By Jonathan Shikes
By Michael Roberts
By Jonathan Shikes
By Michael Roberts
By Michael Roberts
By Michael Roberts
By William Breathes
By Melanie Asmar
Here's some of what you learn during your first half-dozen years as an animal-cruelty investigator:
That if enough animals are kept for an extended time in a house, the sheer amount of urine and feces can collapse a floor;
That the smell of concentrated ammonia contained in animal urine, confined to an enclosed space, has been shown to cause dementia;
That when starving cats begin eating each other, they will pick away at a carcass until just the intact head and paws remain, causing the victim to look like a cartoon stick figure with a real face and feet. Dogs do it, too, although they're less fastidious;
That when it comes to animal hoarding -- the collecting of large numbers of pets -- the Fechner-Weber Principle applies. This states that a man dropped in a tank of boiling water will scream with pain, but if he is submerged in room-temperature water that is then raised one degree an hour, he will quietly boil to death without noticing.
Last June, Barbara Novoryta, the chief animal-cruelty investigator for the Denver Dumb Friends League, drove to Trinidad to investigate a suspected animal-abuse case.
In the menagerie of state animal-protection services -- humane societies, local animal-control officers, the Bureau of Animal Protection, health inspectors -- the Denver Dumb Friends League plays an in-between role. The agency is a private, non-profit corporation. But Novoryta and her fellow investigators are commissioned by the state as law-enforcement officers, with authority to conduct searches and confiscate property. They try to confine their work to the counties of the Denver metropolitan area. Occasionally, though, they are called to assist in the far reaches of the state.
Novoryta, who is in her seventh year on the job, is the perfect combination of caring pet lover and tough cop. A former firefighter, she is still, at 41, very fit. She has long red hair and carefully groomed, squared-off fingernails. She calls herself "Barbie." Her office walls are plastered with playfully posed pictures of dogs and cats that were confiscated in cruelty investigations and are now enjoying happy lives in new homes. "It's a very emotional job, but I love it," she says. "There's a lot of sorrow in it, but there's also a lot of reward."
The Trinidad case had broken in early June, when the Bureau of Animal Protection, a part of the state Department of Agriculture, had received word of what appeared to be a large case of dog hoarding and neglect, and perhaps worse. Although all part of the same law, the terms can be confusing. "Cruelty to animals" can range from neglect -- failing to properly care for your pets -- to what is called "aggravated cruelty": torture, mutilation and killing.
Carol Ann Martin, an employee at Trinidad State Junior College, had reported the Trinidad case first. While at work, Martin had overheard Tammy Schaible, a new women's volleyball coach, lamenting the fact that her parents had lost their home north of Denver and needed a place to stay. Martin was sympathetic. Do they have a mobile home or trailer? she had wanted to know. If so, she had one hundred acres they could park on for the time being.
Tammy brightened. However, she cautioned Martin that her parents had a few dogs. Actually, about twenty or thirty. That made Martin suspicious, but she agreed anyway, because she did some horse rescue work herself and was not unappreciative of those who worked with animals. A few days later, Fred and Brenda Schaible landed on her property.
It was a mess from the beginning. "They just sort of dumped the dogs," recalls Keith Synnestvedt, Martin's husband. The dogs had arrived packed into a Ford Explorer and a sixteen-foot U-Haul van, which also contained a washer, dryer, refrigerator and freezer. They all appeared to be schnauzers, or schnauzer mixes. There were far, far more than the promised twenty or thirty. The Schaibles, meanwhile, seemed to be around only occasionally.
Eight of the dogs quickly drowned in one of Martin's stock tanks. Others began wandering onto neighbors' property. "They were just a yipping, yapping mess," Synnestvedt says. "They had matted feces in their hair from just being piled on top of each other." At wit's end, Martin called the state animal-protection bureau.
After arriving in Trinidad, Novoryta, accompanied by three other Dumb Friends League employees, met up with four members of the agricultural department, including the Colorado state veterinarian, John Maulsby, who'd obtained a search warrant. As the inspectors entered through the gates of Martin's property on June 18, they were greeted by about fifty dogs.
"It was difficult to avoid running over them," Scot Dutcher, a state inspector, wrote in his report of that day. "When we got up to the main property, I saw several dead dogs and many, many other live dogs running around in all directions and barking.... I sat awestruck in the truck for a moment trying to comprehend the great number of dogs and how we were going to deal with them.
"When I got out I took a walk around the property. I saw several more dead dogs, and parts thereof, strewn about.... There was also a large plastic container three-quarters full of thick, tan liquefying dog. The only solids in there were the bones. It was alive and very active with thousands of maggots. I've been around A LOT of dead stuff, but I gagged several times when I saw/smelled this."
Novoryta, meanwhile, videotaped the scene. She trained her camera on one dog that had been freshly killed. Several other dogs were just starting to eat the body. Another lay with its intestines spilled out of its abdomen.
The roundup took all day. Eventually, using a combination of nets, leashes and sodium pentobarbital meatballs, the team managed to catch and contain all but about four or five of the animals. They placed them in kennels stacked on top of each other. The final tally: 146 dogs, four lovebirds, three doves, two chickens and one cat.
At some point during the day, the Schaibles arrived on the scene. Fred spoke with the investigators while Brenda sat in the car, which was packed with several more dogs. Novoryta informed him that she and her colleagues were impounding the dogs, and that, though many could no doubt be adopted out to new homes, others seemed maladapted and would have to be euthanized.
Schaible, reportedly a retired dentist, seemed befuddled. He began to cry. Novoryta asked him why he had so many animals. His wife, he answered, liked dogs. Still, Fred agreed to sign over all of the animals to state custody. Later, Fred and Brenda were charged with four counts of animal cruelty.
The Schaibles did not return numerous phone calls for this story.
Twenty-five years ago, Alan M. Beck was working at the New York City Department of Health as a researcher. Over the years, he had noticed that an unusually high number of cases that came through the department -- close to one in five -- involved animals. Beck started talking about it to a staff epidemiologist. The epidemiologist, in turn, mentioned it to one of his graduate students who happened to be looking for a thesis topic. The group decided to investigate together.
The result of their collaboration was a 1981 paper titled "Multiple Ownership of Animals in New York City." It was the first research effort published on the subject of animal hoarding -- extreme animal collectors. The group managed to interview 34 people who'd come to the attention of authorities, usually through city inspections or reports from neighbors.
The study criteria required the subjects to have owned at least ten animals; however, the average number of pets among participants was actually much higher: 34 cats, 23 dogs. And while those two species made up the majority of the pets, the animals Beck and his colleagues discovered being kept in large numbers were by no means restricted to felines and canines. The researchers discovered alligators, lizards, snakes, rabbits, turtles, a turkey and several ducks. One case featured more than fifty pigeons flying freely around an apartment.
As they compiled their results, the scientists uncovered several surprises. Prior to their study, for instance, it was largely assumed that most animal hoarders were dotty old ladies who had lost their grip on reality many years back. Yet Beck found that hoarders actually were spread fairly evenly among socioeconomic groups.
The scientists were also amazed at the devotion and depth of feeling the collectors had for their numerous animals. "One woman kept scrapbooks of her animals' lives," Beck recounted, "celebrated their birthdays and anniversaries and conducted special burials for them. Another elderly woman, unable to bear separation from her dead cats, eviscerated them and dried them on her fire escape. The 'cat boards' were kept in cupboards throughout her apartment. One owner preserved the animals by stuffing them."
Subsequent research on hoarders, although still in its infancy, has confirmed Beck and his colleagues' findings. Much of the work has been done by the Hoarding of Animals Research Consortium, founded in 1997 by a Tufts University professor and veterinarian named Gary Patronek. Through his work, a general profile has emerged.
Most animal hoarders -- about two-thirds -- are female; their average age is 63. An unusually large percentage of hoarders are from the "caretaker" professions -- teachers, nurses, doctors and so on -- a fact that always seems to catch emergency workers, caretakers themselves, off guard.
In early summer 2003, Denver social workers removed a thirteen-year-old mentally handicapped girl from the home of Mary Flanagan. The two were not living alone. Flanagan, a fifty-year-old registered nurse, also had 28 dogs and cats living in the house -- although "living" is not an accurate term. A third of the animals were dead -- still in their cages, decomposing.
Demographically, Flanagan was not an unusual pet hoarder. Seventy percent of animal collectors are single, and researchers often trace their animal-collecting habit back to the significant event that left them alone, typically a divorce or death. Eighty percent of animal hoarders also compulsively collect other objects. (Flanagan's home was filled with five-foot-high stacks of trash.) Sixty-five percent hoard cats; 60 percent collect dogs. The overlap is caused by those who collect both.
The question that continues to plague researchers who study the interaction between humans and animals is, of course, why? Can love really be so blind?
No one has found an answer. For starters, surrounding yourself with a lot of animals isn't always bad. "Everybody's different," notes Novoryta. "There are people out there who can't handle five animals. But some can handle twenty."
Occasionally well-educated and articulate, hoarders can also be on the ball in the rest of their lives. In Colorado, Luann Strickland, wife of former state senator and current Adams County Commissioner Ted Strickland, was charged with animal cruelty after investigators in 1991 found she'd collected between 400 and 500 cats and dogs, some of which, investigators said, were suffering from neglect.
One obvious symptom all hoarders seem to share is a distorted view of reality: None can see the squalor that is immediately apparent to outsiders. "We frequently ask, 'Is there anything about your life that you'd like to change?'" says Randall Lockwood, whose Ph.D. in psychology comes in handy in his work as vice president of research and education outreach at the Humane Society of the United States. "And they look around" -- many times at feces piled several feet high and the smell of urine so powerful that visitors must wear masks -- "and say, 'No, not really. Maybe a little more room would be nice.'"
Hoarding touches on several other psychiatric conditions, too, obsessive-compulsive disorder being the most common. But the behavior also contains seeds of attachment disorder (animals are less scary than people), Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy (animals' suffering brings attention to the owner), zoophilia (sexual attraction to animals) and addiction behavior.
That said, the syndrome is starting to leave its own mark in the lexicon of mental disorders. Novoryta lectures regularly on animal hoarding as part of an abnormal-psychology course at Metro State. An article published this June in the American Journal of Psychology reported that scientists at UCLA, using brain scans, had discovered that hoarders metabolize glucose differently than others.
Novoryta says she investigates about ten egregious animal-hoarding cases each year. The problem has become persistent enough that this year the Dumb Friends League hopes to introduce a new bill in the legislature. If passed, it would make hoarding -- tentatively defined as having fifteen or more animals -- an aggravating statute. It would mean that a person convicted of animal neglect or abuse who is also a hoarder could receive a stiffer sentence.
Today, as a professor of animal ecology at Purdue University, Alan Beck tries to keep current on the field he helped identify. "It's one of the most misunderstood areas of our relationship with animals," he admits. "People's excesses always trouble us."
Keith Roehr remembers his first day on the job -- April 3, 1995 -- as a real barn-burner, which, in fact, it was. It was the day Mary Port's Colorado Animal Refuge caught fire in Simla, a plains town east of Denver.
"I feel I was born with a special love for animals," Mary Port told a reporter in 1995. If love could be measured by volume, she clearly was telling the truth.
By the spring of 1995, Port had, by various estimates, between 200 and 600 dogs living with her in her eighty-acre compound in Elbert County. She also had dozens of cats, numerous monkeys, a couple of bears, wolves, geese and a fox. She called her facility the Colorado Animal Refuge.
On Roehr's first day of reporting to work as the assistant state veterinarian in the Department of Agriculture, emergency workers were called to Port's address to respond to a ripping blaze. Much of the place couldn't be saved. Somewhere between fifty and one hundred dogs and a half-dozen monkeys perished in the fire. A handful of mobile homes went up in flames, as well.
Though people had been aware of Port and her personal zoo for some time, the fire and its resulting publicity now made her impossible to ignore. As details of her encampment leaked out, Colorado residents displayed radically divergent opinions. Caught in the spotlight, neighbors claimed that many of her dogs had to be shot by ranchers after escaping her rickety cages. Others, including a few former CAR volunteers, reported appalling conditions within the compound.
Yet many members of the public rallied behind her. Wal-Mart donated food. Close to $40,000 in donations poured in. Volunteers showed up at the facility to help care for the animals.
For its part, the Elbert County Commissioners chose a middle ground. Within days of the fire, they declared CAR a "public nuisance" and "source of filth." All the same, they continually delayed enforcing local ordinances that limited the number of animals Port could hold. One code-compliance officer who'd observed poor treatment of animals at CAR quit over the county's dithering.
The 71-year-old Port was a California resident who said she'd been rescuing animals, mostly on her own dime, since the 1950s. She'd moved to Colorado in the 1970s, she explained, and over the next several years had worked with the North American Wildlife Center in Golden, and had later helped found the Evergreen Animal Protection League. In 1983, her personal animal collection became too much for neighbors, and she moved to Elbert County.
Roehr, a former small-animal vet from Broomfield looking for a career shift, jumped into the fray. He had little idea of what he was getting into. For the next two years, Port would be his personal irritant.
Five days after the fire, a new state statute went into effect. Called the Pet Animal Care Facilities Act, or PACFA, it had been passed in reaction to, among other things, high-profile hoarding cases like Luann Strickland's, in which obsessed humans accumulated hundreds of pets without apparent regard to their well-being. The new law said people could own up fifteen dogs and fifteen cats (and 65 rabbits) without interference, assuming they were in compliance with local zoning rules. For more than fifteen, however, the owner had to be licensed by the state, subject to regular inspections that made sure the animals were being kept in humane conditions.
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.
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.
"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.
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.
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."
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.
"There was some feces on the counters, in the sink, on the stove and on the chair," Novoryta's report continues. "To the right of me I observed a mattress, box spring and an oxygen tank in the bedroom area of the trailer. Scattered on the bed were several bones, fur and flesh. I observed one complete cat skeleton, intact with some fur and a little flesh attached to the bones, in a position as if the cat was lying on its side. I further observed hundreds of bones and carcasses of varying degrees of decay to the west side of the mattress on the floor.... There were hundreds of bones under the bed that appeared to have been there longer than the carcasses on the west side of the bed."
Later, the investigators opened the freezer. Inside were several plastic bags. "We observed a total of one adult cat and eight young kittens completely frozen solid," Novoryta wrote. "They were wrapped in several plastic bags." In all, investigators recovered 39 live cats, about twenty dead ones and numerous remains. Five of the living cats had to be destroyed immediately; fifteen more were euthanized later.
Baca was also on site. She confronted Elaine.
"Do you know how many cats are in there?" Baca demanded. "There's at least fifty."
"I don't believe you," Elaine answered. "There are not."
Baca persisted. "They're eating each other! How could you do that?"
"No," Elaine said. "I don't think they were."
The Marshalls were charged with several counts of animal cruelty. In civil court the following month -- the case was prosecuted through the state attorney general's office because of local law enforcement's inaction -- Elaine Marshall continued her denials. "I don't think they were abused or starving, or anything of that nature," she told the judge. She noted, for example, that she spent between $300 and $400 each month in cat food.
Roehr had his own opinion. "This was the most egregious situation of animal cruelty I have encountered in eight years of investigations," he testified. "The degree of filth, death and severe conditions surpasses anything we have encountered."
Later in the trial, Elaine tried to shift the blame to her husband. "I was just as appalled as you," she insisted. "I had no idea. I have always loved my cats. I raised them when everyone else would've thrown them away.... I'm just dumbfounded. I would never have allowed this to happen."
The judge was unconvinced; both Donald and Elaine were deemed guilty of animal cruelty. Elaine was sentenced to two years' probation, fined a couple hundred dollars and ordered not to own any animals. Donald was sentenced to ten days' home detention and ordered to pay restitution of $7,200 to the Dumb Friends League. The trailer and camper were deemed unsalvageable, and both were destroyed.
Elaine died this past January of a stroke. Donald lives in an assisted-care facility north of Denver. He has pale blue eyes and thick glasses, and moves with the assistance of a walker. A painting of a cat hangs on the wall of his two-room apartment.
"Oh, we had quite a few cats," he says.
A retired Terrazzo floor installer from Spokane, Donald says he and Elaine acquired their first cat, a Siamese, in Tacoma, trading a ring for the pet. "My wife always liked cats," he says. The number of pets grew slowly: "One Siamese, two Siamese, then maybe a couple more..."
They decided to see the country, and sold most of their belongings and purchased a motor home and trailer. They left Tacoma in 1995 and headed east. By then, Donald says, the couple had accumulated about four cats.
After visiting with grandchildren in Pennsylvania, they couple began traveling west again. They passed a couple of years in Ohio and then Tulsa. Along the way, Donald says, they picked up stray cats. At some point, he adds, the Marshalls installed a divider in the motor home to separate the humans' living quarters from the animals'.
By the time they arrived in Colorado, Donald says, "we could still somewhat live with the cats. I fed them; it was quite a challenge. But my wife just couldn't give them up. She had names for all of them. They were her pets. I kept telling her it was too much for me to handle, but she didn't want to let them go."
Besides, he says, "the smell wasn't all that bad to me." Donald says that when he finally moved out of the mobile home and into his car, it was simply a matter of convenience for him and had nothing to do with conditions inside the home. "It was easier to get in and out," he says.
Donald says that once in a while he discovered a dead cat or two, and he'd dispose of them in a nearby dumpster or try to give them a proper burial. On one occasion, when he couldn't, he stored them -- which, he says, is the logical explanation for the cats that the state inspectors discovered in the mobile home's freezer.
"During the winter, one of the mother cats died, and I couldn't bury it," he says. "And the small ones that had multiplied, you couldn't bury them, either. So that's how they got in the refrigerator."
He shakes his head and chuckles over the big misunderstanding. "But, of course, that gal from the Department of Agriculture made a big to-do over it."