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WESTSIDE COVER STORY : Dogged by Doubt : Activists Try Sting Operations in Search of Alleged Animal Thieves

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

HER BODY TAPED TIGHT WITH hidden wires, a tiny microphone peeking from a buttonhole of her blouse and her jeans pockets holding two miniature tape recorders set on voice-activate, Julie drives to a parking lot in Orange County for a meeting with a man and a woman.

The scene is cordial. The couple believe they have met Julie for a friendly chat, but Julie (not her real name) is actually seeking evidence about the couple’s alleged illegal trafficking activities.

Her partner, Chris DeRose, is in a car across the street, videotaping the three and waiting for Julie to deliver the tape recordings.

The scene that Julie describes could be right out of “The French Connection,” with investigators building a case against narcotics dealers. Or perhaps it’s from a cop show about dauntless detectives tracking down gunrunners.

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Except, in this case, the contraband is pets. And the gumshoe is a volunteer with Last Chance for Animals, an animal rights group based in West Hollywood.

The group suspects the couple of stealing pet dogs and selling them to research facilities, and Julie’s mission is to coax such an admission from them. The admission never came, but the group says its investigation of the couple will continue.

The Orange County operation is just one of Last Chance for Animal’s undercover investigations. The group’s unorthodox practice is the most effective way to unearth evidence of mistreatment of animals and unscrupulous practices by animal dealers, says founder and president DeRose. He argues that Last Chance for Animals fills an important niche in the animal rights movement, between radical activists who break into research facilities to free animals and large educational and lobbying groups such as the Animal Welfare Institute in Washington.

“There needed to be some kind of happy medium between underground groups and the more legislative ones,” DeRose said.

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Researchers and dealers, however, say Last Chance for Animals uses deception to produce highly questionable evidence in a larger campaign to halt all research involving animals.

“It’s deceitful,” said Dr. John Young, a veterinarian and director of Comparative Medicine for Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. “They choose not to know the truth. They’d rather come in under a guise and take photos and interpret the pictures on their own. Then they draw conclusions they are not qualified to make.”

There’s no shortage of controversy surrounding Last Chance’s most recent campaign--to stop what it calls a pattern of illegal sales by “Class B” animal dealers. The group says that some of the dealers, who are licensed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to buy animals from individuals or hunting clubs and resell them, in fact steal animals--in most cases dogs--and sell them into research.

Last Chance for Animals blames the dealers for what it estimates are more than 2 million dogs and cats stolen every year, with 75% sold into research. But a representative of the Los Angeles Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals questioned those figures, saying that there is no credible way to estimate how many pets are stolen each year. (More than 20 California Class B dealers listed with the USDA were called for this story; one declined to comment and the rest could not be reached.)

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Representatives of the research community also contest the estimates of dog theft that Last Chance for Animals promulgates in its literature, and they argue that licensed animal dealers are not responsible for pet thefts.

“They’re lying,” said Cindy Sardo, vice president of the California Biomedical Research Assn., a nonprofit group representing more than 50 research facilities in California. “The goal of the animal rights activists is to eliminate any source of animals for research. Once Class B dealers are eliminated, they’ll go after Class A dealers (who breed animals specifically for research), and once dogs are no longer a source for research, they’ll go after guinea pigs.”

Claiming a nationwide roster of more than 70,000 members--both financial contributors and active members--Last Chance for Animals started about 10 years ago as a one-man operation, with DeRose at the helm. Now the group is run by eight paid staff members. The group’s 1994 operating budget was $320,000, all from donations.

Last Chance calls itself a direct-action animal rights organization that spearheads undercover operations, lobbies politicians in Washington and engages in civil disobedience. DeRose himself was arrested three times for trespassing at UCLA Medical Center, and he spent about five months in Los Angeles County Jail between 1988 and 1992.

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“We had no intention of burglarizing,” he said. “We just went in with cameras and recorders and notebooks to document what was going on inside.”

The group also pickets research facilities that it believes buys stolen pets for experimental surgery. And Last Chance organizes a local demonstration for “Fur-Free Friday,” a nationwide animal rights event held the day after Thanksgiving. The event attracts several hundred animal rights advocates, who march through Beverly Hills’ shopping district, protesting the sale of furs by local shop owners.

The staff spends much of its time doing computer searches and background checks on Class B dealers. DeRose--who cringes when colleagues and friends compare him to Jim Carrey’s goofy character from the movie “Ace Ventura: Pet Detective"--is the group’s leading private eye.

DeRose talks about his undercover operations with pride.

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In one instance, he recalled, clandestine videotaping led to the arrest in May, 1993, of a Class B dog dealer for cruelty to animals and selling dogs for human consumption. Ervin Stebane, who worked out of Wisconsin, was taped shooting a dog in the head by two volunteers who posed as a couple interested in buying dog meat. The USDA revoked Stebane’s license as a result.

Such operations fall into a murky area of the law, according to legal experts. The group’s practices could be construed as an invasion of privacy, or more likely trespassing, depending on how statutes are applied, according to several Los Angeles-based law professors.

“Surreptitious activity may be considered an intrusion . . . like if a meeting is bugged,” said Gary Schwartz, a professor at UCLA’s School of Law.

Though they generally are cautious in their approval of DeRose’s strategy, other animal rights activists applaud his heroics when he ferrets out violators of the nation’s animal welfare laws, as he did in the Stebane case.

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“I can’t condone civil disobedience or a violation of the law, but if citizens discover information and they can bring the information to proper authorities, then there is a place for that,” said Madeline Bernstein, executive director, Los Angeles Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and the Southern California Humane Society.

Regardless of the serious violations that DeRose uncovered in his investigation of Stebane, researchers and others question his tactics and his rationale for conducting undercover investigations.

The group’s claim that researchers and Class B dealers are involved in widespread theft is faulty, critics say, because most Class B dealers don’t do business with researchers. According to the USDA, only about 70 of the nation’s 1,300 licensed Class B dealers sell animals into research; most dealers sell to pet stores. In California, where there are about 33 Class B dealers, only three or four sell dogs to research facilities, the USDA says. And the USDA has discovered only a handful of dealers who have committed serious improprieties.

Last Chance for Animals does not want to know the truth, says Young. He has invited David Meyer, executive director of Last Chance for Animals, to take a tour of Cedars-Sinai, but he says Meyer never followed up on the invitation.

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“For what, to get the white-glove tour?” Meyer responded.

Even worse, Young added, is that DeRose and other animal rights activists have held candlelight vigils and picketed outside the homes of some Cedars-Sinai researchers.

“It’s harassment,” Young said.

Anger and frustration over Last Chance for Animals’ undercover operations runs deep with Ron Smith, a spokesman for Farmer John’s, which was the target of an undercover investigation by Last Chance for Animals at its Vernon plant. He said that no representative of the group approached the slaughterhouse to ask about its practices, preferring a more radical approach instead.

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“I’m not an attorney for the company, but, to have someone come into plant under a cloak would seem to be trespassing,” Smith said. “What can I say about people who want to go behind the scenes rather than meet us fair and square and talk about these things?”

But DeRose counters that the ends of his investigations justify their means. He cites a 1991 case in which a Last Chance for Animals sting resulted in the prosecutions of a kennel operator and two associates. The three were convicted of tricking pet owners into giving away their dogs and cats and selling them for research.

Acting on a tip, Last Chance for Animals tracked Sun Valley kennel operator Barbara Ruggiero--a Class B dog dealer--and her associates, John Spero and Ralf Jacobsen. Ruggiero sold 31 stolen dogs to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, 18 dogs to Loma Linda University and 29 cats to the Veterans Administration Hospital in Sepulveda. Spero and Jacobsen acted as “bunchers,” helping her deceive pet owners into giving away their animals.

They did so by answering newspapers ads placed by people who could no longer keep their dogs and wanted to find them a new home. Working alone or sometimes in pairs, Ruggiero, Spero and Jacobsen would convince pet owners that they were interested in taking the dogs into their household.

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After Last Chance provided evidence to the district attorney’s office, the trio was convicted of felony theft, with Ruggiero sentenced to six years in prison, Spero to five years and Jacobsen to three years.

The convictions were the first successful felony prosecutions in California for stealing animals for sale to research, said Susan Chasworth, the deputy district attorney in the San Fernando branch of the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office, who prosecuted the case. “With respect to this case, (Last Chance for Animals) clearly was helpful. They investigated the defendants and did not impede my prosecution of the case.”

Michelle Zelman, a pet owner who was duped by Ruggiero and her accomplices, credits Last Chance for Animals for finding out about the ring before her dog was used in a research experiment.

When Zelman decided to move out of her home and into a condo, where no dogs were allowed, the Tarzana resident in 1988 placed an ad in a local newspaper seeking someone to adopt the mixed-breed. Weeks after she gave her dog to a man who responded to the ad, the pet was confiscated from a research facility and ended up at a local pound.

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She recovered the dog and later found it another home.

“Do I believe that dogs are being stolen? Absolutely,” she said. “But before it happened to me, I never thought this kind of thing happened.”

DeRose notes that his group’s investigations have spurred the USDA into action. Patricia Jensen, acting assistant secretary of the USDA, said she was convinced by Last Chance for Animals that a problem exists among Class B dealers, and she has directed her staff to look into the issue. If the USDA can find another way for researchers to get the dogs they need for their projects, eliminating Class B dealers may be the solution, Jensen concedes.

“No one denies that these (pet thefts) happen,” Jensen said. “It’s just the extent to which it happens that I don’t know.”

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Researchers say they depend on the Class B dealer system to keep down costs, especially since most cities and counties in California prohibit pounds from selling animals for research. Researchers pay up to three times more for dogs from USDA-licensed Class A dealers, many of whom breed dogs, mostly beagles, specifically for research. Class A dealers do not usually supply the large dogs with mixed genealogies that are needed for some experiments, particularly heart research, USDA officials explained. Larger and mixed-breed dogs better reflect how treatments will translate to humans, according to researchers.

Without Class B dogs, many research projects would come to a halt, said Cedars-Sinai’s Young, who buys about 100 dogs a year from B dealers for experiments. “If we don’t have access to Class B dealers, I can think of at least one lifesaving therapy for heart surgery that would not be available next spring,” he said.

Balancing his need for research dogs against DeRose’s concerns about the animals’ origins, Young said he calls every phone number provided by the Class B dealers to verify that the dogs he buys are not stolen. Yet Young admits that, at times, he cannot track down the previous owners.

“Some of these animals come from really rural parts of the country where people simply don’t have phones,” he said.

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But Julie, the undercover investigator, won’t be satisfied until she’s sure that pets are not being used in research projects.

“I just keep thinking about the poor dogs,” she said.


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