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North Hills Monthly

Mass Influx of Animals Requires All Hands on Deck at Local Shelters

Nov 29, 2019 11:50AM ● By Vanessa Orr

Cats taken from the Washington County neglect situation. Photo courtesy Humane Animal Rescue

Last year, more than 2,600 stray, abandoned or surrendered animals arrived at Animal Friends, and 8,000 arrived at Humane Animal Rescue needing a safe, secure place to stay, medical care, nourishment, training, love, patience, and a whole lot more. And while their staffs are always ready to step in and help any animal who needs it, what happens when more than 100 arrive in one afternoon?

This is often the case in hoarding situations, when a person becomes overwhelmed by the animals in their home, resulting in the need for shelters to step in and remove dozens, or even hundreds of animals, for their safety as well as the health of the community. It can also take place in large-scale neglect situations, where authorities have to step in to remove numerous animals from unsafe conditions.

Two recent cases in Pennsylvania required all hands on deck at local shelters. Animal Friends found themselves dealing with 117 dogs from a home in Ross Township; Humane Animal Rescue stepped in to help in a Washington County neglect situation, assisting with more than 200 cats and other animals needing emergency care and shelter. 

“We hear about these cases in a number of different ways,” explained Cody Hoellerman, communications coordinator at Animal Friends. “In hoarding cases, a person may be taking in strays because they really want to help animals, but then realize that they are in over their heads.

“It’s surprising how quickly things can snowball when you have a pregnant female cat that has a litter of kittens and the homeowner has no resources for spaying or neutering,” he explained. “When an owner wants to voluntarily surrender these animals, we step in and help.”

Other times, Animal Friends’ humane officers get involved 

after being contacted by a concerned citizen or neighbor. 

“Just like any law enforcement action, we need cooperation from the person filing the complaint that can give us a firsthand eyewitness account and a written statement,” said Hoellerman. “Once we have that, we can investigate the situation.”

This was the case with a recent Ross Township rescue, the largest rescue in Animal Friends’ history. While it was originally thought that there were approximately 35 dogs in the house, the number kept growing, requiring the help of Animal Friends’ staff and volunteers, as well as Ross Township police and first responders, Fire & Rescue, PAART (Pittsburgh Aviation Animal Rescue Team), the Salvation Army and more.

“There were dogs everywhere; upstairs, downstairs, even in the furniture and walls,” said Hoellerman of the rescue that ended with the last dog kenneled at 2 a.m. “A few were in pretty severe medical condition, including the first dog we recovered, who had severe bite wounds to the head and neck.”

Humane Animal Rescue also works with a number of other organizations in criminal cases, as well as offers resources for those who have gotten into bad situations.

“We often hear from friends or neighbors of people who know that they are in way over their heads, but who aren’t sure who or where to ask for help,” said Zac Seymour, manager of digital communications at Humane Animal Rescue. “Our humane officers and their team will reach out to see if they’re having trouble, and offer resources, such as our pet retention services and low-cost clinics, to help them keep their animals.

“If they choose not to seek help, or if it’s a case of neglect, we may need to take more severe actions,” he continued, adding that HAR may seek legal approval to seize the animals. “It’s not a one-size-fits-all approach.”

In smaller cases, Humane Animal Rescue’s staff and local law enforcement may be involved; in this most recent rescue, the shelter worked with the Humane Society of the United States as well as the Washington County Humane Society to pull the cats from the home.  

“Even when other shelters find themselves involved in these types of rescues, we try to reach out to help, providing space for some of the animals,” said Seymour, adding that Humane Animal Rescue works with upwards of 100 other shelters across the east coast.

Helping Them Heal

There is no telling what animals living in these conditions will be like, so the first thing that both shelters do is provide medical care to make sure that the animals’ health needs are met. If the animals are owner-surrenders, they can also be spayed or neutered, and they undergo a medical evaluation to determine if they are suitable for adoption.

“If we have to seize the animals because the person refused to help them or surrender them, we can still provide basic care, but we are limited in what services and procedures we can offer,” said Seymour. “They have become evidence in a case, which in some instances means that we don’t have legal ownership of them until the case is decided.” 

If criminal charges are going to be filed, humane agents document every step of the process in order to build a case. “The last thing we want after a rescue of this size is to have the person responsible not brought to justice,” said Hoellerman. 

In the Ross Township case, for example, as each dog was examined, its injuries and medical condition was documented, as was the fact that most were ridden with fleas and severely underweight. “We keep track of everything so that we can file charges and prosecute to the fullest extent of the law,” added Hoellerman.

It is not inexpensive to care for these animals either; even with no medical issues, the average cost to care for an animal at a shelter is $15 a day. Add in medical costs, and it can be thousands for just one dog.

“You can imagine if you bring in 100 animals at a time what a huge cost that is,” said Seymour. “With vet checks and vaccines alone, it can cost more than $100 per animal initially; if they need extra care, that number can jump into the thousands. But even though it’s an incredible strain financially, we won’t give up on these animals.”

One of the bright spots in these difficult situations is that once the community hears about what’s happened, hundreds of people often step in to help.

“We were fortunate that even though this situation unfolded out of nowhere, media coverage was incredible, so in the first week we received more than 700 adoption applications,” said Hoellerman of the response to the Australian Shepherd/Border Collie mixes that were rescued. “Once they were made available, we were able to adopt out five in one day!”

While some of the dogs were fearful from a lack of human interaction and needed further assistance, in the two months following the rescue, Animal Friends was able to place 100 of the 117 dogs in loving homes or with trusted breed rescues. 

“They had a lot to learn first; they’d never been out of the house, or worn a collar or leash, and they needed a lot of help with housetraining,” Hoellerman said. “But watching the transformation has been incredible. Now they’re being treated like cherished pets when before they didn’t know what it was like to receive love. It’s why we do what we do.”

How You Can Help

While shelters receive a lot of attention as a result of these cases, they need community support year-round. Both Animal Friends and Humane Animal Rescue—as well as your smaller local shelters—can use financial help, as well as donations of treats, blankets, certain foods and more. Many shelters have wish lists online: check out Humane Animal Rescue’s list at 

www.humaneanimalrescue.org/about/wish-list and Animal Friends’ wishlist at www.ThinkingOutsideTheCage.org/WishList

Shelters can also always use volunteers, as well as foster families who are willing to take animals into their homes to give them the space and time they need before finding a forever family. Visit https://www.humaneanimalrescue.org or https://www.thinkingoutsidethecage.org.