2021 Story of the Year: Orange Park woman faces charges in one of state’s worse animal abuse cases

By Don Coble don@claytodayonline.com
Posted 12/29/21

GREEN COVE SPRINGS – When trucks and vans arrived with crates of abused animals at the back door of the Clay County Fairgrounds on the afternoon of Oct. 11, most were covered with feces, trembling …

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2021 Story of the Year: Orange Park woman faces charges in one of state’s worse animal abuse cases

Posted

GREEN COVE SPRINGS – When trucks and vans arrived with crates of abused animals at the back door of the Clay County Fairgrounds on the afternoon of Oct. 11, most were covered with feces, trembling in poor health, hungry, thirsty and frightened by a world outside a cage.

Weeks later, the animals – all 274 of them – left through the front door of the livestock building and were on their way to loving homes throughout Northeast Florida.

Jennifer Michelle Wilkie, 51, now faces five charges of aggravated animal cruelty leading to death and 42 counts of animal cruelty after the Clay County Animal Services, Sheriff’s Office and Fire Rescue ascended on a dilapidated property at 246 Old Jennings Road in Orange Park. What they found was horrific.

“I’ve complained for 10 years,” the neighbor, who asked not to be identified, said as he watched animals being corralled and taken away for treatment. “Everyone around here has complained for years, but they couldn’t do anything about it. Everyone’s been fed up. And now, finally …”

Animals rescued from the home included more than 100 dogs – many of them puppies and pregnant females, as well as truckloads of pigs, goats, chickens, pigeons and rabbits, according to the sheriff’s office.

Children also were taken away by the Department of Children and Families.

After years of trying, CCSO and Animal Services finally were allowed to step inside the gate after first responders were called to the home a few weeks ago after a resident suffered a stroke. During that call, deputies saw animals in crates stacked inside the mobile home. They also noticed the strong stench of urine and an infestation of fleas. With that information, CCSO was able to obtain an arrest warrant.

The man who needed medical treatment eventually died of the stroke and COVID-19, the neighbor said. The sheriff’s office confirmed the man died of natural causes.

“We were not really able to get a full look at what else existed beyond the interior of the house when we had the medical call,” Sherrif Michelle Cook said. “So now deputies are having a look at the entire property to see if there is any potential animal abuse or neglect. It was a concern enough when they responded to the medical call.”

It was so bad, the first officers on the scene Monday wore biohazard suits and had to be decontaminated in the front yard. By late afternoon, animal services workers were trying to corral the remaining goats and pigs – some frustratingly trying to chase and lasso the elusive animals.

“Again, these animals were loaded straight from the home where they could potentially have been contaminated with various amounts of contaminants or diseases or something like that,” Clay County Director of Emergency Management John Ward said. He also said there’s been “nothing of this magnitude” in county history.

A makeshift triage and animal hospital was set up days ahead of the raid at the fairgrounds. There were veterinarians and animal technicians on hand to clean and examine every animal.

Volunteers and county inmates spent weeks cleaning, feeding and caring for the animals. None that were rescued died since arriving at the fairgrounds, Ward said. However, officials found several skeletons at the home.

Ward also said the county was so responsive to donating food, toys, blankets and leashes, the county no longer needs any more items.

“Even though they came from such a rough, bad situation, most of them were in pretty good spirits once we were able to get them out of their carriers, start interacting with them,” said volunteer Morgan Grove. “There are a lot of happy animals here.”

Meanwhile, the county moved quickly to take permanent custody of the animals, as well as prohibiting Wilkie from owning animals in the future and forcing her to pay the costs related to the rescue and care that followed.

Judge Timothy R. Collins then agreed with the county and ruled against Wilkie, who didn’t appear at the trial to defend herself.

“They clearly have been mistreated,” Collins said in county court on Oct. 21. “It’s hard to imagine. Lack of food; lack of water; lack of care.”

Clay County officials put all of the animals taken from the 1.29-acre lot – 104 dogs, 72 chickens, 28 pigs, six goats, two turtles, six pigeons, two quail and a duck and a goose – up for adoption on Nov. 13. Residents were required to apply for an appointment time in advance of the event and the order was set randomly after each applicant was vetted.

One of the dogs was taken by Orange Park’s Linda Lee. She said she didn’t get a new pet. She found a “new companion.”

The dog spent most of its life stuffed with other helpless animals in crates on a property littered with fleas, feces, empty water, rats, and empty food and water bowls, along with the and skeletal remains of other animals who couldn’t survive the horrific conditions.

“Now she will get the run of the house,” Lee said.

Little dogs clearly were the favorite finds in the two-day event. Larger dogs, goats and 71 chickens and other birds were gone by Sunday night.

Six-year-old Wren Fitzgerald liked the Continental Toy Spaniel because “she’s soft and has cute fur.” She said volunteers named the dog Gilly, but she wants to change it to Cocoa Belle.

“I registered as soon as I saw the story about the animals in the news,” said Awren Fitzgerald, Wren’s mother. “This was the best way to get a new family member. It really hits you when you go in [to the livestock stalls] and see all of the animals. It’s unbelievable.”

Lee drove home with her “new companion” tucked under her arm.

“They didn’t give me a name, but I’m calling her Baby Doll,” she said. “She’s small and she’s calm. She and I will match.”

Lee’s daughter, Donna Gushanas, also was overwhelmed by the magnitude of the rescue.

“When you get halfway through [the livestock stalls] and all the way to the end, it really hits you,” she said. “There are so many. It feels good knowing we can take one home. That’s going to be one lucky dog.”

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