Rescue opens up after animals returned to owner convicted of inhumane treatment

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BERKELEY COUNTY, S.C. (WCSC) – One Berkeley County animal rescue is sharing their experience after animals they were caring for were returned to the original owner convicted of inhumane treatment of animals.
Justin Culley was cited in early July for inhumane care and treatment of animals, according to the Berkeley County Sheriff’s Office.
He pleaded “nolo contendere” in a hearing on Sept. 13, according to court records, meaning he accepted the conviction but did not admit to the violation. There is no word yet on sentencing or restitution.
Following the hearing, 47 animals, that were being taken cared of at H.O.P.E Acres Rescue, 40 were given back to Culley. The rescue took care of the animals for 10 weeks before they were returned to Culley, except the rescue was allowed to keep four of the equines.
H.O.P.E Acres President Tracey Sawyer says unfortunately three of the animals died while at the rescue after coming in with medical problems. The problems included parasite overload, chronic pneumonia and coccidia, which can potentially affect humans.
“We also unfortunately lost a few of the animals that came out here due to the amount of trauma that they suffered before they came to us,” Sawyer says.
Unfortunately, three of the animals died while at the rescue after coming in with medical problems. (H.O.P.E Acres)
“Not only were we talking about the animals’ lives at stake, but the potential that some of these infections, disease could get out into the community,” she adds.
Before the hearing, Sawyer asked for the judge to see evidence of the animals’ condition and stressed the risk that putting these animals back in a petting zoo environment could have on the public.
“I expressed my concerns up until the day, literally the hour before they were returned, that I had grave concerns about the remaining medical conditions with the animals,” Sawyer says. “I felt like we were doing an injustice to return the animals.”
But Sawyer’s evidence was not used at the hearing, and she was not asked to testify.
“I understand the county’s perspective was on a code violation, but I don’t understand why additional charges weren’t brought to the surface in light of all of the findings,” she adds. “We were never contacted about our findings.”
Sawyer says she has multiple unanswered questions and concerns with Berkeley County about the way the situation was handled. One being a written agreement on the animals’ care between the county and H.O.P.E Rescues was never created.
“They basically dropped these animals off here and said, ‘Now we’re giving them back after you spent 10 weeks, multiple hours a day, rushing them up and down the road,’” Sawyer says. “There was no monetary support from the county; there was no agreement in place.”
Going forward, Sawyer hopes this entire experience can be a learning experience for the rescue and the county on how to handle animal cases like this.
“I think moving forward, it would behoove us all, to negate all of that frustration, and put something in place so that we know what the expectation is of one another,” she says.
Sawyer thinks a roundtable discussion with Berkeley County officials and the Berkeley County Sheriff’s Office would be beneficial for all parties to learn from this case.
“I would still love to have the opportunity to work with law enforcement to help support their effort to seize animals that otherwise would not have a voice; that’s the goal here, that we make the most impact, and we do that with a network of professionals,” Swayer says.
Justin Culley did not want to comment Friday, but he issued a statement back in July that said in part:
We do not abuse our animals, we love our animals with all our heart… We are heartbroken because of what has occurred…. We devote all of our time and efforts into providing the best environment we possibly can.
Officials with Berkeley County say they will be able to provide more information on the case on Monday.
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