Hollywood mogul Sam Simon bought himself a chinchilla farm in San Diego County on Tuesday, August 19 — as part of an animal-activist mission to close a chinchilla-breeding operation that brought together a cast for a screenplay: the dying Hollywood mogul, a feisty 90-year-old chinchilla breeder, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, and the San Diego Humane Society.
In the end, everyone won. The 425 chinchillas were moved to far larger cages after a veterinary inspection. Lurlie Adams, 90, was able to sell her Vista breeding ranch that she didn't want anymore. The humane society received a $100,000 donation from Simon to care for the pets, which will be adopted for a $25 fee. And PETA closed one of California's largest breeders of chinchillas.
Lurlie Adams signed a contract that will prevent her and her land from ever being used to breed the animals again, according to PETA senior vice president Lisa Lange.
After the check cleared, about two dozen San Diego Humane Society employees removed the chinchillas from tiny cages in a long, narrow, and crowded shed.
Simon, 59, walked unsteadily with his nurse among the rows of mesh-wire cages. "This is your last day of abuse," he said to the animals, which look like a cross between a rabbit and a guinea pig. "This is your first day of freedom."
Simon paid about $50,000 for the Valley View Ranch chinchilla operation, which he bought as a joint project with PETA.
"I have a desire to help animals — it's like a hobby — I get so much pleasure out of it," Simon said. "The question of whether it makes financial sense — it's my money and I get to do what I want with it. It's an expensive hobby I picked up at the end of my life."
Simon, whose portfolio includes co-creating The Simpsons, Emmy awards for his work on Taxi, Cheers, The Garry Shandling Show, and a half dozen other projects, was diagnosed with metastasized colorectal cancer in 2012.
In June, Simon rescued Sunder, an Indian elephant that had been shackled in a temple in India, beaten and starved. Before that, he paid for the rescue and relocation of bears in Georgia.
Lurlie Adams didn't believe that PETA was involved.
"I didn't find out until today when the humane society showed up that they're shutting it down and adopting the animals out — I think they donated the animals to get some kind of write-off," she said. "I'm happy to be retired but sad they aren't going to carry the business on."
Adams and her husband got into the business in 1966 after answering an ad that said they could be millionaires if they raised chinchillas — she laughs when she says it. For a while, they killed the animals for their pelts, a thick, soft fur prized by furriers. But, she says, she didn't stay with it.
"I did sell the pelts in the beginning — the brokers wouldn't pay very much, and they always found some flaw that brought the value down," Adams said. "After that, I sold them strictly for pets. That way I didn't have to kill the animals, because I like them so much."
Adams and her business have high marks on Yelp, with customers reporting they even left their pet chinchilla with the Adamses when they traveled. An undercover video shot by a PETA worker captured Lurlie Adams explaining how to use a primitive electrocution device to kill them "when an animal doesn't work out" without leaving marks.
"It's a cobbled-together thing, they wet the chinchilla's ear and wet the leg and put the wires on," said Lange of PETA. "The animal feels all the pain of a massive heart attack for three to five minutes."
Lurlie Adams defends using the device, saying it was only used to euthanize animals that couldn't be saved. The undercover video also catches Adams explaining how she amputated chinchillas' broken legs with wire cutters.
"I didn't just go and clip their legs," she said. "I would splint it first and see if it would heal up, and if it didn't, I would amputate it usually only from the ankle down. A chinchilla can do just fine with three legs."
Asked if she thought the practices were cruel, Adams was adamant they are not. "I wouldn't let an animal suffer," she said. "I love these animals."
After Simon left and the chinchillas were taken to the Oceanside and San Diego humane society branches to be readied for adoption, they destroyed the wire cages with sledgehammers, Lange said.
Austin Gates, the humane society's Oceanside branch manager whose team put the animals into cages six times larger than those at the farm (after finding "very few significant health issues") noted that, "Their practices were from another era. I think we've gotten much more humane since then."