When the Humane Society of San Diego in California sent more than 300 rabbits, guinea pigs and rats to the Humane Society of Southern Arizona in Tucson over the summer, it was thought they would be adopted as pets.
But most of the animals may have had a more sinister fate, leading to outrage, anguish and a police investigation.
According to representatives of the two humane societies, the 323 animals arrived in Tucson on Aug. 7 but were not taken into the shelter there.
Instead, the Humane Society of Southern Arizona transferred the animals to a man named Colton Jones, who runs a business in the Phoenix area called Fertile Turtle that sells live and frozen animals for reptile food, the two humane societies said in a joint statement .
Officials at both humane societies said they were investigating who arranged the transfer and what exactly happened to the animals. Police said they were also investigating the case as a “possible hoax” but no one has been charged.
But a piece of possible evidence of the animals’ fate emerged this month when a Tucson news station, KVOA, reported on a text message sent by Mr. Jones on Aug. 8, the day after the animals arrived in Tucson.
“Do you have the ability to freeze a group of guinea pigs and/or rabbits?” Mr. Jones wrote to another man, who did not want to be publicly identified, KVOA reported. “I don’t have the manpower or the manpower to get it done in time for the show, and it’s too much time for me.”
The show apparently refers to an upcoming reptile show in Pomona, California, according to KVOA.
Mr. Jones did not respond to phone and text messages seeking comment.
The Humane Societies of Southern Arizona and San Diego said in a joint statement that they were outraged by “the latest information that clearly indicates Mr. Jones’ intent to use these animals as food rather than find them adopters.”
Gary Weitzman, the president and CEO of the San Diego Humane Society, called it “the most horrible text I’ve ever seen in my life.”
“It’s just the most unthinkable outcome,” he said, adding that if he had known the animals could be turned into reptile food, he never would have agreed to send them to Arizona.
“Nothing like this in my 30 years of animal welfare has ever happened before,” he said. “It’s just terrifying.”
He said the San Diego Humane Society is investigating a lawsuit and has hired a private investigator.
“We asked him to do an extensive background check,” Mr. Weitzman said. “What was the motivation here?”
Robert Garcia, chairman of the board of the Humane Society of Southern Arizona, said his group had also hired an independent investigator and was considering legal action against Mr. Jones and unnamed former employees “who may have been involved.”
In October, the group said it had fired its CEO Steve Farley, a former Arizona state lawmaker, and that its COO Christian Gonzalez had resigned. Both were “monitoring” the transfer of the animals, Mr Garcia said.
“The board found that there was gross negligence on the part of the former management to properly check where these animals were going and to ensure that wherever they went they were adopted as pets,” Mr Garcia said.
Mr. Farley did not respond to requests for comment. He told The Associated Press in a statement last month that he had no direct involvement in transporting or housing the animals and that “the subsequent allegations are very troubling to me.”
Mr. Gonzalez did not respond to requests for comment.
Mr. Garcia said the Humane Society of Southern Arizona was struggling with “betrayal and also heartbreak.”
Concerns about the animals began to surface soon after they arrived in Tucson, and local animal welfare activists began asking about their health and well-being, Mr. Garcia said.
As concerns about the animals grew, Mr. Jones’ brother, Trevor Jones, who had helped the Humane Society of Southern Arizona with some previous animal adoptions, returned 64 of them to the society on Sept. 2, Mr. Garcia said. However, the remaining 259 have not been found, he said.
“We have to accept that the animals were used as food,” Mr Garcia said.
Trevor Jones did not return phone messages seeking comment Monday.
The Humane Society of Southern Arizona, Mr. Garcia said, has hired a new chief executive officer.
“It is very important that the humane society continues its mission,” Mr. Garcia said, “and we ask for your patience as we work to restore that trust.”
Mr Weitzman said people who work in the field of animal welfare were angry and upset at the thought that the animals might have been turned into reptile food.
“We just want the truth and accountability,” he said. “We’re not looking for anything else.”
Susan C. Beachy contributed research.