2017-07-13 / Front Page

One pet lover runs afoul of the law

Exotic-animal owner accused of cruelty
By Becca Whitnall


HANDCUFFED—Todd Kates is arrested at his home on Rancho Lane in Thousand Oaks July 6. Alligators and venomous snakes were found. 
RICHARD GILLARD/Acorn Newspapers HANDCUFFED—Todd Kates is arrested at his home on Rancho Lane in Thousand Oaks July 6. Alligators and venomous snakes were found. RICHARD GILLARD/Acorn Newspapers Nearly three years after an escaped cobra caused alarm in Thousand Oaks, authorities say they’ve confirmed the identity of the snake’s owner.

Todd Kates, 55, was arrested July 6 on suspicion of animal cruelty after members of the Los Angeles County Department of Animal Care and Control and the Ventura County Sheriff’s Office raided his home on Rancho Lane, the same neighborhood where the venomous white monocled cobra ran loose for four days in 2014.

Inside the sprawling property they found a reptile collection worthy of a small zoo: 80 venomous snakes—including four different species of cobras, puff adders and rattlesnakes—plus a Gila monster, a snapping turtle and eight young American alligators. Non-dangerous animals including birds, tortoises and gecko lizards were also found.


EVIDENCE—Danny Ubario of the Los Angeles County Animal Care and Control Department carries an adolescent American alligator away from Todd Kates’ home. 
RICHARD GILLARD/Acorn Newspapers EVIDENCE—Danny Ubario of the Los Angeles County Animal Care and Control Department carries an adolescent American alligator away from Todd Kates’ home. RICHARD GILLARD/Acorn Newspapers After animal control put out a press release announcing the raids last Thursday, news vans from across the Greater L.A. area descended on Rancho Lane, a small dirt street just off Hillcrest Drive near Rancho Road, to watch the spectacle of the creatures being removed and Kates being led away in handcuffs.

After Kates’ very public arrest, police set the local contractor’s bail at $250,000. But on Monday, the Ventura County district attorney’s office said it wasn’t ready to file the case and Kates was released, uncharged.

“The lead investigating agency is L.A. County Animal Care and Control, and they’re still finalizing their report,” said Marine Dermadzhyan, deputy D.A., when asked about the case against Kates. “Once they finish, the district attorney’s office can evaluate what charges to bring, if any.”

Asked about the animal cruelty allegation, Sgt. J.C. Healy of the California Fish and Wildlife Department told The Acorn a red-tailed hawk had been mistreated.

“It had a broken beak and his cage was horrible, caked with layers of fecal matter,” Healy said. “That was the easy no-brainer and that’s what we booked him on.”

The other charges of cruelty were related to how the reptiles were kept, he said.

“Yes, they’re snakes and dangerous, and yes, we don’t want them here, but they’re still an animal and if you’re going to have them, you have to take care of them,” Healy said.

Another 20 animals believed to be owned by Kates were seized after a facility in an unincorporated area just outside city limits on Carlisle Road was searched.

In a joint press conference with Department of Fish and Wildlife, Animal Control Director Marcia Mayeda said Kates had a state permit to keep some of the deadly reptiles but he had more than the permit allowed.

Also, the permit does not allow holders to break local ordinances. Thousand Oaks law does not permit wild animal ownership, including venomous snakes or alligators, without approval from the animal control department, said Geoff Ware, the city’s code enforcement officer.

Kates did not have that approval.

According to the animal control department, with which Thousand Oaks contracts for services, its investigation into Kates could take weeks.

The warrant

When the white cobra escaped in 2014, some neighbors pointed the finger at Kates, who was not secretive about his passion for exotic reptiles (his front yard is adorned with concrete alligators), but animal control was never able to make a case.

“He refused to let us inside,” Mayeda said.

Without probable cause, the department had to wait to get a warrant, which would involve building a case to present to a judge, she said.

Fish and wildlife officials also suspected Kates.

“Yes, we had a strong suspicion, but we didn’t have valid proof,” Healy said. “We would literally need an independent witness saying, ‘Yes, I saw that snake slither away.’”

Authorities got the evidence they needed two months ago when a Rancho Lane resident ran over a cape cobra with his truck, Mayeda said. At that point, animal control launched an official investigation into Kates and obtained warrants for his two properties.

‘Dr. Dolittle’ of T.O.

As people on social media were busy attacking Kates for his actions, friends were coming to his defense.

Doug Hoover of Thousand Oaks said in an interview that if Kates is guilty of anything, it’s that he loves animals too much.

“Todd’s a great guy. He’d never hurt an animal. He’d never be cruel,” Hoover said.

He recalled several times during the course of their 15-year friendship when people would call on Kates to help with sick or hurt animals. Oftentimes, they’d give the creatures to him.

In fact, Hoover suspects that’s where the majority of Kates’ snakes came from.

“He’s always just been the animal guy, Dr. Dolittle of Thousand Oaks,” Hoover said. “He’ll do anything for an animal; that’s why he gets persuaded to take them.”

Assistant Sheriff Gary Pentis said that Kates indicated he uses some of the animals in Hollywood productions, but the assistant sheriff added that law enforcement had found no evidence of contracts or money exchanges confirming that.

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