A car pulls into the driveway at The Haven, a private, no-kill animal shelter in Raeford. A woman gets out of the car and hands Director Linden Spears a gray and white kitten. She signs papers surrendering ownership while her children watch.

“Single mother of three,” says Spears, who founded the shelter in 1996. “She couldn’t afford to take care of it anymore.”

Walking past a line of pens, the sound of barking is deafening. About 700 dogs and 400 cats live in pens, kennels and cages on a 140-acre horse farmall of them unwanted by their owners.

Some were rescued from euthanasia at nearby animal shelters. Some were abandoned. Others, like the kitten, were simply dropped off.

“These dogs were found on the side of the road,” says Spears, indicating a group of puppies in a contained area. Nearby, she points to a dry kiddie pool surrounded by a short fence where seven more puppies play. “These puppies were in garbage bags, covered in fire ants.”

These animals and hundreds like them are at the center of legal and policy disputes between the N.C. Department of Agriculture’s Animal Welfare Division and three large no-kill shelters in the state: The Haven, Tri-County Animal Rescue near Charlotte and All Creatures Great and Small in Henderson County. The agriculture department is investigating the shelters and the welfare of their animals. Public documents obtained by the Independent contain photographs, depositions and complaintseven from animal rights groups, including People for the Ethical Treatment of Animalsdescribing substandard and sometimes horrific conditions at all three.

But the shelters’ directors and many enthusiastic supporters charge that state regulatorsparticularly Animal Welfare veterinarian Dr. Carol Woodlief, who often inspects the facilitiesis on a mission to shutter the large no-kill movement. They contend that the government is capriciously enforcing the Animal Welfare Act by focusing on a shelter’s building materials instead of animal healthand failing to give county shelters, which euthanize as many as 90 percent of their animals, the same scrutiny.

“They don’t like the no-kill movement,” Spears says. “We clearly have an adversarial relationship.”

However, Dr. Lee Hunter, NCDA’s director of animal welfare, denies the charges. “We do not have an agenda to close large no-kill shelters. It is not on my radar at all. Our policy is to work with them to ensure their compliance.”

The NCDA regulates pet shops, kennels and licensed private shelters, and since 2006, the state’s 89 county shelters. Many county facilities have failed inspections for similar reasons to the large no-kills: for failing to adequately care for sick or injured animals, improper building materials, sanitation and record keeping. And at least one shelter, Guilford County, has as many animals as The Haven and has been cited for several violations.

“We are here for the welfare of the animals,” says Woodlief. “That is our main concern.”

While physical well-being is paramount, there are concerns that huge shelters can’t give the animals adequate quality of life. And medium or large dogs, which are less adoptable, may live their entire lives in a pen with only an occasional walk outside.

“They sit and languish in these facilities for years,” says Daphna Nachminovich, director of PETA’s domestic animal department, which has filed complaints against All Creatures Great and Small. “They can’t possibly get the attention they need. And they get less adoptable every day. [For] animals with no hope for adoption, this is a life sentence without parole.”

The Haven started with 55 dogs and 15 cats. Within six years, that number had increased to more than 600 animals. With an annual operating budget of more than $500,000, much of it from donations, it now houses more than 1,000 animals. It has been operating without a license since 2005, the same year it failed several inspections. Field inspectors cited The Haven for multiple violations, including overcrowded housing for animals, improper building materials such as wood, and failure to keep adequate records.

The NCDA, the state attorney general’s office and The Haven are in litigation to resolve the licensing issue and to set a timeline for expensive improvements to the property, including more gravel for dog pens and additional animal housing. The cost could total well over $1 million.

“They don’t evaluate us on the number of spay/neuters or vaccinations,” Spears says, claiming The Haven has spayed or neutered more than 20,000 animals and has adopted out 15,000 cats and dogs in its 11 years. “We’re evaluated on whether we have clutter; none of those things deal with the life and death of our animals.”

The animals at The Haven appear well-fed and healthy, although most of the dogs are housed in chain-link pens with only tarps overhead to keep out the cold, heat and rain. Since wooden doghouses are prohibited because they are difficult to sanitize, the dogs are provided with only plastic pickle barrels to stay warm in winter. A cavernous barn, which is hot but ventilated with giant fans, contains dozens of cages stacked atop one another; most contain cats.

In 2003, a former employee, Tonya Powell, made an official complaint to law enforcement, which forwarded it to the agriculture department.

“The resources at this facility are extremely overstressed. There are too many animals to give proper care,” Powell wrote. “Employees work 12 to 14 hours per day and still don’t have time to provide it.”

Spears counters that the state’s emphasis on building materials has prevented her from implementing community programs that would allow more hands-on work with the animals, including increasing the number of adoptions.

“We have an adoption machine here that is paralleled by none,” Spears says, adding they regularly take cats to local PetsMart outlets to meet potential families. “We vaccinate and microchip the animals. Why don’t they back off and let me work with local vets and do this work in the community?”

However, it is difficult to verify Spears’ claims, as the paperwork is disorganized. According to a volunteer, adoption certificates already have animals’ names written on them before they are adopted. Woodlief found similar record-keeping problems during an inspection.

And while defenders of the large no-kill model battle with regulators over the practical issues like appropriate building materials, some animal advocates say the model itself endangers animals’ welfare.

“Death is not always the worst option,” says Dr. Kelli Ferris, a veterinarian and assistant professor at N.C. State University’s vet school. She also directs the community-campus partnership, which includes a feral cat spay/neuter project. Ferris cites another no-kill shelter in the state that houses 50 to 75 large dogs. The facility, which Ferris declined to name because she didn’t want attention drawn to it, employs a full-time trainer who works with the dogs daily. “They can tell you where every animal isbehavioral notes, medical records, weekly reports from the trainer. That’s one end of the no-kill spectrum. Then we have enclosures of animals. Some of the worst places to be, if you’re an animal in North Carolina, is a no-kill shelter.”

Spears says she was inspired to start a no-kill shelter after visiting Best Friends Sanctuary, considered a model program. More than 2,000 animals live on 3,600 acres in Utah; with total revenue of $28 million in 2005, Best Friends employs 200 paid staff and 50 volunteers. President Michael Mountain says no-kill shelters can work, but even the best facilities are limited in the number of animals they can adequately care for. “We have at least 500 calls per week asking us to take this dog or cat,” says Mountain, who started the sanctuary in the 1970s. “We can’t do that.”

Best Friends hosts week-long workshops on how to start and maintain an animal sanctuary, an enormous undertaking. “Most people conclude that this is the thing they should be doing,” Mountain says. “You definitely have to do this with your head screwed on the right way.”

A second no-kill shelter in North Carolina, Tri-County Animal Rescue, houses upward of 500 dogs. Director Joann Hager in 2006 surrendered her operating license to the NCDA “because of the harsh regulations,” she says, and now claims the animals as her personal pets, putting her beyond the NCDA’s reach.

The facility passed three of five inspections since 2003, but failed its most recent one in 2006. In the field notes, Dr. Carol Woodlief noted “the number of animals is undetermined by owner,” and that “four or more animals were housed in majority of enclosures.” Tri-County had also been cited for open containers of food and improper building materials. Hager says she has spent $30,000 on concrete and fencing to try to meet the regulations.

“We’re working on getting the number of animals down,” Hager says, adding Tri-County adopts out 1,200 animals each year.

Other facilities, including some county shelters, have similar building issues, Hager says, adding NCDA inspectors seem more concerned about the facility than the animals. “They have never asked to do health inspections on the animals.”

The complaints filed about Tri-County have been primarily from adjacent property owners about the smell and sound. However, Dennis Morrison, Hager’s brother and a former Tri-County volunteer, filed four complaints, including a legal disposition, detailing dog fights, overcrowded conditions and injured, sick, dead and unattended dogs.

Hager has stated that Morrison’s complaints are untrue, and are rooted in a family dispute over a land purchase.

By surrendering her license, Hager cannot adopt out animals for a fee. But the NCDA’s Dr. Lee Hunter alleges there is evidence, including newspaper notices by Tri-County and Morrison’s deposition, that Tri-County may be adopting out animals, but without a license. The state has subpoenaed PetsMart adoption records for Tri-County to determine if animals have been taken there.

To seize Hager’s animals, NCDA and the state attorney general’s office would have to plead their case before a judge.

“They’re not taking my animals,” Hager says. “Our animals are better taken care of than at the county shelter.”

The state’s third large no-kill shelter, according to NCDA documents, may be the worst.

“Horrible conditions at the shelter,” reads a 2004 complaint from Cynthia Hart. “A dog was adopted this past weekend that was not spayed, had parasites and kennel cough.”

This is one of dozens of allegations about All Creatures Great and Small, which, according to an April 2007 inspection report, had nearly 650 dogs and cats.

Dead and dying animals, dog fights, cramped cages, urine puddles, moldy food and other abuse: The litany of complaints and several failed inspections prompted the NCDA to issue the shelter a cease-and-desist letter in 2004. Three years later, it is still operating, and failed two inspections this year.

Kim Kappler did not return calls seeking comment; the Independent couldn’t leave additional messages because her voicemail was full.

After receiving complaints about All Creatures Great and Small, PETA’s Daphna Nachminovitch visited the facility, took photos of the condition and filed her own complaint with the NCDA. “It was a hellhole,” she recalls. “I’m forever haunted by those animals I saw three year ago. Yet they [All Creatures] keep appealing and appealing and ignoring the orders.”

Facility owners can face civil penalties, such as fines, or depending on the severity of the case, be charged with animal cruelty. However, those allegations can be difficult to prove, and unless animals are in immediate danger, the cases can be drawn out for years.

Kappler was found not guilty of animal cruelty in 2004 after several animals died in a flood. Nachminovitch says that while the judge was concerned, “the warrant was poorly written. There was no physical evidence of specific animals [being harmed].”

Hunter says due to legal constraints he can’t comment about the status of All Creatures Great and Small, only that “we’re in discussions with them at this point.”

The larger issue centers on the responsibility of pet owners to properly care for and spay or neuter their companion animals.

“The money spent on these shelters could go to spay and neuter programs. We’re never going to win this fight if we don’t stem the flow,” Nachminovitch says. “I know the intentions of these shelters are good, but that really doesn’t help any of the animals.”