Monday, April 21, 2014
Inquirer Daily News

Hoarding case highlights need for "cost of care" legislation, advocates say

Nearly 200 chihuahuas rescued from a house in Columbia County have been parceled out to shelters for placement and their owners are facing cruelty charges. The late-night rescue operation last week proved that the state, law enforcement, local rescue groups and shelters can work swiftly and efficiently to remove large numbers of animals from harm's way, get them basic care and send them on their way to permanent homes.

Hoarding case highlights need for "cost of care" legislation, advocates say

UPDATE: Pennsylvania State Police have charged brothers Albert Ambrosia, 54, and Thomas Ambrosia, 59 of Benton with two counts of animal cruelty related to the seizure of 187 dogs on Friday. The charges stem from the poor conditions of two dogs: a Treeing Walker Coonhound found with two open, untreated pressure wounds on his legs and a long-haired chihuahua with a severely matted coat. Other dogs were noted with skin, eye and ear problems but veterinarians on the scene said they did not appear to rise to the level of cruelty, according to the police document.

The nearly 200 chihuahuas rescued from the house in Columbia County Friday have been parceled out to shelters for placement soon in permanent homes.

The late-night rescue operation last proved that the state, law enforcement, local rescue groups and shelters can work swiftly and efficiently to remove large numbers of animals from harm's way, get them basic care and send them on their way to adoption.

There are two fortunate aspects to this case that have sadly not been the case in other enforcement actions against hoarders, fake rescues, dog fighting rings and puppy mills in recent years.

a) the 185 chihuahuas (plus two larger dogs), despite living in cramped conditions, were not suffering from severe health problems.

b) the owners immediately forfeited the dogs to shelters.

However, the financial burden now shifts to the animal groups that can least afford it. The state listed 13 shelters - virtually all of them county or area SPCAs. We note no breed rescues were listed and we wonder what happened there. Where was the AKC during this breed-specific crisis?

We also note that the Humane Society of Harrisburg Area took in some of the dogs. This is the same shelter, you may recall, that for months last winter refused to take any dogs from the City of Harrisburg during a contract dispute. Some advocates wish the shelter had exhibited that same compassion when it came to city dogs - many of them pit bulls - that were abandoned on the streets during those bone-chilling winter nights. (Don't forget, it was the kind-hearted individuals working with the Central Pennsylvania Animal Alliance that stepped into the void and became the defacto "city shelter" for six months.)

Back to the chihuhuas. Most if not not all of the shelters who took them in are facing budget difficulties. Many were recipients of a state shelter grant program slashed in half by the Department of Agriculture this year and likely to be eliminated entirely next year because of the fast-depleting dog law account.

In local news reports and emails the shelters that took the animals have sent out pleas for donations to help care for the dogs. So it's clear that these are not deep-pocketed organizations. Nor do they likely have unused kennel space. (This, of course, raises the question of how many other dogs, urban dwellers like pit bulls, will be turned away, or worse, put down to make room for the adoptable purse dogs.

This mass hoarding case, advocates say, casts a spotlight on the need for legislation to hold pet owners charged with cruelty accountable when their animals are removed and cared for by cash-strapped non-profit groups. Years-long legal fights means an even higher burden on a shelter's budget.

The Pennsylvania SPCA, between 2007-2009 during the tenure of CEO Howard Nelson, raided some of the biggest and worst hoarders and puppy mill operators in the state. It spent hundreds of thousands to care for thousands of severely sick and injured animals. At the same time, they were forced to defend themselves from lawsuits from those same breeders and hoarders.

Without question those cases have had a chilling effect on the PSPCA's ability and willingness to go after the large scale hoarders and puppy mills though it remains the only "statewide" non-government group with the enforcement power and resources to conduct mass rescues.

Still while the PSPCA says it is committed to helping animals statewide, its record says otherwise. The group has all-but retreated to the confines of Philadelphia, prosecuting "safe cases" of dog fighting and those involving impovershed hoarders unlikely to sue.

The chihuahua case is just the latest to highlight a gaping hole in the law protecting animals and those who protect animals.

Scores of cases like these that occur in every county in Pennsylvania underscore the need for "cost of care" legislation, animal advocates say.

Under current law, courts can demand restitution only after a conviction, at which point of course lawbreakers are much harder to track down for payment. 

At the same time adoptable animals end up warehoused in shelters while their owners file rounds of appeals. In one case in Franklin County four Huskies have lived at the Cumberland Valley Animal Shelter for two years as their twice convicted owners appeal their latest cruelty convictions.

A Senate bill (SB 1527), sponsored by Sen. Rich Alloway (R., Franklin) in whose district the Cumberland Valley shelter is located, would shift the financial burden of animal cruelty from municipalities and nonprofit shelters to "those responsible for the animals' suffering."

Rep. Brian Ellis (R., Butler) is seeking cosponsors for a companion bill in the state House which has not yet been introduced.

The bills, similar to those in law in 25 states including New York and North Carolina, would expedite the process for relinquishment of animals to shelters where they can be adopted, while at the same time mandate up-front payments from accused abusers who refuse to give up their animals and fight the charges.

Some advocates say the chihuahua case is a "textbook example" of the need for the legislation.

"It is critical in cruelty cases - particularly those involving large numbers of animals - that the owner agrees to either provide financial support for the ongoing care of the animals involved or forfeits them to animal welfare organizations that can place them elsewhere," said Marsha Perelman, a member of the state Dog Law Advisory Board.

"Pennsylvania needs to join the many other states which have laws requiring those charged with cruelty to make this choice, since without such laws municipalities, shelters, and national animal welfare organizations are forced to care for animals - sometimes for years - while cruelty cases make their way through the courts. Because in this instance the owner forfeited his animals, rescue organizations were immediately willing to step forward to help."

Amy Worden Inquirer Staff Writer
About this blog
Amy Worden is a politics and government reporter for the Inquirer. In that capacity she has explored a range of animal issues from dog kennel law improvements and horse slaughter to the comeback of peregrine falcons and pigeon hunts. From hamsters to horses, animals have always been part of her life. To pass along a tip or contact Amy, click here. Reach Amy at aworden@phillynews.com.

Amy Worden Inquirer Staff Writer
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