2017-07-13 / Front Page

Jungleland adjacent

Man turned Thousand Oaks home into reptile garden
By Becca Whitnall


Todd Kates Todd Kates 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.

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.”

TIPPING THE SCALES—Danny Ubario with Los Angeles County Animal
Care and Control carries an adolescent American alligator from a home on Rancho
Lane on July 6.RICHARD GILLARD/Acorn Newspapers TIPPING THE SCALES—Danny Ubario with Los Angeles County Animal Care and Control carries an adolescent American alligator from a home on Rancho Lane on July 6.RICHARD GILLARD/Acorn Newspapers 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.

Undersheriff Gary Pentis was helping crews remove the dangerous animals from the property. He posted a video of himself handling one of the small gators on his Twitter account.

“I waited 38 years to take an alligator into custody, and we did it without hurting the alligator,” Pentis said. “Nobody at the scene was hurt.”

Containers holding the various snakes Todd Kates had at his Thousand Oaks residence. In all, 80 venomous snakes and eight alligators were seized from the home.







Courtesy of Gary Pentis/VCSO Containers holding the various snakes Todd Kates had at his Thousand Oaks residence. In all, 80 venomous snakes and eight alligators were seized from the home. Courtesy of Gary Pentis/VCSO Despite displaying his sense of humor—at one point in the search the county’s No. 2 lawman emerged from the home with a rubber snake to scare a TV reporter—Pentis said Kates’ actions were serious. Many of the animals were kept in dirty, confined spaces, he said.

“Those (permit infractions) are all misdemeanors that should be enforced, but the real concern is treatment of the animals and the safety of the community,” he said. “At least two, if not three, very dangerous, venomous snakes have been in this community.”

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.


FREE MAN—Todd Kates is led away from his Rancho Lane home July 6. Kates was released Monday without being charged. 
RICHARD GILLARD/Acorn Newspapers FREE MAN—Todd Kates is led away from his Rancho Lane home July 6. Kates was released Monday without being charged. RICHARD GILLARD/Acorn Newspapers 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 that Kates was the owner of the cobra.

“Yes, we had a strong suspicion, but we didn’t have valid proof,” Healy told the Acorn. “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.

City knowledge

Rachel Wagner, City of Thousand Oaks spokesperson, said local officials had no reason to believe Kates was illegally keeping venomous snakes and alligators.

“He’s rented the property since 2010 . . . and since then, there’s been zero code enforcement violation calls to the area,” Wagner said.

Although the city didn’t have a dire concern, some of Kates’ neighbors did.

Diane Jach lives four houses down the narrow, partially unpaved lane lined with large homes and much larger yards, where horses count as neighbors.

“I walk my dog here, and I’ve been scared since they found the snake a few years ago,” she said.

‘Dr. Dolittle of Thousand Oaks'

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.”

Hoover’s son, Brian, owner of Aquatic Contractors, said he got his start from Kates.

“Todd gave me a chance when I was 16 to clean his fish tank and from that point on, we became best friends,” he said. “He was like a second father to me.”

The younger Hoover said he’d never observed Kates being cruel to animals at his home. Even if he didn’t care for the snakes’ welfare, he said, it wouldn’t make economic sense to treat them poorly given that they're worth $1,500 to $3,000 apiece.

Brian Hoover said Kates is being portrayed unfairly by law enforcement and animal control.

“He genuinely wants to help and would bend over backwards for you,” he said. “He even got bit once helping remove a rattlesnake from some horse people’s property but he will still come and get a snake and move it somewhere safe.”

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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