Llamas and ostriches were taken from an exotic meat farm. Was it theft or rescue?

  • LOS ANGELES — Before sunrise one day in December, thieves sneaked into Anshu Pathak’s exotic meat farm in Riverside County and pulled off a singular heist.

    Someone cut away a section of fence. The evidence, Pathak said, suggests that they backed a trailer into the gap and lured up to 30 llamas and 160 ostriches inside. Also, emus, lambs, goats, alpacas and geese.

    Then, they were gone. Animal control officers and sheriff’s deputies wrangled about 50 additional llamas and emus that had spilled into the street. Another emu was found the next day wandering near Highway 74.

    Days later, against the backdrop of the snow-capped San Bernardino Mountains, Pathak inspected the hastily patched gash in the barrier surrounding his Perris property. He was upset, sure. Yet he couldn’t help but appreciate the Noah-like coordination it took to make off with such a large menagerie of animals.

    “It must be organized, you know,” Pathak said. “They planned it nicely.”

    The burglary was weeks in the making, coming after controversy over the 14-acre farm, which animal rights activists allege is keeping livestock in inhumane conditions. Pathak has denied this, and he has the backing of animal control officers who said they visited every day for weeks; each inspection revealed no sign of neglect.

    But from the activists’ standpoint, these weren’t thieves who took Pathak’s prized animals. They were liberators.

    Animal rights organizations call these operations “open rescues.” They go undercover and shoot video of a location where they believe animals are being neglected or abused before entering the property, en masse.

    Such operations have a rich history in California.

    In 1985, a group called the Animal Liberation Front broke into scientific laboratories at the University of California, Riverside and took more than 450 animals, including a rare monkey, in what was described at the time as the biggest “rescue” raid of its kind in history.

    More recently, six activists with a Berkeley organization called Direct Action Everywhere were charged with felony theft, burglary and conspiracy offenses on allegations of seizing chickens during rescues at farms in Sonoma County in 2018. They have all pleaded not guilty and have preliminary hearings scheduled later this year.

    Groups such as Direct Action Everywhere openly publicize their rescues, often livestreaming them on Facebook, and make no effort to conceal participants’ identities.

    No one has come forward to claim responsibility for the Dec. 30 break-in at Pathak’s farm. But 10 days before it took place, a Sherman Oaks nonprofit called the Animal Hope and Wellness Foundation issued a call for volunteers via Facebook.

    “We will be doing a mass rescue this weekend, and will need help from those local to Los Angeles,” the post read. “There is a place in Riverside, where over a hundred animals are being kept. These animals are suffering, and appear to be housed on an abandoned lot. Animal Hope and Wellness has been investigating the scene, and due to the horrifying conditions have chosen to take action.”

    Video from the property shows emus and geese wandering around a collection of overturned buckets and wheelbarrows, skirting an armless mannequin and a discarded toilet. At one point, volunteers step gingerly over the decomposing carcass of at least one large animal that’s partially buried in the dirt.

    “There are well over a hundred animals. Geese, emus, donkeys, goats, alpacas, ostriches, dogs with no access to running water, dying and starving,” the post read. “In addition to needing trailers and volunteers, we will need a place to take some of the animals.”

    The organization did not respond to requests for comment.

    Pathak is reluctant to attribute blame to an animal rights organization; he thinks it’s more likely that the spotlight it turned on his operation attracted other, more criminally minded opportunists.

    “An animal activist is an animal activist,” he said firmly. “A thief is a thief.”

    Pathak can’t fathom why anyone would believe his animals need rescuing.

    “Have you ever seen any farm like this?” he asked while leading a reporter on a tour of the property. “Have you seen this open farm with this many birds happy, food, running around?”

    One by one, he introduced them like relatives at a family reunion. There was a water buffalo named Gorgeous: “She’ll come to you, she’s very loving.” An appaloosa llama, its snowy fur spotted with brown: “That’s the most beautiful, that girl.” A particularly impressive ostrich that stands 9 feet tall. A “French beautiful chicken.”

    Pathak says that any farm of a comparable size is bound to have livestock deaths, adding that male llamas and ostriches tend to fight with each other during breeding season and that his animals live with minimal human interference.

    “They might kill me in front of you, you never know,” he said. “This is real wild life.”

    But he strongly denies the allegations of neglect. Though he lives in Las Vegas, he says he visits the farm about twice a month and makes his workers send him time-stamped photos of the hose that connects to its well to make sure the water source is free of plankton and moths. The animals are fed 16,000 to 20,000 pounds of alfalfa and grain each week, he says.

    “Understand one thing: I raise animals for meat,” he said. “So if I don’t feed my animals, how am I going to get the meat out of them?”

    What Pathak has taken to calling “the drama” began in early December, he says, when an animal activist who lives in San Jacinto approached one of two caretakers who live on the farm full time and offered to gather donations for the animals.

    But in soliciting the fundraising via Facebook, the woman made the situation seem desperate, “as if we are poor and we don’t have money to feed these guys,” Pathak said. He believes she also used the encounter as an opportunity to covertly photograph and videotape his land.

    Other activists then picked up on the claims.

    In mid-December, Kris Kelly, who runs a Beverly Hills animal rescue nonprofit called the Kris Kelly Foundation, posted on Facebook photographs taken from the street that showed emus and llamas standing near large puddles of water after a recent rain. She shared the farm’s address and questioned why Riverside authorities weren’t “doing anything to help these animals that are being STARVED and dropping dead left and right.”

    The Riverside County Department of Animal Services was inundated with complaints, spokesman John Welsh said.

    “I bring up that post because it led to this onslaught of apparently some activism on social media,” Welsh said. “And it appears some people might have taken matters into their own hands.”

    In a phone interview, Kelly said that she had never been to the farm but that someone sent her the photos in a private Facebook message complaining of the conditions there.

    “It was just somebody, I don’t know who they were,” she said. “They just wanted me to post so they could get attention toward it.”

    About a week later, the Animal Hope and Wellness Foundation posted the video with a call for volunteers. The well-known animal rescue nonprofit counts celebrities as supporters and reported nearly $2.1 million in gross receipts on its 2017 federal tax return, the most recent year for which a filing was available.

    The post received 1,200 reactions and was shared 785 times.

    “Seven hundred and eighty-five shares,” Pathak said, shaking his head. “So how many people think I am a bad guy?”

    Pathak was born in India and raised vegetarian as part of his Hindu Brahmin upbringing.

    Then he made the unlikely transition to a carnivore, moved to the U.S. and founded Exotic Meat Market in 1989 — selling everything from alligator to zebra, he says proudly. He has run the farm in Perris for the last seven years.

    But his animals haven’t always occupied the entire lot. The trash-strewn portion of the property where the video was shot doesn’t actually belong to him; it’s adjacent to one parcel he owns and a second that he leases, he said.

    The previous tenants departed in a hurry, leaving behind remnants of an agricultural operation including a discarded drip irrigation system and a collection of ramshackle outbuildings, and the land became overgrown by weeds. Pathak says the landlord declined repeated requests to clean up the property or sell it to him.

    So last January, he removed a fence separating his farm from the lot and let his animals graze in the area.

    “If those weeds are here and if there’s a fire, I don’t want my animals to get burned like Australia,” he said.

    Riverside County Code Enforcement is working with Pathak and the landlord to clear up land-use violations related to four open cases, one each for excessive animals, excess outside storage, a non-permitted mobile home and an occupied recreational vehicle, county spokeswoman Brooke Federico said. Pathak also said that he’s started spending some of his own money to clean up the space and that his landlord has promised to bring in some trash containers in the next couple of weeks.

    In the meantime, it is the cluttered front portion of the property that abuts busy Orange Avenue, so the animals grazing among the debris are the first thing that passers-by see.

    And there are a lot of passers-by — even more than usual since the claims against Pathak went viral on social media.

    On Jan. 8, a small throng of spectators had pulled their cars over to the shoulder of Orange Avenue to take pictures of the giant birds that clustered near the fence. Before long, a Riverside County Sheriff’s deputy stopped to tell them to move along.

    Inside the farm, an ostrich was chasing Officer Lupe Villa, of the Riverside County Department of Animal Services, through an open area for the birds to run that the caretakers call “the danger zone.” One of the caretakers was trying to wave off the large bird with an even larger stick.

    Villa had been called to the property to investigate yet another complaint, a daily occurrence since the controversy took root last month. He’ll continue to come as long as people keep calling.

    “We are a complaint-driven organization that responds to allegations of abuse,” Welsh said. “But I can’t stress enough that we have not seen any level of neglect or abuse on this property.”

    As for the missing animals?

    “Everybody has their own story,” Pathak said. “The real story is something else.”