Pet Peeve

If one schnauzer is nice, what's wrong with 150?

Following the fire, Port appeared to be fixing up her facility. New fences were erected, kennels added and debris cleared away. But she couldn't seem to reduce her dog population to 100, as requested by Elbert County. And despite the repairs and thousands of dollars in public donations, she kept failing state PACFA inspections of her compound.

Finally, in early 1996, facing a 24-hour deadline to reduce her dogs to the required number or have them impounded, Port bolted. She sold her land in Elbert County and soon surfaced in a small town called Ellicott, twenty miles east of Colorado Springs. "She was hiding from us, which really ticked me off," recalls Roehr. "And then she turned around and built a facility that was worse than the first one."

For the next year, Port and Roehr and his inspectors played a game of dog cat-and-mouse. The state workers tried to show up for surprise inspections at Port's new compound to see if she was complying with the animal limits. Meanwhile, according to Roehr, Port and her helpers would try just as hard to hide her illegal dogs.

At one point, he says, the workers were loading up a van with dozens of dogs and parking it in a lot outside of Colorado Springs from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., the time when Roehr's inspectors might appear. In other instances, Port would move her animals to nearby friends' property. "No sooner did we take care of one place than another facility popped up," Roehr says.

Roehr tried to gain a cease-and-desist order through local courts, but after a half-dozen lengthy hearings, the judge ruled in favor of Port. Roehr ended up taking his case to the Colorado Supreme Court, which decided that Port had to comply with state animal-licensing laws.

Finally, after more than two years, Port was found in contempt of court for failing to follow the law. She was directed to wear an electronic monitoring bracelet, confining her to her home, and to pay several thousand dollars in fines. Roehr thought the penalty was reasonable; he estimates his pursuit of Port cost taxpayers more than $50,000.

Port never wore the monitor, though, and she never paid. The debt was turned over to a collection agency. In 1997, Port disappeared.

Port's case demonstrates the difficulty of convicting and punishing humans who collect and neglect. For starters, there is a checkerboard of laws identifying the quantity of animals any one household may keep; nobody agrees on how many are too many. Denver city ordinances permit five animals, three of which can be dogs. Arapahoe County permits three dogs but has no limitations on cats. Jefferson County permits three animals total unless the owner lives on one or more acres, in which case the number is unlimited.

Further complicating matters is the scattered enforcement of such laws. In some cases, local animal-control officers have the job. In others, planning and zoning takes on the work. Throw into the mix middle-ground agencies like the Dumb Friends League, various humane societies and the Department of Agriculture, and enforcement can become a real muddle.

There are reasons on all sides why hoarding cases are so challenging. Most collectors literally can't help themselves: Research suggests that the recidivism rate is nearly 100 percent. Experts say that licensing laws such as PACFA, which at least force hoarders to maintain minimum standards of care, are often the best regulators can hope for. Like methadone programs, the law keeps its addicts within society's acceptable boundaries. Today, for instance, Luann Strickland has a PACFA-licensed animal sanctuary; Roehr estimates she keeps about 200 animals.

Still, it's tough to keep an eye on everyone. Last week, Wheat Ridge officials shut down the Save an Animal Foundation, run by George Greer and Betty Merci, after discovering dead and starving animals in their facility. State and city animal-welfare workers had known about the shelter for years. Roehr had even visited it once and spoken to the owners on the phone several times. When he stopped by, though, the couple did not appear to be violating PACFA's minimum licensing standard of fifteen animals.

For in-the-field investigators, timing is crucial to a successful bust. It's not difficult to spot budding cases. A few weeks ago, Novoryta responded to a woman's house in Centennial. Things looked okay -- for now. "You can see the floor, and the cats are all fat and healthy," she says, "so it's borderline. But there are urine stains on the floor, and she's got a few litters on the way."

Further, even with cases that seem obvious, proving animal cruelty is not a slam-dunk. Dead animals lying around the place is not necessarily indicative of neglect, and neglect is not necessarily confirmation of active abuse. "You almost have to witness an act of cannibalism to win," admits Novoryta.

From the prosecutor's side, taking animal-cruelty cases in front of a judge or jury is no picnic, either. "These are cases no one wants to handle, and it is not uncommon for them to be sidestepped until the situation has deteriorated to the point it cannot be ignored," research-consortium founder Patronek wrote in a recent article.

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