3 Found Guilty of Stealing Pets to Sell for Medical Research
In a case believed to be the first of its kind, a former Sun Valley kennel operator and two associates were convicted Friday of felony theft in a scheme in which they tricked pet owners into giving away their cats and dogs and then sold the animals for medical research.
The three contended during their five-month trial in San Fernando Superior Court that they were conducting a legitimate business and were being persecuted because of pressure on authorities from militant antivivisectionists.
But jurors convicted the three of systematically acquiring pets by promising their owners that they would provide them with good homes, then selling the cats for $100 each and dogs for $250 to $500 each to laboratories. Many of the animals died.
After the verdicts, Judge David M. Schacter ordered the kennel owner, Barbara Ann Ruggiero, and her associates, John Spero and Ralf Jacobsen, who had been free on bail, jailed until their sentencing Aug. 26. Each faces up to six years in prison.
The conviction of the three was the first successful felony prosecution in the nation for stealing animals for sale to research facilities, said Deputy Dist. Atty. Susan Chasworth and Chris DeRose, president of West Hollywood-based Last Chance for Animals, the animal rights group that brought the case to authorities.
DeRose said that there have been “only a handful of misdemeanor prosecutions” under a state law that allows felony charges for stealing a pet, or acquiring one under false pretenses, for medical research or other commercial purposes.
Ruggiero, 28, was convicted of 11 counts of animal theft and conspiracy to steal animals. Spero, 46, and Jacobsen, 28, were convicted of 10 counts each.
Ruggiero owned two now-defunct kennels in Sun Valley, Comfy Kennel and Budget Boarding. The trial focused on the three’s activities during the four-month period beginning in October, 1987.
She and Spero also operated Biosphere, a company that was licensed by the U. S. Department of Agriculture to acquire animals and resell them to research facilities.
Jacobsen and Ruggiero answered newspaper ads seeking new homes for pets and told the owners that the animals would live on a ranch, prosecution witnesses testified during the trial.
The animals ultimately were sold through Biosphere to Loma Linda University, Cedars-Sinai Medical Center and the Veterans Administration Hospital in Sepulveda.
About 140 animals were collected by the three defendants in late 1987, Chasworth said, and at least 80 of them died in research.
The case came to light after Last Chance activists, acting on a tip, began interviewing people who had placed ads offering pets free to good homes.
DeRose said they found that Jacobsen and Ruggiero, who he said were then the biggest sellers of research animals in the state, had told numerous owners that their pets would live on an Agua Dulce ranch.
After staking out Ruggiero’s kennels for several weeks, activists convinced prosecutors to file charges, he said.
DeRose said his organization and other animal rights groups hope ultimately to ban vivisection. But he said that if they succeed in their interim goal of forcing research labs to raise their own animals for experiments or to buy them from breeders licensed for that purpose, “at least the animals will be more costly for the labs and they will kill far fewer of them.”
He said that at the current “low, low” prices for research animals, labs “are killing them indiscriminately.”
Also, he said, “people with these licenses to resell animals for research are going to go on stealing them, because that’s the only way you can get an animal for these prices.”
Lewis A. Watnick, Ruggiero’s attorney, said he was not surprised by the convictions “because there has been so much political pressure to crack down on what was a perfectly legitimate operation by my client.”
Chasworth, in arguments to the jury, insisted: “This is a theft trial,” not a trial on the propriety of animal experimentation.
Jury foreman Gary Wendt said that jurors discussed the issue of animal vivisection, and “the consensus among jurors seemed to be that animal research is needed.
“But we felt this was a case of obtaining property by fraudulent means.”