How to distinguish between a caregiver who simply got overwhelmed and an animal exploiter in these heart-breaking cases
When the Houston Fire Department responded to a house fire in Tomball, they got much more than they bargained for. Shortly after the fire began, dozens of dogs poured out of the burning home and ran wild throughout the upscale subdivision. Neighbors rounded up over 40 dogs and called the Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) to send a rescue team to handle the unusual situation. After the fire was extinguished, a responding SPCA officer entered the home to perform a welfare check and gauge the situation. Immediately, he was overwhelmed by the stench of feces, urine, and trash, which was piled from floor to ceiling (see a photo of the scene at right). The officer found many more dogs throughout the home and all of them suffered from fleas, skin infections, and eye ulcers. Several dogs were in such poor condition that they had to be euthanized, and others will require long-term veterinary care and prolonged behavioral socialization. Fortunately, the owner agreed to relinquish custody of all the animals and surrendered a total of 108 dogs to the Houston SPCA, allowing those authorities to provide proper care and treatment.
Animal hoarding cases are particularly challenging for prosecutors because of the defendant’s mental health issues and the large number of animals involved. The number of animal victims in a hoarding case typically ranges from dozens to hundreds but can climb into the thousands in the most extreme cases. Oftentimes, these animal victims have to be kept as evidence, requiring rescue agencies to hold large numbers of animals up to years at a time, which can quickly wipe out their resources. Additionally, cases can be difficult to coordinate because they can span across multiple jurisdictions and involve many different agencies.
The ultimate challenge for a prosecutor is determining whether a person should be criminally prosecuted for her hoarding behavior or if the civil remedy of seizing the hoarder’s animals sufficiently serves justice. This article addresses factors that prosecutors should consider to successfully resolve this type of case.
To make the right charging decision, a prosecutor must first understand the hoarding mentality. Secondly, the prosecutor should form a partnership with local animal welfare organizations to treat and care for any animal victims and understand the potential seizure or impound issues involved. Finally, a prosecutor should recognize the ramifications of civil versus criminal proceedings, charging decisions, and sentencing options. A clear understanding of these factors will help the prosecutor make a charging decision designed to prevent the offender from hoarding and hurting animals again.
What is animal hoarding?
According to the Hoarding Animal Research Consortium (HARC), animal hoarders are not just individuals who own a lot of pets. As defined, hoarders collect a large number of animals, fail to provide adequate food, water, sanitation, and veterinary care, and, more often than not, are in denial about their inability to provide adequate care.1 This type of abuse differs from other kinds of cruelty because many hoarders do not accept or recognize the suffering they inflict on animals. Leading animal cruelty researchers believe that many hoarders suffer from mental health problems, in particular, a delusional disorder combined with an obsessive-compulsive drive to collect.2 The delusional component is a recent addition to the mental illness theory and explains why many hoarders sincerely believe that they provide adequate care despite abundant evidence to the contrary.
Although animal hoarders typically “are female, well over 40 years old, and single, widowed, or divorced,” hoarders can be any age, gender, or from any socio-economic background.3 According to HARC, there are three types of animal hoarders: 1) the overwhelmed caregiver; 2) the rescue hoarder; and 3) the exploiter hoarder.4 An overwhelmed caregiver is usually a breeder who has gotten in over her head. Rather than being spurred on by a mental illness, an overwhelmed caregiver has a stronger grasp on the reality of the situation and is better able to recognize that she can no longer provide adequate care for all of their animals. By comparison, a rescue hoarder operates on the principle that she is saving the animal from certain death at the hands of a shelter and truly believes she is the only person who can provide the animals with proper care. However, a rescue hoarder prolongs and intensifies the animal’s suffering, thereby inflicting greater harm than euthanasia.
The final category, the exploiter hoarder, demonstrates the strongest traits of mental instability. Exploiters are very manipulative, lack empathy for the animals they harm, and still are intellectually savvy enough to know how to work the judicial system to their advantage.5 Both the overwhelmed caregiver and rescuer generally hoard with “good intentions” and have a better chance of rehabilitation than the exploiter who collects animals without any regard for their wellbeing.
Based on these categories, criminal prosecution is usually warranted for the exploiter hoarder, whereas the civil proceeding may be the appropriate remedy for the overwhelmed caregiver and possibly the rescue hoarder.
How does hoarding cause animal suffering?
Animal hoarding is one of the largest sources of animal violence with a greater number of animal victims than intentionally violent acts.6 Authorities identify between 700 and 2,000 new cases of animal hoarding nationwide each year, and a single hoarding event averages around 40 animal victims.7 Animal hoarding victims endure extreme neglect in overcrowded and unsanitary conditions. Most rescued animals are in poor physical condition, suffering from weight loss, parasite infestation, and severe skin infections from feces and urine caking their haircoat. The animals suffer psychologically as well from their cramped confinement. The stress of being surrounded by so many other animals is compounded by the fact that many have not been properly socialized. When rescued, some animals will lash out at handlers from fear or display other bizarre reactions to normal stimuli. As a result of these physical and mental problems, euthanasia is the best option for many of the rescued animals.8
There are also numerous health hazards to people living in the hoarding home and neighboring residents. Rescue workers frequently have to wear respirators to even enter the property as a result of increased ammonia levels from feces and urine.9 In severe cases, infectious diseases spread because of the extreme levels of rodent infestation typically associated with all of the filth and debris. One such disease is Hantavirus, a rare but deadly disease that is contracted by breathing air that has been contaminated by rodent droppings and urine containing the virus.10 While an episode of “Hoarding: Buried Alive” was filming for the Discovery Channel, a home in the Houston area was quarantined out of fear that it contained Hantavirus. Fortunately, a second round of tests came back negative for the disease, but earlier this year an outbreak at Yosemite National Park infected 10 people and caused three deaths.
Beyond the animals or humans immediately involved, there are other victims in hoarding’s wake. Animal shelters suffer financial strain because they lack the space or resources to deal with a large influx of animals. Many shelters are already overwhelmed, and the abrupt arrival of a large number of animals can force them to euthanize healthy, adoptable pets to make room for sickly, skittish hoarding victims. If the owner declines to relinquish custody, they often must be kept alive as evidence, prolonging their suffering and taxing a shelter’s resources.11
Because of the impound issues, every prosecuting agency should have a working partnership in place with an animal welfare organization to handle animals seized in cruelty cases. In Harris County, we are fortunate to have a great partnership with four animal welfare organizations: Houston Humane Society, Houston SPCA, Bureau of Animal Regulation and Care (BARC), and Harris County Veterinary Public Health. Two of the agencies are private, non-profit organizations and two are government animal-control agencies. We initiated the partnership by asking to meet with each organization to discuss their willingness to assist us in animal cruelty cases. We discussed their resources and limitations, and we also explained our evidentiary needs, including the need for photos, chain of custody protocol, a veterinarian report for each animal, and the need for a necropsy.
Based on our discussions, we developed a standard protocol, which provides for 24/7 veterinary coverage utilizing the four animal shelters. It outlines which animal welfare agency will provide assistance and under what circumstances. Because of this partnership, we have a plan in place and can handle any animal cruelty case, including large seizures, in a coordinated and efficient manner. (If you live in an area that does not have animal shelter resources, you can contact Katie Jarl, the Texas State Director of the Humane Society of the United States, for assistance at Texas@ humanesociety.org.)
Under Texas law, animals may be seized with a criminal search warrant pursuant to §18.02(10) in the Texas Code of Criminal Procedure or by a civil warrant pursuant to §821.022 in the Texas Health & Safety Code. However, even in criminal cases, it is always preferable to seize the animals with a civil warrant because the civil statute is animal-friendly and provides for a swift disposition of the animals seized. Under the civil statute, a hearing regarding the disposition of the animal must be held within 10 days; it also provides that if the defendant wants to appeal, he must post an appeal bond determined by the court. These conditions are beneficial to animal welfare agencies because it minimizes their costs in caring for the animals. Additionally, it reduces animal suffering by offering the agencies that gained custody of the animals the ability to adopt healthy animals soon after the civil hearing without having to wait for the disposition of the criminal case.
Even in situations where a criminal search warrant is necessary to gain access to the animals, law enforcement officers should also obtain a civil warrant. With both warrants in hand, officers should use the criminal search warrant as authority to gain access to the animals; however, officers should seize the animals pursuant to the civil warrant. By seizing the animals pursuant to the civil warrant, officers do not need to list the animals as inventory in the criminal search warrant. The officer will then file the civil warrant with the appropriate justice or municipal court and a hearing will be held within 10 days to determine the disposition of the animals. Once the civil hearing is over, the prosecutor can file criminal charges, if appropriate.
Finally, there are two common scenarios where an officer may seize animals without a warrant. One way is to have the owner/caretaker sign a voluntary surrender form, which alleviates the need for both a warrant and subsequent civil hearing. The second scenario is when an officer, who is standing in a lawful place, observes an animal in dire need of medical care. Under this scenario, the seizure of the animal is proper under the emergency doctrine. In Pine v. State, the defendant had a malnourished colt and the sheriff removed the colt from the defendant’s farm without first obtaining a warrant.12 Although the court was unable to find precedent for applying this doctrine to an emergency involving saving the life of an animal, it found that the deputy was presented with an emergency situation that made the warrantless seizure reasonable. (The officer should still obtain a civil seizure warrant as soon as practicable after seizing the animals.)
Texas law provides two avenues for handling animal cruelty cases: civil and criminal. Although each statute serves a different purpose and a single case can be prosecuted under both statutes, the prosecutor should wait until the disposition of the civil hearing before filing criminal charges. The civil statute focuses on the welfare of the animals and provides a mechanism to remove them from an abusive situation, whereas the criminal statute focuses on the abuser and seeks justice for her actions. Additionally, the civil statute differs from the criminal statute in that it has a broader definition of “animal,” a lower burden of proof, and does not require a culpable mental state. For these reasons, the vast majority of animal cruelty cases, including hoarding cases, are handled civilly and do not result in criminal prosecution.
Texas does not have specific hoarding legislation; therefore, animal hoarders must be prosecuted under §42.092 of the Penal Code, which makes it a Class A misdemeanor for animal owners to fail to provide necessary food, water, care, or shelter.13 Prosecutors should always file multiple charges because the statute provides for enhancement provisions for repeat offenders. After reviewing the complete file, the prosecutor should file charges on two or three animals that are in the worst medical and/or environmental condition. These animals should specifically be identified by their tag or identification numbers in the charging instrument. The prosecutor can also file multiple charges using a different manner and means for each animal. Finally, the prosecutor should give notice to the defense of extraneous offenses regarding the animals that were harmed but were not the bases of any charges. The enhancement provisions are especially applicable to animal hoarders, who have nearly a 100-percent recidivism rate.14
A noteworthy challenge to Texas law was discussed in State v. Kingsbury.15 In Kingsbury, Cameron County Animal Control workers found approximately 76 dogs that were emaciated and dehydrated. The workers also found four other dogs that had died of starvation. The indictment alleged that the defendants intentionally or knowingly tortured those four dogs by “leaving them without food and water to such an extent as to cause the death of said dogs.”16 The court held that the felony offense of “torture” did not include failing to provide necessary food, care, or shelter and to rule otherwise would defeat the statute’s categorization of “torture” as a more serious crime. Therefore, to avoid the problems in Kingsbury, even in the extreme cases where animals die from starvation, prosecutors must file misdemeanor charges under §42.092 charging that the animal owners failed unreasonably to provide necessary food, water, care, or shelter by failing to provide adequate nutrition or medical care or sanitary shelter.17
Due to the high likelihood of reoffending, probation is often preferable to incarceration because the defendants can be strictly monitored. As a component of the probation, courts should order mandatory psychological evaluation and treatment to help diagnose and treat any underlying mental illnesses.18 Additionally, offenders should be prohibited from owning, possessing, caring for, or having any contact with an animal during their probation. If the court permits an offender to keep animals, humane law enforcement officers should provide close supervision and make periodic unannounced visits to monitor compliance.19 The prosecutor specifically needs to have the defendant consent to these visits in the plea paperwork. This ensures that the offender adheres to any limitations (or prohibition) on the number of pets permitted and provides the animals with adequate care. A judge should also order restitution to the animal rescue organizations or municipalities involved to compensate for medical care, housing, and transportation for rescued animal victims. A prosecutor could also ask for jail time as an option, but typically this should be reserved for extreme cases and repeat offenders.
To successfully handle a hoarding case, a prosecutor needs to understand the nature of the hoarding mentality. Not all hoarders are created equally, so it is beneficial to understand the categories of hoarders to determine whether civil, criminal, or both remedies are appropriate in a given case. A successful prosecution also requires a multiple-agency response. Animal rescue officers, shelters, and veterinarians must work together to provide health care, food, and housing. Reducing the health, financial, and legal risks associated with responding to a hoarding incident hopefully will help prosecutors bring more animal hoarding cases to court and feel confident that with a coordinated effort, care can be provided to both defendants and their animal victims.
1 Hoarding of Animals Research Consortium, Common Questions about Animal Hoarding, http://vet.tufts.edu/hoarding/abthoard.htm (last accessed Nov. 15, 2012).
2 Gary J. Patronek & Hoarding of Animals Research Consortium, The Problem of Animal Hoarding, 42 Mun. L. 6, 7 (May/June 2001).
3 Carrie Allen, Rescued from Squalor, The Humane Society, All Animals Magazine, 29 (July/ August 2010).
4 Debra L. Muller-Harris, Animal Violence Court: A Therapeutic Jurisprudence-Based Problem-Solving Court for the Adjudication of Animal Cruelty Cases Involving Juvenile Offenders and Animal Hoarders, 17 Animal L. 313, 326 (2011).
5 Id. at 326-327.
6 Lisa Avery, From Helping to Hurting: When the Acts of “Good Samaritans” Become Felony Animal Cruelty, 39 Val. U. L. Rev. 815, 818 (2005) (citing that the ratio of animal victims injured in intentional violent abuse compared those injured in hoarding incidents is 2.3 to 30. Randall Lockwood, Animal Cruelty and Violence Against Humans: Making the Connection, 5 ANIMAL L. 81, 85 (1999)).
7 Allen, at 29 (citing authors Randy Frost & Gail Stektee of the book “Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things,” (2011)).
8 Patronek, at 6.
9 Colin Berry et al., Long-Term Outcomes in Animal Hoarding Cases, 11 Animal L. 167, 169-170 (2005) (stating that an “ammonia concentration of 300 ppm or greater is a threat to life and health.”). See also Avery, at 826-827 (noting that hoarding homes can become biohazardous sites requiring hazmat groups to clean the contaminated homes).
10 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Hantavirus, http://www.cdc.gov/hantavirus/index .html.
11 Allen, at 31 (stating that “[e]ach animal has to be documented for court; this time-consuming process involves photographing the area where the animal was found, and then the animal himself from multiple angles in order to capture his physical condition.”).
12 Pine v. State, 889 S.W.2d 625 (Tex.App.— Houston [14th Dist.] 1994, pet. ref’d).
13 Tex. Penal Code §42.092.
14 Mueller-Harris, at 335.
15 State v. Kingsbury, 129 S.W.3d 202 (Tex. App.—Corpus Christi 2004, no pet.).
16 Id. at 203.
17 Tex. Penal Code §42.092.
18 Mueller-Harris at 334-335.
19 Id. at 333-334. Courts will sometimes allow an offender to keep one or two pets despite their crimes against animals to assuage the offender’s trauma of having all of her animals removed and to enhance the likelihood of a successful rehabilitation by “foster[ing] a cooperative relationship with the hoarder while recognizing the importance animals have in the hoarder’s life.” Avery, at 853.