DELHI, N.Y. - Susan Marino started Angel's Gate animal hospice more than a decade ago to care for animals with special needs: Dogs paralyzed after being hit by cars; cats with severe deformities; a Labrador retriever born without lower limbs, now fitted with orthotics.
A registered nurse who for more than 35 years specialized in emergency and critical care, mental health, and the care of critically and terminally ill children and their families, Marino went back to school and became a veterinary technician, got a certification in canine rehabilitation and a license to rehabilitate wildlife and had her efforts noticed by Oprah Winfrey and Rachael Ray.
Winfrey did a segment on Angel's Gate; Marino's center won $50,000 from the Food Network star. There was an appearance on Martha Stewart, an ASPCA Founders award and a Woman of Distinction honor from the state of New York.
Not all the attention was welcomed. The hospice came under fire from animal rights activists whose undercover investigation led to five cruelty charges against Marino.
Acting on a tip from a job applicant, an animal rights group sent in an undercover agent posing as a volunteer to scout the 100-acre ranch in rural upstate New York that 75 dogs, 230 cats, three horses and nine birds currently call home. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals said the investigation found paralyzed dogs dragging themselves around until they developed bloody skin ulcers while their wheeled carts hung on a fence unused; animals kept in diapers for several days, causing urine scald; animals with open wounds and respiratory infections that weren't taken to a veterinarian.
They turned over the video to a local prosecutor who charged Marino on Dec. 30 with failing to provide sustenance to five cats, a violation of the state's agriculture and markets law. The district attorney also charged her with possession of a controlled substance. They're all misdemeanors that carry up to a year in jail and/or up to a $1,000 fine.
Marino said the PETA video is edited in some places to give a misleading impression. She disputes claims that animals were neglected, and says many of PETA's complaints amount to little more than a philosophical disagreement over whether a damaged animal should live or die.
Acting on PETA's 27-page complaint, investigators from the county district attorney's office searched Angel's Gate in May.
"They had a warrant to remove any animal they deemed not properly cared for," Marino said in a recent interview. "They never removed any animal from here."
Holly Cheever, an Albany-area veterinarian with 30 years of experience in animal cruelty investigations, assisted in the probe of Angel's Gate. She told The Associated Press that she cited about a dozen animals that should have been humanely euthanized, including cats with active cases of feline AIDS.
She called Marino an animal hoarder and Angel's Gate a death camp.
"Hospice is a temporary situation that leads to humane euthanasia when the quality of life is no longer acceptable," Cheever said. "With Marino, they're essentially trapped inside of suffering bodies without the compassion to end their suffering. That's a hallmark of the hoarder. They refuse to recognize suffering."
After charges were filed, Marino invited a reporter to make a second trip to Angel's Gate; her lawyer later instructed her to cancel the visit and decline interviews.
"I've had death threats," Marino said before her lawyer intervened. "All I've ever wanted to do was do something good for these animals."
A message on the organization's official website denies all claims, saying, "We here at Angel's Gate, have created a gentle and compassionate environment to allow our resident animals to live out the final chapter of their lives with dignity and receive specialized care for their individual needs. Anyone thinking otherwise simply hasn't visited the facility or witnessed the extraordinary work accomplished on a daily basis by the committed and loving staff."
The Oprah show featured Angel's Gate in 2008 and donations poured in. Marino said the organization received more than $400,000 and its website got millions of hits from around the globe. Marino used the money to buy a farmhouse on 100 acres in rural Delhi, moving from suburban Long Island where neighbors had complained.
In 2009, Ray's pet rescue organization chose Angel's Gate as one of 64 shelters participating in a "Mutt Madness" competition. Angel's Gate won the top prize of $50,000, which Marino used to build a food preparation building she dubbed "Rachel's Kitchen."
"There is a vetting process with any organization that gets donations," Rachael Ray spokesman Charlie Dougiello said this week. "At the time of the donation, there were no allegations against Angel's Gate."
In videos on the Angel's Gate website and Facebook page, dogs romp on spotless white tile floors and doze in peaceful piles on dog beds. At breakfast time, a worker sets out 25 bowls of meat in a room filled with dachshunds, shih-tzus, beagles and other small dogs, some of them dragging themselves to their bowls because they're missing limbs or are paralyzed. Marino hugs, kisses and cuddles with the animals.
Video shot by PETA presents a different picture.
Daphna Nachminovich, a cruelty investigator for PETA based in Northrup, Va., said the group acted on complaints including one "from a job applicant at Angel's Gate who spent several hours there and was sickened by what she saw."
"There were animals suffering horribly at death's door, without the relief of euthanasia," Nachminovich said.
PETA's video, posted on YouTube, includes a frantic scene of dogs barking and fighting in the kitchen, apparently at feeding time, with Marino yelling and trying to break up the squabble.
When The Associated Press visited Angel's Gate in April, dogs were dozing on cots or playing with toys in large, bright rooms with clean tile floors. Many were disabled and some with spinal injuries dragged their hindquarters. Cats were in little cottages equipped with climbing poles, cubbyholes and scratching posts. It was apparent that remodeling had been done recently on some of the main buildings, and more construction was in progress. All of the facilities were clean and neat.
"She was very aware that the boom was about to fall when PETA began investigating in November, Cheever said. "She put a lot of energy into cleaning up her operation. By the time I went there in May the physical plant wasn't as dirty, but was disorganized."
Rosemary Throssell, a dog breeder who provides a custom-made raw meat diet for Angel's Gate animals, said PETA's allegations are unfair.
"Those animals have a fantastic quality of life," said Throssell after she and her husband attended a brief court appearance for Marino on Wednesday.