BONNE TERRE, Mo. • A rescue Tuesday was the second for dozens of cats and dogs brought to the Humane Society of Missouri's headquarters.
The 195 dogs and cats that arrived at the Humane Society's headquarters on Macklind Avenue were already in the custody of a rescue group, the St. Francois Society.
Debbie Hill, vice president of operations for the Humane Society, said it has been several years since such a large rescue was conducted at a licensed rescue group.
"If you're unable to care for an animal, whether you're a breeder or a rescue or an individual owner, that animal is suffering," Hill said. "It's very disheartening and unfortunate, and sometimes it can be very painful to see someone who may have started out with the best of intentions and it runs away with them."
Diana Blackwell, who heads the shelter where the animals were taken from a few miles north of Bonne Terre, disputed that the dogs were not cared for properly.
"This is the most devastating day of my life," she said hours after the animals were seized.
Blackwell said her shelter had become overcrowded in recent months, partly because of the economy, but she had made plans to move some animals to other states. Officials didn't give her enough time to get them moved, she said.
She added that she had reduced the number of animals on her three-acre property from 288 in August.
Joseph Bridger of Potosi, manager of the shelter and one of four employees hired by Blackwell, said the group was "doing everything we were supposed to be doing. We got the numbers down, but it wasn't enough for them."
The St. Francois Society is among several animal rescues around the region that are struggling. The no-kill animal shelter Partners for Pets Humane Society in Collinsville is on the verge of closing because of decreased donations and increased costs. St. Louis closed its pound last summer and transferred shelter duties to two nonprofits, Stray Rescue and Animal House. The Humane Society of Missouri and the Animal Protective Association of Missouri said their shelters have been overwhelmed since then.
At the St. Francois Society's shelter, an inspection last month by the Missouri Department of Agriculture found numerous violations that jeopardized the health and welfare of the animals, the Humane Society said.
Because the shelter made little or no progress on improvements, the state revoked its license and the St. Francois County sheriff obtained a warrant to remove the animals.
The Humane Society's animal cruelty task force, along with the state and the Sheriff's Department, rescued 124 dogs, 67 cats and four puppies, the group said.
The dogs include mixes of border collies, Irish wolfhounds, corgis, beagles, shepherds, Labrador retrievers, dachshunds and Chihuahuas, the Humane Society said.
Many suffered from hair loss and coughing. Dozens of cats were found inside trash-strewn rooms filled with cobwebs. Some of the animals appeared to have upper respiratory infections and possibly internal and external parasites, the Humane Society said.
At its headquarters Tuesday afternoon, Humane Society staffers and veterinarians were taking the dogs through a triage process that resembled an assembly line. They were labeled, then examined by a veterinarian. Their next stop was a tech table, where they would receive vaccinations and treatment for any illnesses.
In the building's lecture hall, which was transformed into a holding area late Monday by the staff, cages filled with dogs sat in rows. Other animals were sent to others areas of the building, based on their size or medical needs.
"It's a process," said Holly Witzel, the supervisor of the adoption center. "We've got to fill as much space as possible."
Blackwell, 63, who formed the St. Francois Society in 1980, was out of town when the animals were taken. She said she lives at the shelter, where she sleeps on a cot.
Blackwell acknowledged that some of the animals at her shelter were ill, but she said they were being treated.
"My reputation's in shreds," she said. "I won't get that back."
She knows she'll no longer be welcome at PetSmart stores in Brentwood and in south St. Louis County, where she had brought her dogs to adoption events since 1997. Indeed, a spokesman for PetSmart said Tuesday evening that the company had terminated its adoption partnership agreement with Blackwell's group.
A disposition hearing to determine permanent custody of the animals taken from the shelter is slated for April 11 in St. Francois County. If custody is awarded to the Humane Society of Missouri, as many of the animals as possible will be made available for adoption when they're healthy.
Blackwell said she is examining her legal options. But for now, she's worried about the dogs.
"I'm going to grieve," she said of her next step. "And then we're going to see what the state is planning to charge me with, and I think they're going to come up with something because they want to present themselves as the good guys and say this is justified."
She choked up when she talked about her 10-year-old yellow Labrador retriever, Susannah, who was taken to St. Louis with the other dogs.
"Please say a prayer for Susannah," Blackwell said. "She's frantic, I know."
Marlon A. Walker of the Post-Dispatch contributed to this report.