4 charged after 75 emaciated dogs found on property 12:00 AM CDT on Saturday, May 22, 2010
By JON NIELSEN / The Dallas Morning News
The man at the center of the disappearance of more than 80 dogs from the city of Ferris' animal shelter was arrested Friday on animal-cruelty charges.
James "Soaring Eagle" Vonda was arrested at his home in Leonard, where witnesses described squalid conditions and 65 emaciated dogs, 10 cats and a horse at the property.
Melinda Pappa, 45, Yolanda Duke, 46, and Cody Sims, 22, also were arrested at the home in the 800 block of Flanagan Road in Fannin County and jailed on animal-cruelty charges.
"The animal conditions here are very sad," said Maura Davies, a spokeswoman for the SPCA.
Dogs nursing open wounds were left tethered, and sickly cats were running loose or cramped into pet carriers.
Piles of charred animal carcasses were found in burn barrels throughout the 6.5-acre property.
"In one you can see the top half of a cat. In one, there's kittens," Davies said.
The site is believed to be the headquarters of Vonda's Domestic Animal Rescue Emergency Shelter Services, as well as a domestic violence shelter called Safe Harbor Foundation.
The animals seized Friday were taken to the SPCA's McKinney facility.
Beginning in November, Vonda, 54, had operated a nonprofit no-kill animal shelter under a contract with the city of Ferris. In April, the city canceled its contract after learning that the dogs and cats kept there were underfed and living in crowded, filthy kennels.
Vonda, the manager of the nonprofit, said that when the contract with the city expired, he took 80 animals to an undisclosed Native American reservation in Oklahoma. He declined to give the exact location because he said he didn't want to jeopardize the safety of clients at the domestic violence shelter.
Animal advocates grew concerned about the animals because of Vonda's secrecy surrounding their whereabouts.
"They all are in very good health right now," Vonda said in an April interview with The Dallas Morning News
. "Every Native American wants to have a dog and a cat because it relates to their spirit guide."
When authorities questioned Vonda about the animals found Friday, he said that about 40 of the dogs were once kept at the Ferris shelter, Davies said.
Alex Fender, the man who reported the Fannin County situation to authorities Friday morning, said he was horrified by the conditions he saw when he visited the property Thursday night.
"Several of the dogs I was able to get close to, they were severely aggressive, but you could see the wounds on their necks for being tied to the chains for so long," Fender said.
When Fender looked inside the dilapidated ranch-style house, he saw it was no more than a kennel. He said the carpet had been stripped away to the concrete slab and the sheetrock had absorbed animal urine like a sponge.
"I walked into the house for just a second," he said. "I couldn't believe the smell."
Fannin County Sheriff's Lt. Daryl Parker said the house was so unlivable that residents were living out of one of three large camping tents.
It's unclear whether anyone besides the four arrested were living at the property.
Fender said he had placed a horse trailer for sale on Craigslist
and received a response from a woman representing Safe Harbor earlier that day.
The woman told him she was the animal caretaker for a private domestic violence shelter and safe house. She said in the e-mail that she needed to transport a mare from Leonard to Deming, N.M.
"She is not only a well-loved pet to our facility, but she also a plays a major role in therapy sessions for our residents who have suffered some of the severest cases of abuse," the e-mail stated. "Because our secret location has been compromised, we need to move her ASAP.
"We have another facility in New Mexico where we will be relocating all the residents and the animals to and we are in need of a fast, discreet and speedy relocation to that location, but we have run into a problem and could use your kind generosity in this urgent matter."
Fender said the woman told him the nonprofit had only $200.
"This is a very touchy situation, and we need your help urgently," the e-mail continued.
When Fender went to the home, he spent about 45 minutes on the property taking mental inventory of the animals' conditions for the report he'd later file with authorities. "I drove out there to do a good deed for this lady," Fender said. "There's some crazy stuff going on over there."