Pittsburgh's humane officers are frustrated by repeat cases of animal neglect
July 5, 2012 4:00 AM
Jen Urksa of Arabian Rescue Mission spends time with one of more than 40 horses being relocated after being rescued last week from a farm in Cecil.
By Taryn Luna Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Forty-three horses, in conditions a veterinarian characterized as "appalling," and more than 60 cats were seized last month from a farm in Cecil, where two years earlier the owners were convicted of animal cruelty.
"Most of these guys lack muscle, they lack body fat, they lack everything," said Brian Burks, a veterinarian at the Fox Run Equine Center, as he looked over the herd of horses last week. "It's a very untenable situation."
Animal control officials are frustrated because, like many of the cases they deal with, the owners have been convicted of animal abuse before and there are no laws preventing them from owning animals again.
"I imagine it would be similar to police officers who arrest guys repeatedly who seem to get back on the streets no sooner than they are arrested," said Ron Smith, chief humane officer of the Humane Society of Western Pennsylvania, who encountered the owners when they lived in Allegheny County. "It is frustrating, especially when it deals with the lives of animals and people."
William and Elizabeth Townsend were found guilty of animal cruelty in January 2010. Humane officer Susanne Lewis wrote in a citation that more than 20 cats were living in "deplorable conditions" in an enclosure inside a barn at the couple's residence on McConnell Road in Cecil.
"Litter boxes were overflowing with urine and fecal matter, forcing the cats to urinate and defecate everywhere," Ms. Lewis wrote. "Every surface was encrusted with excrement. The stench was overwhelming. These cats were living in their own waste."
Ms. Lewis said the Townsends elected to work with the Washington Area Humane Society to find new homes for the animals, but the case likely fell through the cracks. The humane society said it has no record of involvement.
The Townsends were brought to the attention of humane police officers again last month after a code enforcement officer went to the farm and found 43 horses and more than 60 cats in poor conditions.
Ms. Lewis and her partner executed a search warrant at the property June 9 to check on the animals. She believes the five dozen felines they found there were some of the same animals from the 2010 case.
Some of the cats have respiratory illnesses. Others are suspected of carrying feline AIDS or leukemia.
The cats were seized shortly after the search warrant was executed, and the horses were officially seized last week.
Officials with Arabian Rescue Mission of Kentucky, which is leading the rescue, hope to find new homes for the animals as soon as possible.
"Other than the hay that Arabian Rescue brought in, there's been no hay. There's no adequate pasture. There's nothing for them to eat," Mr. Burks said.
Some of the quarter horses require surgery, which will cost hundreds of dollars. Mr. Burks, who took fecal tests and examined each horse for free, said most of the animals have been dewormed and almost all required care for their teeth and hooves.
"We need to have a law where you do this once, you get your animals taken away. You do this twice, and you can't have any more animals," Mr. Burks said.
Animals are considered property in Pennsylvania, and second animal cruelty offenses are upgraded to misdemeanors, which carry larger fines and possible jail time. Judges have the power to prevent a convicted animal abuser from owning animals for a specific amount of time, but they often use discretion.
Animal control officers have declined to say whether the Townsends will be charged with animal cruelty. The couple have been cooperative with the volunteers, authorities said.
"We're not trying to destroy her," Ms. Lewis said of Mrs. Townsend. "She does love these animals, but she should've taken the necessary steps and done the right thing to make sure they didn't reproduce to this extent."
Few of the cats had been spayed or neutered, and most of the stallions had not been gelded, which led to inbreeding and a rapid increase in the number of animals.
Brian Gorman, a lawyer representing the Townsends, said the couple have resisted assistance in the past, believing they could resolve the situation on their own. But as the number of cats and horses multiplied, their conditions began to deteriorate. He said his clients didn't have the money to spay or neuter their pets, and they provided as much food they could.
"It's been an ongoing hope on their part that they could take control of the situation, but their day-to-day handling of the animals overtook that," Mr. Gorman said. "This is a blessing in disguise that these folks have intervened."
For information about acquiring one of the horses or donating money toward the rescue: arabianrescuemission.org. To donate hay, water or round pen panels, contact Jen and Ray Urksa at firstname.lastname@example.org.