The Santa Barbara District Attorney’s Office has dismissed animal cruelty charges against Sandy Coupal, accused of hoarding more than 450 animals — mainly chickens and other birds — on her West Camino Cielo ranch. Authorities confiscated the animals in a December raid after receiving complaints from neighbors that Coupal wasn’t providing her flock adequate care.
Though the DA’s Office never contended Coupal was actively hurting the animals, authorities said she simply didn’t have the space or resources to look after so many. As part of a civil order signed last week, Coupal is allowed to own no more than 50 animals from now on. She was also able to retrieve about 25 of her prize-winning show birds. The remaining are being kept at area Humane Society shelters and are up for adoption. According to Coupal’s defense attorney Robert Landheer, 38 birds have died in shelters since the December raid.
An equal number of Coupal supporters and detractors contacted The Santa Barbara Independent after the incident was first reported. Some called her a hoarder who couldn’t see that her operation was unreasonable and unhealthy. Others contended she provided a service no area agency could, taking in unwanted, aging animals that would otherwise be abandoned or dropped off at shelters to be later euthanized.
“My opinion is [charges] should never have been filed,” said Landheer. Prior to the seizure, representatives from the Sheriff’s Department and Animal Services division — accompanied by an overhead helicopter — made a surprise visit to the ranch on December 2. During court hearings held in recent months, Landheer contended authorities unlawfully entered Coupal’s ranch, unlocked her gate, and walked onto her property without her permission or a search warrant. “There was some overreaching there, I think,” he said.
When authorities returned on April 10 with nets, cages, and trucks, they rounded up hens, roosters, turkeys, quail, doves, pigeons, two dogs, a cat, and an alpaca. The flurry of activity traumatized the animals, Landheer said, equating their sudden capture to an arrest. He tried unsuccessfully to have the case settled before it was filed on February 15. Once the case entered the system, the animals became evidence, and Coupal was not allowed to visit them or have her vet check on their welfare. Coupal had been ordered years ago to shelter no more than 50 animals but was under the impression the time frame of that agreement had ended.
Though the issue is settled in the eyes of the law, Coupal is “upset and angry” at the outcome, said Landheer. He said her ranch, which she plans to leave, was a safe haven for older chickens to live out their days and was not the squalid lot authorities made it out to be. “She was really acting as a Mother Teresa for these animals,” he said, explaining she took great pride and enjoyment in her work since retiring from UCSB’s study abroad program. “This whole thing wasn’t very thought out,” he said. “It could have been accomplished in so many different ways.”
If you’re interested in adoption, contact the county’s Animal Shelter at 5473 Overpass Road in Goleta, (805) 681-5285.