It was a gruesome scene, according to the incident report filed Dec. 27. Responding to a call of animal cruelty, officers with the Charleston County Sheriff's Office and North Charleston Police Department visited a home on Selah Street in North Charleston to find over 100 animals, many without food or water. More than 70 rabbits, 32 cats, and four dogs were discovered on the property, some caged, some running free. The deputy noted that several cats were found in one room swarmed with flies, and one of the rabbits had what appeared to be a broken or non-functioning rear leg. The homeowner told police she had been taking the animals in for a couple of years. As a deputy entered her home, she said, "It's bad in there," according to the report.
Fresh blood was found smeared across the floor leading into the kitchen. More cages of rabbits were found in the living room, and the stench of urine and feces made it nearly impossible to breathe without a respirator, the deputy noted. Near the bedrooms, the officer came across a black-and-white cat unable to stand, taking shallow, labored breaths.
"I could not continue my status check of the animals inside the residence," the deputy wrote in the incident report, citing the smell.
The animals were quickly turned over to the Charleston Animal Society to receive medical treatment, but due to the overwhelming number of rabbits and cats and the poor condition in which the animals were found, the shelter was forced to temporarily suspend accepting any new animals — posing an even greater problem around New Year's Eve when fireworks tend to increase the rates of runaway animals needing a temporary home at the shelter.
"It's very challenging to get that many animals at one time, particularly when most of them are in poor health or something is wrong with them," says Joe Elmore, chief executive officer of the Charleston Animal Society. "For example, most of the animals are eaten up with mites, lice. Then there are upper-respiratory infections, which is like a cold in humans. What we've got to do is work this large number in at the same time we are taking care of the other animals. These animals will eventually make great pets to adopt, but we have to get them well first."
On Fri., Jan. 1, most of the 72 rabbits were transported to the Halifax Humane Society in Daytona Beach, Fla. where rescue families were waiting.
Oftentimes in hoarding cases, shelters can face tens of thousands of dollars in medical and housing expenses caring for rescued animals, while the owner of the animals awaits trial. These expenses can be devastating to shelters tasked with caring for such large numbers of animals during criminal cases. Last year, state Sen. Luke Rankin and Sen. Greg Hembree introduced a bill that would require those charged with animal cruelty to make regular payments to the shelters treating animals seized from the owner. The bill, currently referred to the Committee on Agriculture and Natural Resources, would allow for courts to set the amount the defendant is expected to pay for the cost of food, water, shelter, and care, including medical care, for at least 30 days. While the animals in this case were surrendered willingly by their owner, the bill would offer a much-needed safety net for shelters dealing with large cruelty cases.
"One of the biggest issues, I think, is in cases where the animals aren't signed over, where the owner doesn't willingly sign over custody of the animals, the animals have to be held during a court case, which can be months, if not years. It can cost tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of dollars to care for animals during that long period of time," says Kim Kelly, South Carolina state director of the Humane Society of the United States. "The current law in South Carolina is that you can have a lien for those animals, so if the person is found guilty, you can try to get that money back from the owner, but in reality, they oftentimes don't have that kind of money to pay for the cost of care for those animals over that amount of time. What ends up happening is either the municipality, meaning taxpayers, or the nonprofit animal shelter ends up footing the bill for the care of all those animals."
According to Kelly, large-scale cruelty cases can also pose a crippling financial burden for law enforcement agencies who face a difficult decision when it comes to pursuing criminal charges.
"In some cases, law enforcement simply won't take the case. They're so overwhelmed by how big the case is, and they know they can't afford it, so they will simply not take on a cruelty case," she says. "Hopefully, that doesn't happen near as much as law enforcement does respond, but I know of at least handful of cases where law enforcement says, 'We can't afford to take this on, so we aren't going to.'"
As for this most recent incident of animal cruelty in North Charleston, Elmore recommends that the court pursue charges, prohibiting the owner from ever acquiring more animals and requiring that she receive the mental health treatment necessary to ensure this doesn't happen again.
As with many hoarding cases, this isn't the first time police have responded to the owner's home in North Charleston regarding the welfare of animals. An incident report from 2012 says that the owner had recently relinquished more than 80 cats "due to her decision to get out of the 'cat rescue' business." At that time, the deputy reported that the woman owned 10 rabbits, nine dogs, and more than 13 cats, but the animals all appeared to be well fed. According to the incident report from 2012, the woman told police that she did not intend to house any more animals, hoping to keep them to a more manageable number.
"For animal hoarding especially, sometimes called rescue hoarders, the rates of recidivism are high. Hoarding is a psychological condition and the people who hoard animals, they really feel like the care that they can provide is in the best interest of the animals," says Kelly. "They don't even realize how out of control it's gotten, and so the sad thing is it's actually coming from a good place most of the time. It's devastating to them when the animals are removed, and they want to continue this process, so they start up again right away usually. Unless there is some sort of intervention, something put in place that prevents them from getting more animals, they're going to do so."