By Ashley Gebb
OROVILLE — Allegations of abuse and neglect at the Barry R. Kirshner Wildlife Foundation were met today with anger and shock from those affiliated with the sanctuary and education center.
The People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals announced this week the organization had filed complaints with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and U.S. Department of Agriculture, and had requested investigations into alleged violations of the Endangered Species Act. The legislation prohibits the taking, harming, harassing, and wounding of threatened and endangered wildlife.
On Tuesday, founder and director Roberta Kirshner had not heard of the complaint but immediately suspected it was from "disgruntled" former volunteers.
"It hurts. It's terrible what people do," Kirshner said. "It's just sad because they are trying to destroy something that is good, and we are a last stop for so many animals. This is not right."
The foundation, started in 1994, provides around-the-clock care for sick and special-needs animals, including exotic species. Large cats like tigers, leopards, lynxes and bobcats call the Kirshner Foundation home, which moved to a new 19-acre property on Durham-Pentz Road in fall 2010.
The complaint is based on reports from two former volunteers — whose identities were not released by PETA — that Kirshner routinely beats and punches animals, encourages volunteers to participate in the abuse, denies animals critical veterinary care and engages in poor feeding practices, some of which resulted in animals' death and suffering. Additional volunteers are willing to corroborate the numerous specific incidents of abuse, the compliant states.
"People can say anything they want, whether it's true or not," Kirshner said. "It's terrible."
She said she thinks the community's longtime support of the foundation, which will have its 20th anniversary this year, are proof of its commitment to the best animal care.
"The animals come first," Kirshner said. "We do everything we can to make sure they are content and have everything they need to be healthy and happy."
The center has several veterinarians who regularly check the animals and are on 24-hour call, she said. Each year, the foundation spends thousands of dollars to care for the animals it serves.
Veterinarian Dawn Alves of All About Equine Veterinary Services, has been affiliated with the foundation before it officially began and said she was shocked by the allegations.
She has never witnessed or seen evidence of an animal being mistreated, and said their well-being is evidenced by the number of older-aged animals.
"It just breaks my heart that anyone would try to say that they didn't take care of their animals," she said. "All you have to do is go there and see them to know how well they are cared for."
In hearing some of the specific allegations, Alves said she identified many holes in the stories and the sensationalizing of situations taken out of context. It's also easy for someone unfamiliar with large and exotic animals to misinterpret medical treatment as abuse, she said.
"I have never seen any neglected, I have never seen any not fed," she said. "I can't even think of one animal I can point to and say 'They didn't take care of it.' That just doesn't happen."
Kirshner's educational facility provides quality lives for the animals and invaluable education to anyone who encounters them, her veterinary staff included, she said. If abuse or neglect had been taking place at the center, it would not have been able to stay hidden and nor would it be able to secure such widespread community support.
Kirshner said the former volunteers she suspects are behind the complaint were upset about their access at the foundation, and had poor behavior that resulted in termination of their volunteer work, she said.
"There is a lot of jealousy in this world," Kirshner said. "People want to do things and we don't allow it unless they are trained and have the animals' interest at heart. We don't let people do anything they want."
Oroville resident Brenda Wentz has volunteered at the foundation for 14 years, ever since her then-teenage daughter started volunteering there.
"I think Roberta is a wonderful caretaker of the animals," she said. "I've always witnessed her give just the utmost care — health care, environment, food, shelter."
Wentz doesn't think the allegations will affect the foundation because of there is a prevailing truth, she said.
"Roberta has a wonderful reputation with Fish and Game, she goes through rigorous USDA inspections and passes them with flying colors," she said. "There are always negative people out there, naysayers ... We have to move forward and do good things."
Foundation board member Freedom Cheteni, who has been affiliated with the center for five years said he was "at a loss" for the reasoning behind the allegations.
"The foundation is probably one of the most animal-friendly places in the country," he said.
The animals it takes in are coming from abusive places and about to be put down, he said.
"We are not like a zoo where our job is to entertain people — we are there to rescue animals that would otherwise not have a life," Cheteni said. "If anyone has concerns, call the foundation, see it for yourself. See the enclosures, see the animals and then you can make a judgment." Documents.