Pet Peeve

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

Colorado is one of only a handful of states with a felony animal-cruelty law -- and even that was passed just two years ago. Even though PACFA offers an additional opportunity for civil prosecution, many cases jam law-enforcement officials into a corner. Roehr says Wheat Ridge animal-control officers wrestled with what to do about the owners of the Save an Animal Foundation for some time. "But when you take them to court," says Roehr, "what are you going to do with these people?" Old, ailing and practically penniless, they have little to lose.

Other obstacles conspire to confound police and prosecutors. Thanks to the mishmash of legal responsibility, for example, hoarders are often able to move from place to place without lasting consequence -- despite the mess they frequently leave.

For nearly three years in the mid-1990s, the Vickie Kittles case captivated lawyers and animal lovers across the country. Kittles, a middle-aged woman, kept 115 dogs on her school bus. When a citizen saw one of her dogs go into a seizure, the sheriff's office in Clatsop County, Oregon, was called. The district attorney there took on the case. What he discovered shocked him.

 
Mark Andresen
 
A cat in a Cortez home
A cat in a Cortez home

"It turns out Ms. Kittles has been doing this all over the United States -- in Florida, Mississippi, Colorado [she reportedly popped by Mary Port's place while here], Washington -- and in each place some law enforcement agent or some district attorney had given her a tank of gas and told her to get out of town," DA Joshua Marquis wrote in a 1996 article for Animal Law. "Nobody wanted to prosecute this woman."

Locally, this type of evasion happens all the time. Three months ago, Annette and Javier Marquez agreed to plead guilty to animal cruelty (a rarity: an as-yet-unpublished article for an animal-law review found that in 46 hoarding cases studied, only one defendant agreed to admit guilt). Jefferson County animal-control officers had been alerted by a person who'd visited the Marquez home to purchase a cat and observed foul conditions. Officers ended up confiscating 71 cats from the couple's Deer Creek Canyon home.

This wasn't the first time that authorities had come into contact with the Marquezes. In August 2003, another cat buyer had gone to their home, then in Lone Tree, and reported deplorable conditions. The responding investigator noted that the house was "extremely cluttered and is dirty. There was a fairly strong odor of urine and a few piles of feces or vomited food. The owners said they are moving because they found out they are over the limit for cats. They would not tell me where they are moving."

Catherine Cariaso was a thorn in the side of Weld County animal-enforcement officers for months. Permitted to keep sixteen dogs on her property, Cariaso just couldn't seem to stick to that number; every time county officials stopped by, she had found more. Over the course of several months in early 2004, they confiscated 76 dogs. Although some were in bad shape, Weld County Undersheriff Margie Martinez says no cruelty charges were ever filed because Cariaso was always willing to relinquish her dogs whenever she was busted.

In mid-July, Cariaso, who says she holds a master's degree in fine arts, lost her Weld County house through a foreclosure action (she said she was going broke buying hay for her eighteen horses). She moved a few miles across the border into Larimer County -- where, a few days later, nearly ninety dogs, mostly Labrador retrievers, were discovered on her property. Cariaso had left them for several days. The Larimer Humane Society had to euthanize 57 of the dogs. Cariaso was arrested on July 12 and charged with sixteen counts of animal cruelty.

Even the schnauzer-accumulating Schaibles were not strangers to Colorado animal-control officers. On July 18, 2003, Weld County officers responded to their home just outside of Fort Lupton; a furnace repairman had called when he entered their home and couldn't stand the odor.

"We went out there and determined they had a zoning violation because of the number of dogs," recalls Undersheriff Martinez, who says that at the time, her officers noticed about twenty to thirty dogs inside the home and another eighteen or so outside. "The dogs themselves seemed to be in okay condition -- certainly nothing to make us believe they were being mistreated in any way. We turned it over to zoning and then lost track of it," she says.

Not for long, though. This spring, deputies were called to the Schaibles' home yet again. Fred and Brenda were being evicted, and they didn't know where to place their animals. Weld County officers agreed to transport them to the Humane Society of Weld County, where 54 dogs were held overnight. Again, no charges were filed, because police looked no further than their own boundaries. "The situation was going to self-correct itself because of their eviction," Martinez explains.

The humane society says its hands were tied, too. "I can't say the dogs were wild or feral," recalls executive director Roger Messick. "They were 'fractious'" -- a term that he says means many of the schnauzers were unsocialized and probably unadoptable. "If she hadn't come and got the dogs within 72 hours, they probably would have had to be destroyed," he says.

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