Pets freed from homes of hoarders

Mesa County services officer Melissa Wallway puts Ringo, one of the 26 dogs taken from a woman which were neglected, back in his cage.

Ringo receives care from Melissa Wallway, a Mesa County Animal Services officer, after 26 dogs and 34 birds were found last month in an 870-square-foot home.

A diamond dove, one of the birds taken from the home.

Dogs barking at all hours of the night. Cats spilling out into the neighborhood anytime the front door opens. The stench of animal waste burning the nostrils of passersby.

That’s what many people think of when they imagine the home of an animal hoarder, a person who collects pets like baseball cards and often gets overwhelmed and can’t care for all of them.

The reality is, a hoarder’s house may look just like the home next door, Mesa County Animal Services Director Penny McCarty said. And with animal hoarding cases on the rise locally, a hoarder may just be in the home next door.

Animal Services has been involved in four animal hoarding investigations in the past 15 months. These have been the first cases McCarty can remember the agency handling since she began working for Animal Services eight years ago.

McCarty said she hopes more people are reporting animal hoarding because they have seen shows like Animal Planet’s “Confessions: Animal Hoarding” on television or have become more aware of animal hoarding and what can be done about it. But veterinarian Tom Suplizio of Animal Medical Clinic, 504 Fruitvale Court, believes there may be more hoarding cases because of the economy.

“A lot of animals are dumped (when the economy is bad), and someone will take them in,” Suplizio said.

The local hoarding cases, beginning in March 2010, include two instances in which no one received a citation: A man with approximately 250 large birds volunteered to have his pets taken to a bird rescue; and a family with numerous dogs and livestock moved out of the county before any case could be built against them.

In the other instances, a Clifton woman living with 26 dogs, a few cats, a bird and a hedgehog received 18 months probation after Animal Services found her pets to be in ill health with few sources of clean water, food or living space during home visits in April and May 2010.

Next Thursday, a Grand Junction woman will be sentenced in Grand Junction Municipal Court after pleading guilty to 26 counts of animal cruelty. Animal Services officers found 34 birds and 26 dogs this May in her 870-square-foot home.

Goodwill goes awry

Veterinarians and people who tried to buy pets from a hoarder were the most common whistle-blowers in the four cases in 2010 and 2011. McCarty said Animal Services relies on those reports to save animals from neglect or cruelty because animal hoarders aren’t likely to seek help on their own.

“The problem with a hoarder is they can’t see they’re not helping the animals anymore,” she said. “Some think they can take care of the animals better than anyone else.”

Most animal hoarders start out with good intentions, but supplying food, clean cages and enough appropriate spaces to go to the bathroom can become an impossible task as hoarders add more pets.

In the county’s most recent hoarding case, Animal Services obtained a search warrant after a woman living on Orchard Avenue repeatedly brought in dogs for treatment of the deadly parvovirus and continued to bring more dogs in for treatment after veterinarians told her to stop getting dogs.

The woman had been investigated by Animal Services previously when a person who had purchased three sick dogs from the hoarder reported she had at least 13 dogs still living in the home in 2009. That investigation was settled after the woman said she gave away all but three of her dogs.

After hearing from Roice Hurst Humane Society that the woman may have as many as 22 dogs in her home, Animal Services officers searched the Orchard Avenue home May 31. The home was suffocatingly hot, according to McCarty, and officers wore masks inside the home to block out the strong scent of ammonia from animal urine.

“We impounded some of the dogs as golden, but they were actually white. They had been sitting in their own feces and urine so long,” McCarty said.

Spreading disease

A veterinarian who examined the animals noted many of the dogs were “profoundly thin,” their fur was “excessively matted,” and some had long nails, deformities, decreased muscle mass or vertebrae visible underneath their skin. The thin dogs, which are all small breeds, collectively gained 27 pounds in their first week at the Animal Services shelter. They’ve probably gained even more weight than that because they were weighed before a total of 5.2 pounds of matted fur was shaved from their bodies.

The birds were mostly in good condition, but seven of the dogs were rushed to an emergency veterinary clinic after being taken from the home. One poodle puppy was so sick it died shortly after being rescued. Another dog has herpes, McCarty said.

Diseases spread quickly among animals in a hoarding situation, according to veterinarian Gary Rechten of Columbine Animal Hospital, 214 N. 12th St.

“When you have vulnerable individuals, things spread very quickly through there, and if you don’t have the cleanliness in the home, it magnifies it 10 times,” Rechten said.

Shared diseases also were a problem in the 2010 case in Clifton, where a puppy found in the home was euthanized because it had parvo. Aside from this and other ailments, including fleas and respiratory problems, Animal Services officers found at the home dirty cages, a bag of dog food that contained live cockroaches and a dead dog stored in an outdoor trash can for nearly a year.

Officers also found a micro-chipped miniature pinscher in the home. It had been stolen from a yard in Grand Junction.

It has been estimated 250,000 animals are affected each year by animal hoarding in the U.S., according to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

Besides physical trauma, hoarded animals can have emotional problems.

“In most cases it’s smaller dogs or cats,” Suplizio said. “The dogs are usually just very scared, they’re pretty untrusting and nervous, and they aren’t used to being held. The cats are usually really mean. They can be feral to a point you can’t even get near them.”

The birds and dogs rounded up two weeks ago in central Grand Junction are friendly and probably have a good shot at adoption, McCarty said. But not every animal is so lucky. Three of the dogs taken in Clifton were too aggressive or sick to be adopted.

Repeat offenders

There is no criminal punishment for animal hoarding, but there are repercussions for people who have so many animals they end up living in deplorable conditions. Everything from probation and fines to jail time can be given to those convicted of animal cruelty.

Mesa County District Attorney Pete Hautzinger said a misdemeanor animal-cruelty conviction can mean up to two years in jail, and more time can come with a felony count, which can be lodged against repeat animal-cruelty offenders.

McCarty said probation, which allows officers to check in on former hoarders periodically, can be one of the most effective tools against preventing hoarders from building another menagerie of pets.

“Recidivism is nearly 100 percent for animal hoarders,” she said. “If they can live without the smell or the mess for a year during probation, hopefully they won’t want it again.”


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