Animal lover, Burlco SPCA go nose to nose

Kate Decker with her cat. The Moorestown woman disputes the Burlington County SPCA's charges that her animals are receiving improper care. The agency says she failed to keep water in all of the dog crates.
Kate Decker with her cat. The Moorestown woman disputes the Burlington County SPCA's charges that her animals are receiving improper care. The agency says she failed to keep water in all of the dog crates. (BARBARA BOYER / Staff)
Posted: November 30, 2013

MOORESTOWN Kate Decker worries about her pets as she fights allegations of animal neglect by Burlington County animal welfare workers who raided her home nearly a year ago.

The 68-year-old widow faces a municipal trial next month in Moorestown, where her two houses have become orphanages filled with 24 dogs, a cat, and at least two cages of small birds.

"What they are doing is trying to extort money from me," said Decker, who is fighting 66 charges filed against her last year by the Burlington County SPCA.

Half of the charges are criminal, half are civil. Authorities allege she failed to keep water in all of the crates, and stacked some crates two high without a barrier between the top and bottom crates.

If convicted, Decker faces a potential maximum of $66,000 in fines.

Decker is a retired New York public relations executive who also was a well-respected equestrian trainer.

Over the last 30 years, she has established herself as a dog trainer, turning homeless strays into obedient canines. Some of the rescues, she suspects, would have been euthanized in shelters.

Instead, she said, she trained them to be therapy dogs she takes to nursing homes or to work with the mentally impaired, such as autistic children.

"I've done dog and horse stuff my whole life," Decker said recently in the living room of her stately colonial house of 3,700 square feet on a property that is 115 feet-by-207 feet.

Charges against Decker do not include allegations of abuse or that animals were malnourished, dehydrated, or denied veterinary care.

"I just want to be left alone. I am a dog person," she said as she showed a reporter both houses and the garage where animals are sheltered.

Some of the dogs barked for attention and were excited as she passed their crates. She talked kindly to them as she tossed them treats. Nearly all the dogs had been let out of the crates for short periods in the houses and fenced yards during the three-hour interview.

The dogs appeared healthy. One older terrier, 18-year-old Peewee, is in the end stages of life. Although frail, Peewee did not appear to be suffering.

The dog crates are in the kitchen, dining room, living room, and garage of Decker's home, all heated. More crates with dogs are nearby in the house of Decker's deceased parents. In all, there were at least 24 dogs ranging in age, breed, and size. Many were pit bulls, not readily adopted from shelters because of their reputation as an aggressive breed.

Decker's regimen, which includes two helpers, starts before sunrise and continues past sunset, she said. The animals take turns in the yards and are exercised with walks or jog beside her bike in the heart of the affluent suburb.

Jane Petroski, who helps care for the animals, said until she got to know Decker, she was taken aback by the number of animals she owned. After watching Decker's interactions and seeing the good done with the therapy dogs, she became comfortable with the situation.

"The dogs are happy to be around her," Petroski said. "She does a lot of good."

Decker recalled taking a therapy animal to a nursing home and watching an Alzheimer's patient talk to the dog, then to her. On the way out, she said, health-care workers were amazed, saying they had never seen the woman speak.

Decker's standoff with the SPCA has shocked her friends, who say she is a loving caretaker unfairly attacked by an overzealous agency.

Cheryl Mosca, recently appointed deputy chief and treasurer of the county SPCA, said the raid was carried out lawfully after obtaining a warrant signed by a Superior Court judge.

Mosca, who oversaw the raid, said she was not aware of any township ordinances limiting the number of dogs residents can own.

The agency received an anonymous complaint about Decker, Mosca said. An officer went to Decker's house in October 2012. Decker said the officer forced her way in. Mosca said Decker allowed entry, although she was not completely cooperative in allowing the officer to see all the areas where the dogs are sheltered.

Decker said the officer looked around and asked to see veterinary records. She retrieved the records from another room, and the officer left after reviewing them, she said.

Several days later, Decker said, she noticed that a gold watch given to her by her parents when she was 16 was gone. She filed a theft complaint, alleging the animal welfare officer was the only one who had entered the house between the last time she saw the watch and when it disappeared.

Moorestown police investigated. No charges have been filed.

Decker alleges Mosca and a team of other officers retaliated with a search warrant in December.

"She's definitely in over her head and has more than she can handle," Mosca said of Decker.

In general, Mosca said, "as long as all six, or 22, of your animals are treated properly, you're not a hoarder."

During the raid, there was a strong animal odor, animal waste in the home, and the house was not clean, Mosca said.

Decker said Mosca and her crew exaggerated.

Wayne Becker, Decker's neighbor across the street in Moorestown, said he recalled the day of the raid. He saw several vehicles outside the house and checked whether Decker needed help.

Becker, retired from the Coast Guard, said one of the officers, who was armed, blocked him and ordered him to leave, which he did.

"This was like a military operation, but it did not have the discipline of the military," Becker said, noting that the dogs had not created any problems in the neighborhood. "She cares very deeply about her dogs."

During the raid, Decker alleges, she was not permitted to call anyone or to care for the animals for five hours. Officers threatened to take her dogs, euthanize them, and warned they would be back, she said.

The county SPCA has a checkered past. An investigation of the enforcement agencies statewide in 2000 found that many, including Burlington's, did not comply with state and federal regulations.

In Burlington County, the former treasurer was convicted of stealing. The agency lost its charter, which was reinstated several years ago, said Matt Stanton, a spokesman for the New Jersey SPCA.

Decker she said she had no plans to get rid of any of her dogs.

"These are like my children," she said. "Could you choose which of your children you would give up?"


bboyer@phillynews.com

856-779-3838 @BBBoyer

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