Renee James is nearing 50 and before last week she thought the milestone birthday would be a turning point for her and her Conway pet store, Pet Safari, with her retirement just around the corner.
But these days, instead of planning to do more gardening and fishing, the Conway-area resident said she worries about death threats and people saying they plan to vandalize her store or break in and steal animals from it.
Those threats began last week after Horry County police seized 146 dogs from James’ home on Secondary Highway 65.
On Wednesday, James released custody of the dogs that were seized from her home after filing a motion Tuesday to stop the dogs from being adopted. Those dogs are now available for adoption at local rescue agencies, including the Horry County Animal Care Center.
“It’s been a rough time for a couple months,” James said. “I think this has really, really gotten out of proportion.”
Standing in her store Friday, James said the turning point in her kennel business, which began 10 years ago to supply puppies sold in her family’s 12-year-old pet store, was in 2008 when the economy tanked.
James said their business, which briefly included a second location in Murrells Inlet, sold about 40 puppies a month, but after the economic downturn they only sold about 10 puppies a month.
“When you are in the situation, you don’t realize it was creeping up,” James said. “There were plans to decrease, downsize and take more time at the kennel and less at the store.”
But those plans were put on hold after her husband was diagnosed with cancer, James said.
Her husband Tommy died in 2011, which left James and her daughter to work in the store seven days a week and meant she spent more time running the store than at home with the dogs and puppies, she said.
“I thought I’d take them home, find a home for them,” James said of puppies that didn’t sell in the store. “I had no intentions for this to ever explode into this.”
Many rumors have circulated about James being charged last year, but she wasn’t. James does not have any other criminal charges, according to jail records and the Horry County Public Index.
Early last year, James said an Horry County animal control officer, along with a new officer, came to her home and walked through her kennel. She said they found the dogs were well cared for, but they did tell her she had too many.
James said she asked them for help in finding homes for some of the dogs and the newer officer had someone contact her from a rescue group, which took some dogs.
At that time she had about 200, she said.
After working with that group, James said she was left with 116 dogs.
“I thought everybody was my friend and that was not the case. That hurt me so much,” James said.
Not long after, James said someone else reported her to the county and eight police officers arrived at her home March 4 and began taking her dogs. She said she was told to pay a $445 fine and release custody of the dogs, or face multiple charges and prison time.
“I do miss them. I go into the building at night expecting to see puppies and [hear] barking and it’s silent. That makes me very sad,” James said.
James also said her opinion and those of county animal control officers differ on the size and type of pens the dogs should be kept in. She said she was told dogs were to be kept in concrete-floored cages, not wire-coated ones above ground.
They also differed in opinion on the size of the kennels, she said.
“My pens are the same size as other people’s pens,” James said. “I had moved things around because of the weather” to allow dogs to share for warmth.
“I’ve saved many dogs,” James said. “I thought I was doing a good thing.”
She didn’t know of any serious medical conditions with the dogs other than heartworms, James said.
Kelly Bonome, operations manager for the Horry County Animal Care Center, described the dogs that were at the county’s shelter as having severely matted coats and minor wounds that were being cared for, she said.
“They were miserable when they came in,” Bonome said, describing the dogs. She said some had never been outside of their cages and their dispositions improved once they were able to walk around and were given a comfortable bed to sleep on.
“They overall will be good and healthy when they leave our facility,” she said.
The sicker dogs that needed more medical care were taken in by All 4 Paws, a nonprofit animal shelter in Pawleys Island, said Shannon Prouty, founder and director. The organization took in 47 adult dogs from the seizure at James’ home.
“This is a pretty exceptional case with blatant cruelty and neglect,” Prouty said after Wednesday’s hearing. “I don’t breed. I don’t see a reason to because I see so many animals.”
“If I ever seen a problem it went to the vet,” James said. “After this I will not raise dogs. I am heartbroken. I am sick to my stomach. I am beaten down. ... I’m stuck in this shock mode. I can’t eat. I can’t sleep.”
The dogs were due a spring shaving so some of their coats were not in the best of shape.
“How can I be so good and nice and committed to what I do here [in the store] and then be evil when I go home to my house? I cannot do that,” James said. “I will not raise dogs. I will go to church, plant flowers and spent time with my grandchildren. I miss it terribly.”