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Animal Misbehavior

In animal abuse cases, public agencies and the public often must choose between the welfare of the elderly and their pets.

By Kelly Luker

ACCORDING TO KAT BROWN, director of operations for the Santa Cruz SPCA, the organization keeps tabs on "a couple of dozen" animal collectors within our county. "They're clever about staying out of harm's way," she notes. Elizabeth is one example.

A Capitola resident, she is nearing 80 and her history of animal cruelty and neglect in three different counties has become almost legendary. She first came to the attention of animal welfare groups in 1981, when more than 200 sick and diseased dogs were rescued from kennels the woman owned in Mountain View. Thirty-four had to be killed.

The following year, another 50 starving cats and dogs were found at her Capitola property and Elizabeth was cited for what officials called the second worst case of animal cruelty in Santa Cruz County history.

In 1986, her kennels in San Juan Bautista were raided. Although more than 200 diseased and starving dogs were found crowded into filthy kennels she owned outside of that small town, and in spite of her previous history with animal abuse, San Benito County's SPCA argued for an out-of-court settlement. Enraged, three members of that organization--including its former president--resigned in protest.

That experience demonstrates how complex--and divisive--the issue of animal welfare can be. Often, as in Elizabeth's case, public agencies and the public must choose between two equally vulnerable groups: the elderly and their pets.

Elizabeth talks today from her home near the cliffs of Capitola, where numerous cats scurry across the landscaped grounds. She begs that I not use her last name, since she has been out of "harm's way" for almost a decade. As we stroll the property, the acrid smell of cat urine hangs in the air. She admits to only a dozen cats, but there are clearly more present.

"I can't keep others from coming around," she explains. She has always loved animals, she says, and has made it her job to rescue the strays and the unwanted. She also admits that she has always been considered "different."

At first, Elizabeth denies there were ever any problems. Reminded that newspaper articles documented them, she then says the problems were in finding "good help." And, besides, she reminds me again, there are no problems now.

That may be in the eye of the beholder.

Rich Brown works for San Benito County Code Enforcement. It is his job to inspect Elizabeth's kennels in San Juan Bautista on a regular basis. He describes a typical inspection: "I put on my junkiest jacket and light a cigar before I go in, to mask the smell."

Elizabeth has appointed herself savior to these many stray dogs, giving them safety from ending up as roadkill. The dogs live out their lives in regulation-size cages, never getting out to exercise or to socialize with either dogs or people. They have become what's known as "kennel-crazy." If Brown were one of Elizabeth's dogs, he admits, "I'd rather be hit by a truck."

In his work, Brown has run across dozens of cases like Elizabeth. However, unlike the wealthy Capitola resident, most live within extremely limited means. "That's when you run into real problems," he notes. The county worker echoes the characteristics others animal welfare groups have observed in animal collectors.

"They strive for control. It's, 'All those animals depend on me,'" Brown says. "They believe that no one loves dogs like them." Like every other professional interviewed for this article, Brown says he has never, ever had an animal collector admit there is a problem. "What's amazing is they're not even embarrassed--there's no feeling of guilt," he says. "They truly don't see anything wrong."

Capitola Animal Control Officer Bruce Ink's inspects Elizabeth's Capitola property periodically. He, too, is unaware of any current problems. Both Ink and Brown express their fondness for Elizabeth, and both are clearly hesitant to upset her. Perhaps that is for the same reason that I will not use her last name.

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From the Dec. 26, 1996 to Jan. 1, 1997 issue of Metro Santa Cruz

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