David and Deanna Bartley. Courtesy USA Today
PENRYN, CA - Although a well-known sanctuary surrendered most of its animals to the local humane society, the sanctuary's founders continue to accept thousands of dollars in donations each month.
Long-running financial problems combined with the emotional breakdown of one of the founders led the organization known as a Chance for Bliss to sign over ownership of most of its 100 animals to the Humane Society of the Sierra Foothills (HSSF) in September.
The founders, David "Woody" Bartley and Deanna Slavec-Bartley, still receive at least $7,000 in recurring donations each month from sanctuary sponsors even though the Bartleys are caring for far fewer animals and have stopped paying the mortgage on their two-acre property.
"I feel like we've let down a lot of people who trusted us with their money," said former Bliss marketing director Lydia Patubo, who was laid off when the HSSF stepped in.
Auburn veterinarian Dr. Rich Jackson, who treated animals at the sanctuary, said he and humane officers did not question the quality of care the animals received, but were concerned about the stability of the sanctuary's leadership following David Bartley's two-week hospitalization for a nervous breakdown.
"We felt they needed to stop it, just for the safety of the animals," Jackson said. "It's tough to offer care for that many animals when you're having issues."
David Bartley defended the couple's continuing acceptance of donations, saying they've been honest with their sponsors.
A mailer sent to sponsors last week explained a Chance for Bliss was downsizing and reorganizing at a ranch in Lincoln. The mailer, however, included pictures of animals that are now owned by HSSF but remain in the custody of the Bartleys.
"We want those animals," said HSSF officer Rosemary Frieborn. "They won't give them to us."
Frieborn said HSSF was taking steps to seize the animals and questioned the Bartleys' motive for keeping them despite a contract giving HSSF ownership.
"They have (hardly any more) animals, so why are people sending them checks?" Frieborn said. "It's a horrible black eye for all the other organizations that are well-managed."
Although a Chance for Bliss conducted occasional fundraising drives, the former marketing director said nothing came close to the success the sanctuary enjoyed after being featured in USA Today in June 2010.
"The money just started coming in everywhere," Patubo said. A Chance for Bliss collected nearly $200,000 in donations in the six months following the USA Today story.
David Bartley said the care for special needs animals was expensive, but admitted the business side of the sanctuary got away from him.
"I do think we grew too big and it got out of control," Bartley said.
Bartley said they would fight to keep the dozen or so animals still in their care that are owned by HSSF because he claims he and his wife signed the surrender agreement under duress.
Bartley said the couple had appointed a new board of directors and expected to be successful with a scaled-down sanctuary in Lincoln.
But Patubo and others worry the problems that led to the collapse of the sanctuary in Penryn could happen again.
"As hard as I was working for them to promote their mission, I'm now working just as hard to stop it," she said.
by George Warren, GWarren@news10.net