A Southern California exotic pet breeder who had 20,000 dead and dying rats and reptiles in a warehouse has avoided jail time but was ordered to pay more than $190,000 in restitution.
Mitchell Steven Behm, 55, of Coto de Caza, also was sentenced to five years of probation and 200 hours of community service during a hearing Wednesday.
He owned Global Captive Breeders in Lake Elsinore, 70 miles southeast of Los Angeles, which sold exotic snakes and reptiles, along with rats for reptile food.
Behm and business manager David Delgado were arrested and initially charged with more than 100 counts each of felony animal cruelty. Behm negotiated a deal, pleading to a dozen misdemeanor counts of animal cruelty. Under its terms, Behm won't be able to own any animals or operate any animal-related businesses.
Delgado, 30, of Rialto, has pleaded guilty to a dozen felony counts and faces more than five years in prison. His sentencing hearing is in May.
In 2012, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals received a tip from a whistleblower and sent in an undercover investigator.
After two months of documentation from PETA, animal control workers entered the warehouse, only to find themselves gasping for air and running for exits because of the stench.
Some of the animals already were dead when rescue workers arrived. Veterinarians determined that those still living were too sick to treat and too toxic to move, so they had to be euthanized.
The restitution Behm had to pay included $102,000 to the city and about $88,000 to PETA. Behm already has repaid most of the bill, with the balance due in 90 days.
Willa Bagwell, executive director of Animal Friends of the Valleys, the local shelter that helped with cleanup, said she would have preferred to see Behm do jail time. "We just don't want him to be around animals," she told the Orange County Register.
Behm's restitution to PETA will help the group "continue to expose such cruelty to animals, wherever it occurs," PETA spokesman Dan Paden told the newspaper.
But even more important, Paden said, was keeping both men away from animals for as long as possible.