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Metro Detroit

July 25, 2014

Fundraiser aims to help cats from hoarder home

State needs to regulate rescues, animal advocates say

By Andy Kozlowski
C & G Staff Writer

METRO DETROIT — It took the smell of what was presumed to be a human corpse for authorities to finally check a house on Detroit’s east side June 22. What they found instead was a hoarder home filled with more than 100 dead cats. 

Only 35 cats survived. Many were in horrible shape — starving in crates and covered in fleas, despite cans of food stacked up nearby, as well as flea preventative in cabinets.

The hoarder in question had run a rescue operation, bringing to light an issue that animal advocates say is of great concern: the fact that the state of Michigan does not regulate animal rescues. Anyone can call themselves a rescue, so people have to exercise great care when choosing one.

But first, the surviving cats — they’re now receiving medical care and recovering, gaining back weight. To help cover their treatment, Guardians for Animals (GFA) is sponsoring “Paws for Laughs” on Sunday, Aug. 10, at Mark Ridley’s Comedy Castle, 310 S. Troy St. in Royal Oak. Doors open at 6:15 p.m., and the show starts at 7:30 p.m.

Tickets are $20 per person; all proceeds help the animals. The R-rated show stars Mike Stanley and includes guest appearances by Martin Butler and Matt McClowry. Tickets can be purchased by calling (248) 542-9900, or by visiting GFA’s website at www.guard iansforanimals.org. 

“This event will help pay for the cats’ medical bills, which are ongoing, and also for their spaying/neutering, and whatever else it takes to make them healthy and happy and up for adoption,” said Alexandria Whitney, founder of the GFA umbrella network that supports 18 rescue affiliates in the metro Detroit area.

GFA is also helping the animal shelter in Madison Heights to treat one of its dogs who has heartworm.

“The funds we raise at events like Comedy Castle are also earmarked for emergency medical needs in animals,” Whitney said.

This is not the first time GFA and its affiliates have handled the aftermath of a hoarder situation — and it probably won’t be the last. Melanie Wittner, of A Hopeful Heart Animal Rescue in Roseville, was at the house in Detroit June 22. Authorities know they can call her when they have a hoarder situation. But it’s never easy for her.

“When I go in, my first thought is the animals. I can’t concentrate on the mess; I can’t focus on the ones who have already died. I just have to concentrate on the ones that I can still save,” Wittner said. “When we were in there, I kept thinking I wanted to throw food on the floor, just so they can eat, but then they’d see no motivation to go in the traps we needed (in order) to rescue them. It’s the saddest thing seeing kittens fight over food, or adult cats swallowing so fast they get sick.”

Wittner was shocked when she found out the hoarder this time was someone she had known years ago. That person — who will not be identified because Wittner and GFA don’t want to discourage other hoarders from seeking help — once ran a rescue herself. Wittner remembers it was suspicious back then how this person never seemed to adopt out any of their animals, and now she knows why.

Unlike animal shelters, no one from the state’s Department of Agriculture comes to check on organizations that call themselves animal rescues. As a result, some of them are not what they appear.

They might be breeding animals for profit, putting down the mother when she’s no longer of use and adding to the population of homeless pets. They might be working with research labs conducting illegal experiments, or selling to dog-fighters. And then, of course, there are hoarders — those who can’t stop collecting pets, even when they’re well beyond their ability to care for them. 

According to Wittner, telltale signs of a hoarder home include the following:
• Isolation from the community and neglect of themselves and their property.
• Many animals in their possession, but they don’t know how many they have.
• Home is deteriorated, with dirty windows, broken furniture, holes in the walls, etc.
• The stench of ammonia, and floors covered in feces, urine, vomit, etc.
• The animals are emaciated and lethargic, and are not well-socialized.
• Fleas and other vermin are present in the household.

If someone thinks they know a hoarder, they should alert Community Mental Health and Adult Protective Services immediately, along with local Animal Control. Family and friends can try to intervene, but either way, something must be done, since hoarding situations are dangerous both to the animals and the people who live around them.

“The way you can tell a hoarder issue is a once well-meaning rescue becomes overwhelmed because they can’t say no to any animals coming in, and they can’t (say) yes to very good and deserving homes. That’s the red flag,” Whitney said. “They may adopt out a cat or dog here or there, but if they have 35 animals in their rescue, and they only adopted out two last month, something is wrong.”

A legitimate rescue won’t be hoarding animals — and it won’t hide information about the animals it keeps, either. A good rescue will be completely transparent when it comes to the history of each animal, furnishing complete medical records on request and allowing access to the veterinarian that handles each animal. And a good rescue never administers rabies shots itself. It’s important that only a vet handle rabies shots, Whitney said, since a vet can ensure the serum batch is safe. 

Wittner added a good rescue will have a variety of animals up for adoption — not just the desirable kittens and puppies. The animals should also be in good shape, barring a medical reason.

Of the 35 cats that were rescued from the hoarder home, 29 went home with Wittner while the other six wound up at other rescues. Wittner’s A Hopeful Heart is one of the 18 GFA affiliates.

In addition to running a rescue, Wittner is a paraprofessional working with severely impaired children, and a mother of three, including a special needs child. She has her plate full, which is why she says GFA has been a godsend, providing resources and assistance she and her family — who all help out with the rescue — would never be able to manage on their own.

Wittner remembers calling Whitney the day of the hoarder incident.

“As soon as I got home that night, I called Alex and she said, ‘Uh oh, there’s trouble.’ And I said, ‘You’re going to hate me,’ and she said, ‘You sound serious, like you’re going to cry.’ And I said I was,” Wittner recalls. “She said, ‘Tell me what you need — we’ll get it for you,’ and I said I don’t even know. But just the fact she had my back immediately and didn’t question why I brought the cats home or what I was thinking, it was enough for me to finally take a deep breath. Taking home 29 cats that night could’ve killed my rescue; the flea treatment, alone, nearly killed me.”

Events like the Comedy Castle fundraiser help GFA and its affiliates to help the animals. Whitney met comedian Mike Stanley in a Belle Tire commercial that starred him and Whitney’s rescue parrot, Kiwi.

When the bird saw its own commercial and started reacting excitedly at the sound of Stanley’s voice, Whitney thought to let him know, and from there, they decided to collaborate on an event.

But those who’d rather donate directly can do so, as well.

“No donation is too small, and everyone is deeply, deeply appreciative,” Whitney said. “The donations are, in fact, life-saving.”

Guardians for Animals is sponsoring “Paws for Laughs” on Sunday, Aug. 10, at Mark Ridley’s Comedy Castle, 310 S. Troy St. in Royal Oak. Doors open at 6:15 p.m., and the show starts at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $20 per person; all proceeds help the animals. The show is rated R. Tickets can be purchased by calling (248) 542-9900, or by visiting GFA’s website at www.guardiansforanimals.org.

Tax-deductible donations can also be made at GFA’s website, or by mailing checks to GFA, PO Box 1086, Troy, MI 48099.