Protecting Pets

A recent case shows how courts cast a cautious eye on animal-hoarders

With a plea deal on Monday, Nov. 7, in the courtroom of City Magistrate T. Jay Cranshaw, Teresa Wuterich ended a cat-hoarding case that county investigators have ranked among the worst ever recorded.

A stack of criminal misdemeanors—for such things as unsanitary conditions, animal cruelty and a lack of ventilation—were abruptly winnowed down to eight charges of failing to provide proper shelter for the roughly 40 cats once living in Wuterich's eastside home.

She hardly got off scot-free, not with a deal that included lengthy probation and a $2,120 fine, or 210 hours of community service. But when it became clear that the plea agreement would also allow Wuterich to possess at least three cats, more than a few jaws dropped.

Particularly surprised were Barbara Crummit and Karen Wood, two animal-rescuers whom Wuterich called for help on Easter Sunday, as officials stood ready to condemn her home due to the filth from knee-deep animal feces.

The two were also more than a tad chagrined when the court noted how Wuterich's home had since been transformed into a citadel of cleanliness, particularly since they were the ones who'd spent weeks dragging out Wuterich's disgusting furniture, pulling up shit-stained carpet and shoveling mountains of dried excrement.

Adding to the insult, they run a nonprofit called Feline Ink that's still frantically raising funds to feed all of Wuterich's former cats and cover the enormous vet bills.

To think this long, exhausting cycle could repeat itself was simply wrenching. "We count on local folks and (the Pima Animal Care Center) to surface these serious hoarding situations," Crummit writes in an e-mail to the Tucson Weekly. "In this case, PACC invested many hours to pursue court action as the conditions of this home reflected the horrible living conditions for 40-some cats, the stench that neighbors had to endure for several years, and the lack of support services for one who has a hoarding disorder."

Crummit adds that saddling Wuterich with community service means she'll "have less time to care for the animals that she already owns, as well as those she will acquire based on the judge's permission to do so!"

Wuterich's deal certainly seems to undercut the intent of Jose Chavez, PACC's chief enforcement-operations manager. "Our goal is for her to not own any animals," Chavez said in an earlier interview.

The irony is that PACC's officers—already spread extremely thin—will now be obliged to monitor Wuterich for future signs of hoarding.

So why would prosecutors and the court agree to such an arrangement? According to Baird Greene, principal assistant city attorney, Wuterich was allowed to keep more cats for several reasons. "No. 1, the animal care officer ... indicated in his report that the animals showed no visible signs of illness," Greene says.

And the home was clean when officers revisited in September. "The animal-care officer noted immediately that there was a complete change in the inside of the house," he says. "There was the smell of cleaning chemicals ... rather than the smell of ammonia animal waste."

This is the first time Assistant City Prosecutor Stacy Stauffer has offered such a deal, Baird says, although he notes that hoarding cases have grown in frequency. "It's becoming more commonplace to see them in terms of prosecutions. ...We've had them for a long, long time, but I think they're getting more attention now."

Wuterich declined to answer questions for this story. But her attorney, Bill Walker, says the fine she received was hardly small potatoes, particularly for someone who cleans houses for a living. "I've known her for a long time," he says, "and I think she's a very nice person. She took in animals that nobody wanted, and she viewed it as saving lives."

Walker pauses. "I think what happened here is that she's an animal sympathizer," he says. "And I think things got out of hand."

Cranshaw imposed an unusually long three years of probation for Wuterich—and gave her the ability to have more cats. Either way, these sanctions were not imposed lightly, says Presiding City Magistrate Tony Riojas. "They are taken as seriously as anything else."

Still, while his magistrates receive special training in the underlying nuances of DUI and domestic-violence cases, they haven't undergone similar education for animal-hoarding. However, that's not because the audience is unwilling. Understanding the compulsion behind animal-hoarding "is hard to do," Riojas says. "But there just is no special training for animal cases."

Whether or not training would make a difference, it appears that Wuterich's case is hardly an anomaly. "That kind of settlement is very common," says Dr. Randall Lockwood, senior vice president of forensic sciences and anticruelty projects at the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in New York.

"Courts are usually very reluctant to remove property, and cats are considered property," Lockwood says. "Judges in particular don't like taking people's stuff away from them. Even within the psychological community, there is disagreement about whether, like in other addictions, you need to remove all animals, or whether there is some therapeutic value in allowing some animals to remain.

"Really, what we're looking for in the resolution of hoarding cases is relapse-prevention, not necessarily a cure," he said. In turn, allowing former hoarders to keep some animals "gives agencies the ability to continue to monitor the situation, and set some pretty precise limits on the future behavior of the person involved."

But those agencies shouldn't carry the whole burden. Instead, Lockwood says, hoarding is a community problem that requires a task-force approach, involving everyone from law-enforcement and mental-health professionals to adult protective services. "Clearly, many of the individuals involved in these cases are in need of monitoring. Usually, if there is a failure to provide adequate care for the animals, there are also issues about their ability to care for themselves."

Whether or not Teresa Wuterich seeks help, at least one person will be keeping tabs. That would be her next-door neighbor, Bob Steinmann, who endured years of a foul stench wafting from the Wuterich home. Steinmann came to court that day to watch the settling of her case.

"This lady, whatever she does that's wrong, I'm just going to keep an eye on her until things get squared away," he says. "She needs to live out in Marana or someplace where you can get away with that kind of stuff—not in a nice neighborhood."

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