October, Garcia said Colten Jones and his brother Trevor said 254 animals were placed in homes, though they provided “no records of adoption,” he said. Further, none of the dozens of missing rabbits were traced, an SDHS spokeswoman told the Sentinel. 

The HSSAZ board did not learn of the involvement of Colten Jones — the owner of the reptile farm — until weeks after the transfer, and Farley and Gonzales were placed on leave that day, in part to ensure people could provide information without fear of retaliation. 

The HSSAZ board “discovered that Trevor Jones was merely an individual who routinely facilitated animal adoptions, primarily through personal relationships at his church and in the community and was not a licensed rescue operation,” Garica said last month. 

He added the organization’s “passionate staff had nothing to do with” the transfer of the animals to Phoenix, and that there have been “relentless threats to staff’s mental and physical well-being.”

The “poor judgment” of the “former leadership” has “threatened the ongoing work of our organization,” Garcia said.

“We have a responsibility to seek definitive answers about the fate of these animals,” Garcia said. “We’ve consistently stated our commitment to pursuing legal action when warranted.”

Garcia said Wednesday HSSAZ may pursue legal action against former employees and Jones, however, he demurred when asked to name the HSSAZ employees could face legal action. 

“I don’t want to name names,” Garcia said.

He added the San Diego and Tucson organizations will work to “advance both civil and criminal proceedings.” The organizations also asked for people with relevant information to contact the Tucson Police Department.

Garcia also told reporters an investigator with HSSAZ has been in regular contact with Colten Jones, who has denied the allegations. The text message from Jones asking for help processing the animals came from a Tucson reporter, Garcia said. \

“Well, the information surely tells us what the intention was with the animals,” he said. “We’ve asked repeatedly for Mr. Jones to provide us information to the contrary, and he has not. So we can only make determinations based upon the information that we have.”

He added an internal investigation was ongoing and said a report should be published in early December.

“These investigations and corresponding recommendations are critical to ensure this tragedy never happens again and that those who are responsible are held accountable,” Garcia said. “We we will take legal action as appropriate. But further, we’re going to focus on our mission. We have hired a wonderful interim CEO who is really making quite a difference in helping us change our culture, and make sure this never happens again.”

Farley ‘in the dog house’

Farley served as a state representative and then senator from Tucson, leaving the Legislature because of term limits. He was named Humane Legislator of the Year several times. Known as much for his public art projects — including the tiled photographic murals at the Broadway entrance to Downtown — he pursued unsuccessful primary campaigns for Arizona governor and Tucson mayor. Farley was also removed from his post on the advisory committee for the Pima County Animal Care Center.

When he was hired 3.5 years ago, he said he “couldn’t be happier to be in the dog house.”

Gonzales worked for the local Humane Society for 12 years, according to the organization’s website.

As the COO of the group, he was “a driving force over the past 16 months to help find better ways to care for the pets needing temporary shelter,” HSSAZ’s site said.

“His other true passion is spending his time caring for and rescuing reptiles. He has been involved in the rescue and placement of hundreds of reptiles nationwide,” the site said.