Webinar presenter Michelle Welch answered a number of your questions after her presentation, Drowning in Dogs, Cats, Horses… Here are just a few of her responses.
Audience Question: The worst hoarding case I experienced was in New York City where the humane law enforcement organizations hands were tied because the owner was spaying and neutering the animals and yet the animals were dying. Is there an approach you could’ve recommended to help remove or reduce the number of animals this hoarder have?
Michelle Welch: Without knowing all the facts, there might have been facts that I don’t know, what I would say is I don’t know why spaying and neutering would have prevented them from charging cruelty if the animals were dying. I guess the question is why they were dying and whether they could get a necropsy. For those of you who don’t know, a necropsy is an autopsy for the animals. If you have a necropsy then the results would be able to say what they were dying from. If you want to call me, I’m happy to kind of talk through the facts of that and we can talk further. I think just having them spayed or neutered shouldn’t have been the endgame. Obviously, I don’t know all of New York’s laws and the other thing I will say about hoarding cases is that they are difficult. If you are going to bring them in, you got to remember that judges are sympathetic to them because a lot of times they are just little old ladies. They’ve looked pretty harmless, right? I had a hoarder once she actually went to jail, not because of me but because she wouldn’t come to court. Finally, the judge held her in contempt. They can be quite difficult to manage and difficult to get a hold of and to control their hoarding mentalities and behavior.
Audience Question: Is it legal to impose checking on a hoarder without charging them in receiving a verdict?
Michelle Welch: Two things. There are two ways to do it. You can do it as part of a plea agreement where if you charge them and they have been convicted. That’s why a lot of times why I say you have to charge them in the end so you can get that plea agreement or the court to order this checking back over and over again. What I’m saying if you are not going to charge them, you are going to get their agreement, they’re going to let you come back over and check. What is the obvious disadvantage to that? They can always rescind that permission. At that point, you would have to make your case and bring it to court. The agreement is always legal but you would have to get their agreement to inspect their premises without a warrant.
Audience Question: What do you use to get an ammonia reading? We’re able to capture reading at 20,000 parts per billion but would like something more sensitive that would read us as low as 140 parts per billion.
Michelle Welch: A couple of things we have done, we’ve had the firefighters come in and do the ammonia reading. I think we also had the HazMat people come in. As far as it going lower than that, I think you would have to consult with an animal control officer or with a firefighter to see if there is anything more sensitive than that.
Audience Question: How do you determine between a hoarding case and a backyard puppy mill?
Michelle Welch: What’s the difference? I think for some situations as I said, there isn’t really any. I think the issue for you is what’s their motivation? Are they doing it because they are trying to save the animals like in a really classic hoarding situation, right? Or are they doing it to profit? Sometimes it really doesn’t matter what the motivation is. It’s about the conditions themselves. Whether you call it a puppy mill or a hoarder, I will tell you that the horsewoman I was talking about earlier, I never called her a hoarder in trial. I called her a horse trader because that’s what she was. In the end, she was a frequent flyer and had gotten away with it for so many times that in the end she just needed a penalty. She was never going to stop. At the end of the day, I don’t really know that it matters. You’re still going to handle it the same way where you investigate it thoroughly. You’re still going to handle the same way prosecuting it. I will say and this is a tag of two of my good friends, one in LA, one in New York, both have prosecuted some really horrible hoarding cases. They know who they are. In the end, you just have to prosecute them because they are not going to stop. Sometimes, they are so relentless and so unapologetic for the suffering that they have caused that you can see that there is nothing to be done but to prosecute. That doesn’t mean that they are not sympathetic. Some of the hoarders I’ve prosecuted are extremely sympathetic. I feel very bad for them. They’ve had a death in their family, they lost a child, they have gone through a divorce. They had some kind of tragedy that has sent them into this compulsive behavior that they are doing. In the end, the animals shouldn’t have to suffer because you have to have dominion over them. In the end, I don’t know that it matters.
Audience Question: Does your statute provide for a lifetime ban? If so, have you found issues with the enforceability and constitutionality?
Michelle Welch: If I can charge felony cruelty, it is a lifetime ban. I’ll tell some exciting news for us in Virginia is we just got a felony ‘out of the box’ for cruelty to a dog or cat, only to dogs or cats. That is going to be a felony basically for intentional cruelty or willfully inflicting inhumane injury which hoarding would qualify for that. If it’s a felony, we have a lifetime ban. As far as constitutionality we’ve never had it actually challenged. I think it would pass muster because it is about getting your behavior under control as someone who has been cruel to animals.
Audience Question: When you seize animals in a hoarding case, do you take animals that seem to be healthy?
Michelle Welch: Yes, you will. Sometimes they are healthy, they are just living in really horrible conditions, for instance, the last slide with the puppies, the puppies look pretty good there. We’ve had cats that were probably pretty healthy but the conditions that they are in are nasty. You bring them out, you clean them up, the feces, the urine off of them and they start responding. You’re going to have healthy and unhealthy ones. You need to really harp on what the conditions were. In a true hoarding situation, you’re not going to leave any of the animals behind, you should seize them all. I did tell you that the cat case where she had a lot outside but the ones inside were in pretty good condition. We left the cats which were inside for her. We took the ones outside. But she had to be monitored to make sure she doesn’t start collecting again. Not one size fits all. I guess if you take anything away from my talk, it’s really you have to deal with them individually and what you think will be garner compliance for you.
Audience Question: Do you have suggestions on strategies to overcome that common defense from a hoarder that they just love the felines and are just trying to rescue them from the streets.
Michelle Welch: The way I would deal with it especially in a jury trial, first of all in a jury trial I would voir dire which means you question the jury heavily about how they feel about animals. Is it okay if someone loves an animal for them to keep them in bad conditions? In the opening, I would dispel the sympathy for the hoarder right away. That’s true whether it’s a bench or a jury. Say to the judge, she obviously loves animals, judge. But the way she’s loving these animals are killing them or the way she’s loving these animals is making them suffer. I would tell you if you are a prosecutor out there, you really need to weave the link into your argument in some way. I have started doing it. I feel like it’s very effective. I say, “You know judge we wouldn’t let a child live in this situation.” If you already have a child living in a hoarding situation with the puppies, that’s even better. You can show that no one should be living in the middle of it. You also make the judge understand you are not picking a corner. This is not about the prosecutor or the animal control officer picking on anybody. This is about helping the animals to not be in a situation where they are suffering.