Pet Peeve

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

But the Schaibles arrived the next day and retrieved their pets. Days later, of course, they landed outside of Trinidad.

And what of Roehr's nemesis, Mary Port? Today she lives in a remote compound outside of St. Johns, a town of 3,500 on the eastern border of Arizona. Last year she entered into a partnership with the newly formed Silver Creek Regional Humane Society.

"She's basically a rescue for us," says Barbara O'Lear, executive director of the organization. "When we get overwhelmed with animals, we send them to Mary." Port, she adds, does all the work for free.

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

Port lives on forty acres and takes in all kinds of animals. "She's got pigs, livestock," says O'Lear, who estimates that Port keeps at least 100 dogs on the premises, and probably more. She says there are several mobile homes on the property, one of which is reserved for cats.

O'Lear insists that Port runs a top-notch facility, with several staff members always there to help her out. "I've never seen a mess in the yard," she says.

Roehr is skeptical. "It's possible that Mary Port has cleaned up her act. But," he notes, "usually a tiger doesn't change its stripes."


THE HOARDERS

Elaine and Donald Marshall first came to the attention of local police in late 2001. Lari Ann Pope, the animal-control officer for the town of Cortez, in the southwestern corner of the state, recalls responding to a report of a suspicious vehicle parked outside a local grocery store. What had caught people's attention was the strong odor of urine that was wafting out of the RV.

Pope found the RV the next day at a laundromat. When another officer shined his flashlight in one of the windows, "he saw about forty pair of eyes staring back," Pope recalls. Pope says she spoke to the elderly couple inside, who assured the officer that they had only about a dozen cats. To prove it, the woman handed a few out of the RV's window.

"They were healthy animals, and I didn't have a warrant," recalls Pope. Besides, the woman told her that she and her husband were just leaving town anyway. "One agency had even given them some money to leave," Pope recalls.

The couple -- the Marshalls -- didn't go far. They moved to a trailer park south of Cortez called Mesa Oasis, settling into a mobile home. When a cat scratched Donald badly enough to require medical attention, their case came to the attention of local health-care workers.

Jane Baca, a registered nurse for the Montezuma County Health Department, was the Marshalls' case worker and got to know them well over the next couple of years. Elaine, a former Avon saleswomen, was tough. "She used to hang out at a local bikers' bar, the Eagle's Claw," Baca recalls. "She bought a car from a biker there and then refused to pay him, and he backed down."

Elaine was also manipulative, Baca says. After moving into the trailer park outside of Cortez, she effectively took over management of the park from the current owner, who was suffering from Alzheimer's disease. Soon she was spending much of her time in the owner's trailer.

The Marshalls' own living conditions, meanwhile, deteriorated rapidly. There were clues that the cats, which were not permitted outside, were multiplying inside the Marshalls' home. Baca recalls speaking to a personal care provider assigned to the Marshalls, who alerted Baca that she was being sent to the local grocery store about three times a week just for cat food.

Baca also noticed signs of the increasing animals. "I approached the vehicle to about three feet and noticed a very strong odor of animal waste," Baca wrote in one January 2003 report. "The odor was strong enough to make my eyes water and my throat sore.... I estimate Ms. Marshall is keeping over one hundred cats in the trailer. Outside of the trailer, I was overwhelmed by the smell of dead animals and animal waste."

Sometime in early 2003, the cats literally took over the Marshalls' living space. Donald and Elaine moved out of their mobile home, ceding it to the pets. Their RV, too, was taken over by the animals. Outside, they each lived in separate automobiles. Elaine kept her oxygen in hers; Donald parked his walker outside of his. An electrical cord snaked from the trailer to the cars, powering Elaine's heating unit.

Baca says that over the months, sheriff's deputies, alerted by various neighbors several times to the appalling living conditions, came out to the Marshalls' place. But the sheriff, a live-and-let-live advocate, declined to act. Frustrated by the bureaucratic inaction, Baca next went to the local district attorney's office. "He told me his hands were tied," she recalls. Finally, she called the agriculture department's Bureau of Animal Protection. "I was a real jerk about this," she says.

In February 2003, based largely on the testimony of Baca, Roehr, the assistant state veterinarian, secured a search warrant. On Tuesday, March 25, a group of investigators entered the Marshalls' trailer. Once again, Barbara Novoryta was videotaping.

"I observed approximately fifteen to twenty live cats running around me," she later recounted, "and in the kitchen to the left, I observed several hundred empty cans of cat food layered on top of feces approximately two and one half feet deep." Scot Dutcher, the state inspector, thought the trailer's ceiling had been lowered until he realized it just appeared that way because the cat feces were piled so high. The team smeared Vicks VapoRub under their noses to mask the smell.

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