MANATEE COUNTY, Fla. -- It was one of the largest animals abuse cases in Suncoast history. During a raid by the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office, hundreds of animals were found living in heartbreaking conditions at the Napier Log Cabin Horse and Animal Sanctuary.
But could it happen again?
Well east of I-75, down an unpaved stretch of Wingate Road, sits a piece of property teeming with animals. According to the website of the Manatee County Property Appraiser, the land is owned by the same nonprofit behind the Napier Log Cabin Horse and Animal Sanctuary.
The principles owners of that nonprofit, Alan and Sheree Napier, were recently found guilty on multiple counts of animal cruelty and fraud in connection with their animal sanctuary off State Road 64 in Bradenton. Law enforcement officials found more than 300 animals living in deplorable conditions at that location.
Despite their guilty verdict, neighbors say the Napier’s second site on Wingate Road is still filled with animals, including chickens, horses, dogs and cows. And neighbors say they are worried about the conditions the animals are living in.
"[It’s] messy, dirty -- not a good environment for the animals in there," says Debra Bird, the whistleblower who helped start the investigation into the State Road 64 sanctuary. Her description of the Wingate Road property prompted us to visit the property and see it for ourselves.
From the street, I could see dogs, cattle and horses. They all looked thin, but seemingly fine. To get more information on what a healthy animal would look like, we reached out to horse trainer Sophie Pembleton.
"A healthy horse should have a pretty good shine to their coat,” she said. “You should not be able to see the ribs, but you should be able to feel them if you push down on them and their hips."
The horses we saw did not match that description (at the very least, the animals’ ribs were clearly visible), and there were other concerns as well. One dog appeared to be pregnant or recently had given birth, which Bird says indicated the animals are being bred. Neighbors have also found what looks like a dog's skull. There was also another dog running loose, which prompted Bird to reach out to animal services.
"I need to call for an animal welfare check,” Bird said, before dialing up Animal Services and telling a representative, “There’s a Great Dane wandering around the street; it’s very emaciated [and] it needs to be taken care of."
A few days later we went to animal services to follow up.
"The supervisor sent a crew out to that property, and they determined that it was an unfounded call," says Bill Hutchison of Manatee County Animal Services.
We wondered how people convicted of animal cruelty could still be the owners of an animal sanctuary, and we went to prominent attorney Andrean Mogensen for some answers. She says that, without any evidence of wrongdoing, the animals are legally allowed to be on the property.
"The limit of the criminal court is the defendants that are before them, and the defendants that are before them are the Napiers, not the sanctuary," Mogensen says.
The Wingate site is operated by one of the Napier's daughters, who is listed as an officer of the corporation. The animal abuse charges are only against Alan and Sheree Napier, and not the sanctuary or those affiliated with the organization, which means there is currently no legal grounds for removing the animals.
"If two parents have children and one of them is accused of child abuse, the other parent doesn't necessarily lose their rights with respect to that child,” Mogensen says. “Here the crimes are individual, so if the court orders the Napiers to not have possession of animals, other people in the organization that have not been court ordered to do so still have those rights."
In the meantime, Animal Services says they are implementing changes that they hope will prevent a case like the Napier's from happing again
But neighbors like Bird fear the worst for the Wingate Property.
"If left that way, it could get just as bad as the state road 64 property," Bird says.