SOUTH SAN FRANCISCO — Authorities Tuesday seized more than 100 animals being kept at a South San Francisco home for use as sacrifices by practitioners of the Afro-Cuban religion Santeria.
The Peninsula Humane Society took about 100 birds (chickens, pigeons, guinea hens and ducks), eight pygmy goats, five rabbits and one pot belly pig from Bertha and Gilbert Stephson’s home on the 800 block of Grand Avenue.
Animal Control Sgt. Steve Frias said Gilbert Stephson is a Santeria high priest, and his wife was distributing the animals to Santeria followers for animal sacrifices. The Stephsons declined to be interviewed Tuesday.
Bertha Stephson was cited for animal cruelty, for which she could be slapped with dozens of counts at the close of an investigation by animal control officers and the San Mateo County District Attorney’s Office, Frias said.
“It’s not illegal to practice the religion,” Frias said. “We step in when the animals are not being cared for properly.”
South San Francisco Fire Department Safety Inspector Tom Carney said authorities were led to the Stephson home Monday by neighbors who complained about strong odors coming from the house, especially on hot days.
“We knew there would be some roosters, but wow, there was way more than we anticipated,” Carney said.
Carney said the animals were kept in “extreme unsanitary conditions,” in small enclosures filled with urine and feces and were not getting adequate food and water. Rabbits were being fed chicken feed and some animals were visibly sick, he said.
“They were mistreated, unkempt and uncared for. Some were dead or dying,” Carney said.
Frias said he thinks most of the animals seized are healthy enough to be saved and, after rehabilitation and continued care, will be adoptable.
According to an encyclopedia on world religions, Santeria derives from west African religions and Catholicism, most commonly practiced in Caribbean islands and Hispanic population centers in the United States. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1993 that animal-cruelty laws targeted at the Santeria practice of animal sacrifice were unconstitutional.
Frias said the Peninsula Humane Society has been receiving an increased number of calls related to Santeria sacrifices the past few years. The sacrificed animals are commonly dumped at the exits and entrances of parks, he said.
“We’ve seen an increased number of cases, but this is the first time in my 15 years we’ve come across someone who is a supplier and purchaser of the animals,” Frias said.
Frias said the Stephsons — who have a small temple in the home — say thousands of Santeria followers are in San Mateo County. He said they say that the religion has been forced underground because most people are not open to what they do, don’t understand their beliefs and associate it with voodoo.
Alex Novoa, who lives a couple of doors down from the Stephson home, said he didn’t suspect nearly 100 animals lived nearby.
“I didn’t know that there were so many animals back there. I didn’t see anything, I didn’t smell anything. I heard the chickens,” Novoa said.
“I had no idea they were doing animal sacrifices.”
That’s kind of freaky, the kind of stuff you only see on TV.”