Animals 'jailed' for owners' legal woes

Posted: July 31, 2008

THE DOGS SIT in rows of chain-link fence and concrete wall blocks, one to a kennel. Many lunge at passers-by or offer toothy scowls and menacing growls.

Others cower in corners. Most are pit bulls and wear yellow collars identifying them as a security risk.

Across the room, dozens of cats sleep or lie languidly in stacked metal cages, ignoring the half-dozen mutilated, militant roosters confined nearby.

The room resounds with ear-splitting cocks' crows and dogs' blustery barking.

The stench of waste is nauseating.

Welcome to Pet Prison.

Far from the cuddly cuteness in the adoption kennels, more than 900 animals are essentially jailed at the Pennsylvania SPCA's six shelters, held hostage there by ongoing court cases against their owners.

First victims of merciless masters who use them to fight for profit, abuse them in puppy mills or hoard them in filth, the animals then become victims of a legal system that considers animals property.

"Until the court orders that 'property' to be our property, we can't find new, loving homes for them - we can't even spay or neuter them, so that causes behavioral issues," PSPCA CEO Howard Nelson said, adding that even dogs deemed irrevocably dangerous can't be euthanized until the court or the owner signs over custody.

"Some of these court cases can go on six months to a year, and then there's the appeal process as well," Nelson said. "So these animals are living in shelters that frankly aren't set up for long-term stays."

With animal cruelty at epidemic levels - a cruelty hot line launched in January has fielded more than 4,700 calls, quadruple what the agency had projected - the PSPCA is feeling the strain.

Nearly half of the 2,044 animals in PSPCA care - including 560 in its North Philadelphia shelter on Erie Avenue near Whitaker - are being held in "protective-custody" from cruelty cases, Nelson said.

"It's a huge burden," Nelson said. "Soaring costs along with space constraints [resulting from increasing animal seizures] make it impossible to crack down on all the large-scale operations."

Even when the court finds an animal abuser guilty, the restitution ordered is typically a fraction of what the PSPCA spent to house and rehabilitate the so-called "protective-custody" animals, Nelson said. "We get cents on the dollar back," he added.

Nelson estimates that his agency will spend more than $1.6 million to investigate cases of cruelty and to care for the animals in protective custody this year.

Security has been one surprise expense.

"The dogfighting dogs have a lot of street value, so we have had problems with people trying to break in to get their dogs back," Nelson said. "We have doubled our expenditures on security - every nook and cranny of our facility is under video surveillance, and that has been expensive."

Some animal advocates are fighting back to recoup costs.

The Montgomery County SPCA is seeking to recover $120,000 it says it spent to care for more than 40 dogs and cats seized from a New Hanover Township home two years ago, said Edward Davies, the agency's operations manager. Although Mary Lou Petrucci was found guilty twice of hoarding her cats in filth, she appealed her conviction, leaving her felines in Pet Prison longer.

But even if restitution is ordered, Davies isn't confident his agency will ever see the money. A judge ordered convicted hoarder Janet Jones to pay the Montgomery County SPCA $45,000 of the $220,000 it says it spent to care for more than 100 animals that workers removed from her Hatfield home in 2002, Davies said.

But Jones never paid the money and now has left the state, Davies added.

Beyond cost, long-term confinement takes a huge toll on the animals, advocates say.

The animals can become institutionalized, regressing into compulsive behaviors such as spinning in their cages or barking wildly at the sight of a mop, said Nicole Larocco, director of animal behavior and training.

To combat that, the nonprofit agency enlists the aid of volunteer dog-walkers to ensure that dogs get some fresh air and exercise daily.

Still, at the PSPCA's North Philadelphia shelter those walks typically take place around the parking lot or along the sidewalks of trash-strewn, busy Erie Avenue.

PSPCA staffers are working on two projects that they hope will transform Pet Prison into Pet Paradise.

Fundraising is under way to build a $250,000 dog park on an industrial lot next-door to the shelter, said Rachel McCrystal, PSPCA development director.

That park, which will have a training area and five dog yards for untethered play encircled by a quarter-mile walking path, should be open by next summer, McCrystal said.

A dog sanctuary also is planned.

The PSPCA received a $2.1 million bequest several years ago from a Potter County woman who specified that her gift be used to build a shelter there.

The sparsely populated county can't support the adoption needs of a traditional shelter, so PSPCA leaders decided to spend the money on a sanctuary for protective-custody dogs.

PSPCA workers now are hunting for a suitable property in Potter County to build kennels with indoor and outdoor access.

Behaviorists and other staff would live on premises, and dogs would have other "amenities" like a pond in which to frolic, McCrystal said.

The property would also have space for large animals seized, such as the bull, ocelot and goats that were all confiscated in an April raid in West Kensington.

In the meantime, staffers keep boredom at bay by training dogs in enrichment programs in which canines learn basic commands like "sit" and "stay" to make them more adoptable by the time their owners' court cases end, Larocco said.

About 80 percent of the protective-custody dogs are eventually adopted, Nelson said.

The agency also runs a pet foster-care program; about 90 cats and dogs and two birds are in foster care in Philadelphia, program director Ray Little said.

Besides providing love, training and socialization, the foster program helps protect younger animals that might be more susceptible to germs in the shelter because they aren't fully immunized, Little said.

Nelson also is hopeful that cruelty cases will move faster through the court system now that Philadelphia District Attorney Lynne Abraham this month appointed a prosecutor to handle them.

"Obviously we welcome this, because we want more convictions and tougher sentences," Nelson said.

"But it will also help us move these cases through the system faster - if we even save a month, that's a month sooner that these animals can go into a new home, and a month's worth of cost savings to us." *

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