“I’m not too good. We’re devastated,” said Diana McGowan, co-owner of the beleaguered Noah’s Park Retreat in Goshen, NY, when she picked up the phone. A caravan of pickups and trailers had arrived at her 7.3-acre property eight days earlier, on Sunday, Sept. 11, under police escort, and seized dozens of animals. They confiscated horses, donkeys, pigs, sheep, chickens, ducks, peacocks, a Sebastopol goose and guinea hens, charging the owners with malnutrition, dehydration and unsanitary conditions, according to a website post co-signed by Noah’s Park co-owners, McGowan and Rebecca Vives. The two women vigorously deny the charges.
The bigger animals were taken to Pets Alive in Middletown, which provided the transport vehicles and accompanied the mission. “We emergency housed the pigs before they were transferred to another rescue. I have two sheep, two mini horses and a mini donkey,” said Becky Tegze, the shelter’s executive director. The pigs, Tegze said, are now at Two by Two Animal Haven in Pleasant Valley, Dutchess County, NY. The others will remain at Pets Alive while the case is ongoing, she said. “They are receiving the medical attention they need.”
Pets Alive works very closely with humane law and the sheriff’s department, she said. “We ourselves are not the ones confiscating. We are a housing facility for law enforcement.”
The smaller animals, like the chickens and guinea hens, were taken to a farm in Clintondale, Ulster County, NY, said Eugene Hecht, chief of the Hudson Valley SPCA Humane Law Enforcement.
It was Hecht, not the police, who initiated the investigation of Noah’s Park. “We had a complaint,” said Hecht. “We went and inspected the place.” Everyone he investigates for animal mistreatment receives an order to comply, said Hecht – including the Noah’s Park owners – and a chance to correct the problem before he takes further action.
Based on what he and one other investigator observed, Hecht requested a search warrant and seizure order. The search warrant was signed by Town of Goshen Justice Amanda Brady on Sept. 8, said Goshen Town Police Department secretary Laura Lappe, who had been furnished with a copy.
“The Goshen police were just there to make sure everything remained calm,” said Lappe. “They weren’t involved in it, but they were there just in case. You know how tensions get with things like that.”
McGowan declined to say whether other animals were left at Noah’s Park, whose menagerie included exotics like a coatamundi and a kinkajou, an armadillo, a marmoset, an African crested porcupine, a tiny fennec fox and a shaggy West Highland cow, according to the most recent U.S. Department of Agriculture inspection on April 29.
“It’s not over,” said McGowan over the phone. “There’s a lot of underlying story to this, which I can’t reveal. I need my lawyer to direct me. I mean, it’s terrible to feel that you can’t just speak out, you know. But it’s not possible at this time.” There was no date yet for the arraignment as of Sept. 22, according to the Goshen Town Court clerk.
A week after the confiscation, 16 people had contributed a total of $2,175 to a GoFundMe campaign for Noah’s Park. Noah’s Park is a nonprofit that brings in less than $50,000 a year, according to its tax filings. It initially opened as a boarding and grooming business decades ago.
“Over the years, we took in some pets that people for one reason or another could not keep, and they lived out their lives here. Then we established Noah’s Park Retreat, because we wanted to have people come enjoy our animals and learn about them,” wrote the owners in the website post.
‘It all started when the wallabies got out’
“You know, it all started when the wallabies got out, unfortunately,” said McGowan. A pair of the diminutive kangaroos grabbed headlines this spring when they bolted after workmen who’d come to clean out the septic system left three gates open, said McGowan. One wallaby was found dead, and the other, Rocko – the same one that Goshen cops had wrangled the previous spring after another escape – is presumed dead as well.
“I mean, you would think professionals, you know, they would close gates behind them, and you wouldn’t have to go double-check, particularly since they had been coming here for years and doing that service,” said McGowan. “But, you know, the entire burden of that situation is on us. We were devastated. I mean, the one wallaby had been hand-raised by Rebecca, so she was especially distraught. And I think that just opened the door for a lot of other things to start to happen.”
In the wake of the well-publicized wallaby episode, the U.S. Department of Agriculture inspector visited twice in April. USDA veterinary medical officer Keri Lupo cited Noah’s Park for exposed mesh in the porcupine enclosure; insufficient space between enclosures; and lack of a required perimeter fence around the property, which contributed to the wallabies’ escape.
Earlier violations include rusty or jagged wire in animal enclosures; unsanitary food prep and storage areas; insufficient record-keeping; and housing marmosets, a kinkajou, cavies and paca in an insufficiently ventilated basement without functioning windows.
A disgruntled former employee, Rose Gallendsle, 19, went public with accusations of “disgustingly dirty” conditions that she claims were responsible for her two-week hospitalization with complications of a diarrheal infection when she worked at Noah’s Park two years ago. “I am so happy these animals are away from these people!” Gallendsle wrote in a Facebook post. “They need proper care and attention and hopefully can all be nursed back into proper health. 2 old ladies cannot take care of a whole farm point blank period!”
“The animals were in good condition, not starved, cramped or dirty. Some of them, like the sheep, are elderly and have age related problems, but are otherwise healthy and happy,” wrote the owners in a website post signed by Vives and McGowan.
The USDA did not renew Noah’s Park Retreat’s license to exhibit animals to the public earlier this year, after the facility failed three re-licensing inspections and accrued more than a dozen animal welfare violations in seven months.
However, it was not the USDA reports that prompted his investigation, said Hecht, but the tip from a complainant.
More than a dog catcher
In the wake of the Noah’s Park seizure, speculation abounded about who was behind it. “It’s amazing that the DEC had time to mess with this,” said one Facebook commenter. “The ASPCA seized them,” said another. Both false.
“Who confiscated them? Are you sure they’re real law enforcement?” asked another.
Nobody suggested the Hudson Valley SPCA Division of Law Enforcement. That’s because few civilians have heard of it, or its chief, Eugene Hecht, an 80-year-old former auto garage owner with a (very old) felony conviction on his record for vehicle fraud. (He says someone brought a car to his garage that he didn’t know was stolen, and points out that this was back in 1983.)
According to an obscure section of New York State agriculture and markets law, humane law enforcement officers now have many of the same powers as police when it comes to apprehending people suspected of animal abuse. They carry a firearm – which Hecht says is necessary when they respond to cockfighting or dogfighting calls that are often gang-related, not to mention angry farmers – and have the power to seize animals confined in a crowded or unhealthy condition or in unsanitary surroundings.
Unlike police officers, Orange County’s humane law enforcement officers are paid by the SPCA, not by the public. The Hudson Valley SPCA is a nonprofit funded entirely by donations, with a budget of $350,000, according to its website. “We don’t get a dime from taxpayers,” said Hecht. The Hudson Valley SPCA employs six investigators including himself, said Hecht.
“We don’t go out on barking dogs or loose dogs. We do strictly neglect and abuse,” said Hecht, who created his position 13 years ago. “They weren’t doing humane law enforcement back in the 2000s,” he said. Hecht was doing volunteer work with the Hudson Valley SPCA when he saw the need. “We started getting calls that were law enforcement calls,” he said.
As for the job training, “It never ends,” said Hecht. He has been through police academy training, animal cruelty courses, New York Bar Association courses, and is attending an upcoming course put on by the Greene County Sheriff’s Department, he said.
There are 800 animal control workers – who investigate animal mistreatment, or control of abandoned, dangerous or unattended animals – in New York, more than any state except Texas and California, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Animal control workers in the tristate area that encompasses Orange County, NY make an average of $54,880; the national mean salary for the job is $42,620.
In New York State, where each county is allowed one SPCA, two-thirds of the state’s 47 SPCAs do not have law enforcement, Hecht said, adding, “If we don’t do it, nobody’s going to do it.”
‘It all started when the wallabies got out’: Noah’s Park co-owner Diana McGowan