PETA is calling for a criminal investigation of the California Living Museum for allegedly allowing animals to die from severe flea infestations and starvation.
Two fisher cats, two foxes and a skunk have died at the facility in the past few years, PETA said Wednesday, citing U.S. Department of Agriculture inspection reports that noted "an uncharacteristically high mortality rate at the facility."
"There's no excuse for allowing animals to starve or die from fleas," said Brittany Peet, a PETA foundation director. "It's criminal conduct."
PETA sent a letter asking the Kern County Sheriff's Office to investigate the situation. KCSO spokeswoman Angela Monroe said the agency will conduct a preliminary investigation.
Officials at CALM refuted the allegation that the deaths rose to the level of "animal cruelty" or were criminal in nature.
"Mistakes happen," said Steve Sanders, chief of staff for the Kern County Superintendent of Schools, which oversees CALM. "The important thing is we're taking steps to ensure it doesn't happen again."
He said the idea of criminal charges against CALM is "ridiculous."
CALM is a wildlife rehabilitation organization and houses animals that cannot be returned to the wild.
According to the Feb. 12 USDA report, the fishers died from severe flea infestations. One of the cats was found to have "thousands of fleas," the report noted, and it concluded that "failure to treat health conditions may lead to unnecessary pain and distress in animals, and in this case, their death."
Severe flea infestations drain the animal of blood and slowly starve the animal's brain and body of oxygen, according to PETA.
"A competent caretaker would easily note changes in behavior and health associated with such a severe infestation of fleas long before the animal dies," PETA said in a letter to KCSO.
An inspection report from April revealed a skunk starved to death at the facility. Two foxes also died at CALM in the past several years after they dug their way under a concrete pad and died before they were found.
The USDA reports also noted that CALM had sought permission to hire additional help from the Kern County Superintendent of Schools Office but had not received approval to do so.
However, since the USDA inspections, another full-time animal keeper was recently hired and the facility has contracted for more veterinary care, Sanders said.
CALM staff members described the animal deaths differently than PETA. They said the skunk died from a viral disease. They didn't know why its stomach was empty but said it didn't starve. Sharon Adams, curator of animals, said the skunk had an ideal body weight at the time.
As for the fisher cats, she said there's no proven flea control for exotic animals and it's mostly a trial and error effort to get an infestation under control. However, she acknowledged more could have been done to prevent the deaths.
"This was an error," she said. "It should've been caught sooner."
PETA asked the Superintendent of Schools, Mary C. Barlow, to transfer animals at CALM to "reputable facilities" and offered to assist in finding appropriate placement for the animals, but the office declined the offer.