An outcry over an egregious animal cruelty case on North Whidbey spawned a new group that is working to improve animal welfare on the island through stricter county codes and stronger enforcement.
Animal Advocates of Island County quickly became a force for change on the island. Since it started in January, the group has gained nearly 300 members on its Facebook page and rallied more than 30 members to fill a courtroom at the arraignment of Kristi Finch, who is facing criminal charges after two horses allegedly starved to death on her property, according to court documents.
The group was founded by veterinarian Donna DeBonis and animal rescuer Ansel Santosa, co-owner of Ballydidean Farm Sanctuary in Clinton. DeBonis, who lives in Oak Harbor, said the Finch case was the impetus for the group’s formation but not the exclusive cause. Concerns about animal welfare on the island is nothing new.
Santosa said he has been cooperating with Island County law enforcement on animal abuse and neglect since 2018, when he started the sanctuary.
“We have ended up being the foster placement for some of these animals, so we’ve certainly known that this is an issue here,” he said.
Island County is rural, which Santosa said means two things: The sheriff’s department is under-resourced, and there is an abundance of small hobby farms and homesteads. People who have never owned livestock before may not know how to properly care for animals.
In addition, Santosa and DeBonis believe there is too much ambiguity in Island County code in regards to animal welfare. DeBonis said the codes are difficult for law enforcement to interpret and she wants to see more prosecution of animal welfare violations.
Santosa has researched animal welfare codes of all the other counties in Washington and found that Island County’s is among the least comprehensive and specific.
“Right now, all animal control has to go on is if there’s adequate food and water,” he said. “It says nothing about shelter.”
Santosa believes the more straightforward the codes are, the more likely law enforcement will enforce them. That, ultimately, will lead to prosecutors winning more convictions.
Another issue, they said, was the lack of equipment in the animal control office, which is part of the Island County Sheriff’s Office. With the Finch case, horse owners of Island County hooked up their own horse trailers, removed the remaining horses from the property and are now feeding and caring for them.
Island County Sheriff Rick Felici explained that it’s unlikely that county animal control would ever have equipment like horse trailers or facilities for livestock because of the rarity of the need and the cost. The county and Oak Harbor contract with Whidbey Animals’ Improvement Foundation, or WAIF, for sheltering of dogs and cats.
“Usually, we’ve just been able to reach out to citizen volunteers to borrow stuff for moving large animals,” he said.
Felici said the department has historically focused on dogs, which is why county codes and policies are sparse when it comes to other animals. He agreed the code should be updated. The sheriff said he wants to build a modern and functioning animal control program, and he said that starts with hiring an animal control officer. The position has been vacant for more than a year.
“If there’s a silver lining in this, we didn’t have a lot of applicants for the animal control position,” he said. “We probably doubled the number of applicants after (the Finch case).”
Santosa said Animal Advocates is working with the sheriff’s department to encourage candidates to apply for the open position.
Members of the group hold meetings every other week to discuss progress that has been made and brainstorm ideas. They are currently putting together a resource sheet for law enforcement of individuals, businesses, nonprofits and volunteers willing to participate in animal rescue situations.
One of the first steps the group took was to create an online petition on change.org, calling for more enforcement of animal crimes. As of Thursday, the petition has 1,239 signatures out of a goal of 1,500.
Santosa said he was pleasantly surprised by the strong reaction from the community.
“To have this sustained attention and momentum, where we have 20 to 30 people showing up for an in-person meeting every other week, even two months after the case — that’s real attention,” he said.