Steve Lefkowitz, Pennie Lefkowitz
More than two months after 697 cats were seized from Haven Acres Cat Sanctuary near High Springs, sheriff deputies arrested the owners of the facility.
Pennie, 59, and Steve Lefkowitz, 65, were arrested Monday night on 47 animal cruelty charges related to the couple’s sanctuary. Alachua County Animal Services Director David Flagler said 46 of the charges were related to cats, and one of the charges was for a rooster also kept on the property.
Initiated by Animal Services, the massive seizure of felines at Haven Acres occurred on June 7 and required the help of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) and the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), which both took lead roles in the operation.
State Attorney’s Office spokesman Spencer Mann said the Lefkowitzes were released on their own recognizance less than two hours after turning themselves in as had been prearranged.
Charges against them read like an encyclopedia of feline ailments and unsanitary conditions. Detailed in each of the third degree felony charges is a specific ailing cat, its physical conditions, a profile of its medical status and an analysis of the environment in which it was found on June 7.
Among the health concerns called out in the 14-page charging document were muscle atrophy, fleas, ear mites, missing and abscessed teeth, emaciation, dehydration, feline leukemia virus, alopecia, feline immunodeficiency virus, severe upper respiratory infection, ocular discharge, nasal discharge and several others.
The living conditions of several cats were described as filthy. Several of the charges stated, “This cat was found in the infirmary, that contained 39 cages with 73 cats contained within them; the room had a strong ammonia smell that made it difficult to breathe; the cages and crates were filthy with mucous and dried blood and diarrhea splattered on the walls; the litter boxes were full and overflowing and there were feces on the cage floors, some feces containing maggots; the water bowls were low and dirty with food, fur and litter in them.”
Of the original 697 cats taken from the sanctuary, Flagler said 626 remain. More than 70 of the felines died or were euthanized after veterinary staff determined they were beyond treatment, he said.
The Lefkowitzes, whose eight-acre enclave at 21023 NW 168th Lane is surrounded by the City of High Springs, had used their property as a sanctuary for more than 400 cats and other animals since 2002. The county’s permitting of the sanctuary even resulted in a lawsuit filed several years ago by the City of High Springs.
The Lefkowitzes were granted a special exception for a private animal shelter in August 2007 by the Alachua Board of County Commissioners, to which the City of High Springs quickly filed an appeal, resulting in an ensuing lawsuit with the couple.
Many complaints had been made over the years by neighbors and High Springs city officials.
Neighbors complained of a strong odor emanating from the property. For several years, city officials warned Alachua County officials that they worried the ‘sanctuary’ could be a public health threat.
City officials also expressed their concerns over the couple’s practice of burying deceased cats on their property.
Over the years, the living conditions of the cats have been reported as questionable by some. The Lefkowitzes, however, refuted claims that the cats lived in unsanitary conditions, saying litter boxes were changed regularly and their cages were appropriate housing.
In November 2009, High Springs and Alachua County Commissioners agreed on stipulations that would lessen the impact the cat sanctuary has on its neighbors, still allow Haven Acres to operate, and settle the lawsuit High Springs had filed against Alachua County for permitting the sanctuary around a residential neighborhood.
Animal Services was tipped off about the sanctuary in late May when a person wanting to drop off a cat at the sanctuary became concerned upon seeing the conditions of the animals there, Flagler said.
The tip prompted an investigation by Flagler’s office, which reportedly found medically neglected cats.
“We suspected the cat sanctuary had far more cats than we could take care of ourselves,” he said in a previous interview.
Officials conducting the operation first believed the number of cats to total about 500. By the second day of the seizure, the final tally was 697 felines. That’s more than triple the 200 cat limit Haven Acres was permitted by Alachua County to keep.
Ashley Mauceri, deputy manager of Animal Cruelty Investigations for The HSUS said in a previous interview, “Whether the sanctuary started with good intentions, it is now clear that it is unable to properly care for this number of animals, and we want to make sure they get the care and attention they need.”