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The Collector

Robert Scheer

No Kidding Around: Fran Simmons, holding a month-old goat, faces criminal charges from the San Mateo County District Attorney's office for having more than 300 goats crowded onto her Pescadero property. An award-winning breeder, she insists she has been misunderstood.

Kindly eccentrics who feed hundreds of 'pets' may be suffering from a recently identified mental disorder which causes them, literally, to love their animals to death and later deny it.

By Kelly Luker

EACH DAY, Lynn and Jeff Killitz passed a herd of penned goats that faced the road as the couple headed up the coast north of Santa Cruz. The smell was bad and getting worse, but what concerned the Killitzes was how many animals appeared crowded into such a small area, and as Lynn put it, "they kept getting more and more per square foot." In mid-March, Jeff finally called San Mateo County's Peninsula Humane Society, which went out to investigate. According to their report, more than 300 goats were crowded into about an acre-sized swamp of mud, urine and feces. Some animals had been mudcaked so long that they had difficulty walking, and hair fell off with the mud in large chunks, leaving raw flesh. Most pens were without water, and what water there was had become a breeding ground for mosquitoes. Untrimmed hooves curled up and around as much as five inches, nearly crippling the animals. Incorrectly removed horns, called scurs, had regrown, and in one case had doubled over, puncturing the skull. Most had upper respiratory infections, the result of overcrowding.

When animal-control officers returned to the home of Maryella Woodman, Frances Simmons and David Williams the following day, they seized more than 200 goats and eventually charged the three with 40 counts of animal cruelty and neglect. More than mere hobbyists, the trio was known nationally on the dairy show circuit, and had some goats that were worth thousands of dollars each for their bloodlines.

Although this situation unfolded locally, it is joined by hundreds of similar cases throughout the nation involving dogs, cats, rabbits and every other imaginable animal. Williams, Woodman and Simmons fit what prosecuting District Attorney Irene Holmes calls "the classic collector profile," people who literally love animals to death. For these people, one pet is too many, and a thousand is not enough as they obsessively collect more animals than they can possibly care for. They're depressingly familiar to virtually every animal control agency, and have inspired articles, psychological studies and, of course, horror stories within the animal-welfare world. They can tell you about the woman who kept 50 dogs in an 8-foot by 10-foot trailer, about the the man whose house was filled with hundreds of sick and dying dogs, including dozens of carcasses stacked neatly in the closet, and about places so overrun with animals and waste that officers needed gas masks to enter. They will also tell you that virtually every run-in with animal collectors creates a storm of controversy, just as the Pescadero situation has. It invariably pushes one of society's most volatile hot buttons--animals and our relationship with them.

RECENTLY, AN ordinance was passed in Santa Clara County to address the problems created by those who feed stray cats. Anyone who feeds a cat--or cats--more than five consecutive days will be considered an owner, and required to license and spay or neuter the animal. Although it only affects the 10 percent of the population living in the unincorporated areas and will be difficult to enforce, the executive director of the Humane Society of the Santa Clara Valley, Chris Arnold, calls it a "bold statement." Arnold does not see this ordinance directed at animal collectors, but thinks it may alert the public to problems created by a personality profile known as the "cat lady." Usually older, reclusive and female, she is familiar to every community as the kindly soul who sacrifices her pension to feed hundreds of stray and feral cats. As far as animal-welfare groups are concerned, there is nothing kindly about it. In fact, it can be a sentence of slow and painful death to feed animals without providing medical care, vaccinations, spaying and neutering.

In general, collectors tend to confuse preservation of life with reverence for life, according to those who have studied them. Kat Brown, director of operations at the Santa Cruz County SPCA, has found that "sometimes people think that saving these animals, at any cost, is better than having them dead." She is joined in that observation by Pamela Frasch, an attorney with the anti-cruelty division of the Animal Legal Defense Fund, an animal welfare organization based in Portland, Ore. She has prosecuted about a half dozen animal collector cases and recalls one collector who, when her dogs were seized, fought to keep them from being treated with medication for heartworm. Demanding holistic treatment, the woman kept the case tied up in court as each of the dogs died a painful death from that illness. "The standard line," says Frasch, "is, 'I love these animals and no one can love them as I can.' "

Robert Scheer

Pet Peeved: Attorney Irene Holmes, who specializes in animal-cruelty cases for the San Mateo County District Attorney's office, says so-called animal collectors are "hard to reason with and they fight hard."

ELIZABETH TALKS today from her home near the cliffs of Capitola, where numerous cats scurry across the landscaped grounds. She requests that her last name not be used, 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."

Now almost 80, Elizabeth first came to the attention of Santa Clara County officials in 1981, when more than 200 sick and diseased dogs were rescued from kennels that Elizabeth owned in Mountain View. Thirty-four had to be destroyed. 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 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 San Juan Bautista, 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.

At first, Elizabeth denies there were ever any problems. Reminded that newspaper articles documented them, she then says the real problem was in finding "good help." And, besides, she reminds me again, there are no problems now. That may be in the eye of beholder. Rich Brown works for the 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 road kill. 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 a dog, he says, "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 other 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 animals 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 of animal collectors. "They truly don't see anything wrong."

Capitola animal control officer Bruce Ink 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. They echo one of the controversies surrounding many collector situations, where a sympathetic public is asked to take sides between two equally vulnerable groups, the elderly and pets.

Yet another controversy erupts when a public agency must enforce laws that are often widely open to interpretation. What is messy, what is quirky and what is criminal? The Pescadero goat owners and their supporters are convinced that no one at Peninsula Humane Society was qualified to make that decision about livestock. They want to know why no opportunities were given to rectify the problems. Instead, they say, the PHS seized more than 200 goats and were unprepared to care for them. That decision, they believe, has resulted in stress, inadequate care and death to their animals.

WILLIAMS, JOINED by Simmons, ushers me into their farmhouse in Pescadero, just a few hundred yards past the cemetery where young pilot Jessica Dubroff is buried. We maneuver past a cat litter box filled to overflowing and through a cluttered and unkempt house to the living room. A half-dozen newborn goat kids bleat from their home in a couple of boxes near the kitchen. A few large pots of milk sit on a filthy stove, awaiting pasteurization. Cats and kittens wander throughout the house, and the ammonia from the scent of cat urine is so strong it burns the lungs. In a stunning understatement, Simmons casually admits, "I wouldn't win housekeeper of the year award." In her 50s, with striking green eyes that often fill with tears, Simmons does most of the talking today. Asked about her proclivity for so many animals, she responds, "You're not gonna start with that 'collector' bullshit, are you?" And, in many ways, this trio falls far from the stereotype. Simmons is an attorney who works in computer business sales and her friend Woodman is a registered nurse at a nearby hospital. Williams, who has been staying with the two for the past couple of years, works at a flower shop in San Francisco. Simmons knows they are trying to pin the collector label on her and she ticks off a list of reasons why that doesn't fit. Breeders need this many animals to develop championship strains. If people think this is overcrowding, "they should check out the average dairy," she says. As far as Simmons is concerned, the only problem is the SPCA, which, Simmons asserts, "thinks that no one should breed animals. There's a concerted effort to put animal breeders out of business."

"Why didn't they give me notice first?" she asks. Because of that, she is convinced, the goats are worse off now in the humane society's care and offers pictures taken by her veterinarian as proof. One photo shows a brutally inflamed udder that is long overdue for milking. Another portrays a dead kid lying unnoticed in the pasture. "They are systematically trying to kill my goats," she says, and begins to cry again.

Robert Scheer

Loved to Death: Kat Brown from the Santa Cruz SPCA, pictured with a pair of rescued donkeys, says the standard rationale of animal collectors is, "I love these animals and no one can love them as I can."

IRENE HOLMES sits across the conference table in the Redwood City district attorney's office. The prosecuting DA for this case, she holds photographs taken at the time of seizure that she begins dealing out like a stack of cards, each one documenting the state's case against Williams, Woodman and Simmons more indelibly. Because of her expertise in animal-cruelty cases, Holmes has often been called by other counties for advice on prosecution. What never changes with animal collectors, she explains, is their death grip on denial. Holmes gives an example of a woman who was shown a picture of one of her dogs that was seized. The photo showed a Weimaraner so starved that it was literally shedding its intestines and rectum. It died within hours after the photo was taken. Holmes remembers that the woman looked at the picture and finally commented, "I guess it did seem a little ill."

Holmes also passes on a stack of information about animal collectors amassed from various animal welfare agencies throughout the country. A fact sheet on top, distributed by the New York Humane Society, lists several traits common to "animal addicts"--persecution complex, neglect of personal, physical and environmental conditions, presence of enablers (people who help continue the addiction), alibis for behavior and a shrewd ability to attract sympathy. This being the age of psychology, the professionals have also tried on various pathology templates for these folks, trying to find a one-size-fits-all. Some argue for the addiction model, likening it to chemical dependency. Others believe animal collecting to be more typical of obsessive/compulsive disorders. They all agree on one thing--collectors rarely, if ever, recover.

"Collectors are hard to reason with and they fight hard," Holmes notes. She laughs at the contention that the Humane Society went public with this case in the interest of garnering public sympathy and collecting donations. "It's cost $80,000 so far. We've well surpassed the value of the goats at this point," she says, adding that donations couldn't hope to cover but a small fraction of that. Given the hit their budget has taken, ostensibly lessening the resources for other animals in need, why didn't PHS give the goat breeders a second chance? "The Penal Code says they have to take any animal that needs immediate attention," explains Holmes, adding that the extreme overcrowding, lack of water and the presence of upper respiratory infection made seizure inevitable and immediate.

MICHAEL FRAZIER would question that. Frazier, the former director of animal services for the Humane Society of Santa Clara Valley, worked with that organization for almost seven years, until this February. He is not familiar with the Pescadero case, but has investigated numerous animal cruelty and animal collector cases over the years. If the livestock owners and their supporters are angry about the seizure, he figures they probably have a right to be. In his opinion, most animal shelters are now in the hands of "humaniacs," as he calls them, "sweet young women who want to rescue animals." A Charles Bronson look-alike with a powerful build, Frazier also looks like a cop, which he was for 10 years on the San Jose force before his stint with animal control. What angers him the most about many who work for animal-control agencies, he explains, is "they abuse the law, because they get emotionally involved. Laws are written for people, not animals." He dismisses the notion of animal rights. "Animals don't have rights," Frazier asserts. "They're property." But don't these animals in danger need to be rescued? "Bullshit!" retorts Frazier. "What is imminent danger?"

Holmes is not surprised at the controversy surrounding the Pescadero case or, for that matter, any situation involving animal welfare. "Animal cruelty is such an emotionally charged issue," she says. That being the case, it can pretty well be guessed that the local contracting agency for animal control will be the lightning rod. Many in the livestock industry believe, like Frazier, that organizations such as the SPCA or the Humane Society are run by touchy-feely animal lovers who do not understand the demands of agrarian life. David Casper is a veterinarian with the University of California, Santa Cruz Long Marine Laboratory, whose work with dolphins has also put him at loggerheads with animal activists. He explains, "We're witnessing the first generation that has virtually no experience of animals in a utilitarian sense."

Certainly, he has agreement from those familiar with the Pescadero goat owners, including the animals' veterinarian, Susan MacInness. "I will grant the place is not aesthetically pleasing to the general public," she says, "but that is not the way goats are kept." She insists the goats were well fed and free of all but cosmetic problems. MacInness says that agency officials came to her clinic only after the animals were rescued, frantically trying to find temporary homes for them. She believes neither PHS staff nor volunteers were trained to deal with the specialized needs of ruminants, a livestock classification that includes goats, sheep and cows. She is supported by Santa Cruz resident Jodi Frediani, who does freelance photography for the SPCA. She is also an animal trainer and has raised goats for over 20 years. Frediani, who was volunteering her services at the Marin Humane Society when several of the goats arrived for temporary shelter, was "appalled" at how the animals were treated by volunteers and staff. They did not know how to milk, and when Frediani offered her assistance she was turned down. "There tends to be an attitude," Frediani notes, "[which is,] 'We know it all and we don't want anybody's advice.' "

Staff members at PHS deny that their agency was ill-prepared for the seizure. Says the PHS public information officer, Leslie Walker, "We had three ranches prepped to take them. And we have people we work with on a regular basis." So far, 14 of the Pescadero owners' goats have either died or been euthanized since they've been in the care of PHS, according to director Kathy Saduski. However, she points out, this is a remarkably low number for an animal collector confiscation case. Frequently, animals are in such poor health that most have to be destroyed. Yet she does not explain why feed donations and help from friends of the goat owners have been rejected. Just as the livestock industry has circled its wagons, perhaps the animal-welfare agencies have developed a bunker mentality from working in the heart of the battle, unable to separate help from hindrance. After working for more than a decade at the SPCA, Kat Brown says she has gotten it all, through hate letters, anonymous phone calls or people shouting over the counter to her. "I've heard, 'You're just a bunch of dykes who hate men,' or 'You're animal-rights activists who want to outlaw people from ever owning animals.' Look, we're talking about animal welfare, not animal rights," she says, with some exasperation.

SINCE OUR first conversation, Simmons sends faxes --sometimes as many as three a day--of her thoughts, concerns and any clues that may lend understanding to this situation. Mostly, though, she is worried about her animals, convinced that they will all die without her care. Although that is unlikely, there is enough evidence that Simmons may have reason to be concerned. Yet the PHS does not appear to acknowledge her--what they hear instead, most likely, is that characteristic observed by Defense League attorney Frasch about collectors: Nobody can love my animals like I can. Yet Simmons' bulletproof denial is equally frustrating. Asked if she thought the animals' confiscation was a case of moving from the frying pan into the fire, she becomes extremely agitated at the analogy. There were, she says, absolutely no problems to begin with.

For now, both sides seem to have moved out of hearing range from each other, rigid and polarized by their assumptions and the pending litigation. Simmons, Williams and Woodman have been neatly wedged into a clinical diagnosis while the Peninsula Humane Society has been cast as wild-eyed "humaniacs," intent on depriving people of their civil rights. Although both insist they know how to better care for these animals, both appear to have fallen short of their duties, revealing the real tragedy that lurks beneath the rhetoric. As the trial gets under way next Monday in Redwood City, a jury will make the final decision.

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From the July 3-10, 1996 issue of Metro

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