There's a point for a few people at which the love of animals takes a perverse twist, where caring becomes cruelty.
They bring in more animals than they can care for, telling themselves that any life is better than death. They refuse to find ++ new homes for any of their animals, believing no one else could love them as much. They resist humane groups' efforts to get them to improve living conditions for the animals. In the worst cases, they stop feeding the animals altogether, dooming them to slow, painful deaths.
Humane workers have names for such people. Publicly, they call them collectors. Privately, they call them a few other things, none printable. It's easy to understand the animosity:
* Last year, humane officers found 20 cats living in deplorable conditions on a property in Orangevale, a suburb of Sacramento, Calif. The animals were found in excrement-packed cages; some had been confined for 10 years. Their owner pleaded no contest to one charge of felony animal neglect. She was placed on probation and ordered to destroy her animal cages. The cats are awaiting their fate at the Sacramento Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
* In 1989, New York City's American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals removed more than 125 dogs and cats from a house in Brooklyn. The animals were unsocialized and in poor condition, said an ASPCA representative. The owner was charged with more than 100 counts of animal cruelty.
* In 1988, a coalition of humane groups raided a property in upstate New York. According to Animals' Agenda magazine, they found more than 500 dogs in unheated barns, living on bread, water, and the remains of dead dogs. Close to 200 were judged too ill to survive and were euthanized. The owner pleaded guilty to four counts of animal abuse.
These are not isolated incidents; in fact, such situations pop up so frequently that they were discussed at a well-attended seminar during a recent conference of humane professionals. The Washington-based Humane Society of the United States has documented 103 collector cases since 1989. Most say that's just the tip of the iceberg.
According to Samantha Mullen of the New York State Humane Association, there are a few traits animal collectors share -- among them "a stubborn refusal to part with any of their animals, be it through adoption of relatively healthy ones or euthanasia of sick ones."
They are secretive about how many animals they have and how well they care for them. Without psychiatric help, collectors almost always return to their old ways, said Ms. Mullen, even if convicted of animal cruelty.
Humane workers say collectors believe reverence for life is synonymous with preservation of life, regardless of quality.
"Some people find the thought of death so abhorrent that they deem an inhumane life far preferable to a humane death," said Ms. Mullen, who was involved in the upstate New York case and is considered an authority on animal collectors. "They often go to great length to 'rescue' dogs or cats from traditional shelters, sometimes boasting of removing them from 'death row.' "
"These are people who feel it's best to warehouse animals, to keep them in any kind of cage," said Phyllis Wright of the Humane Society. "In one case in West Virginia, we found 14 cats kept in bread boxes. They never had a chance for any exercise."
For humane groups, the discovery of a collector not only is a blow to staff morale and shelter budgets, but is also a public-relations nightmare, especially if ill or unsocialized animals are unadoptable and must be euthanized.
"We've had people call and ask us why we didn't just clean up the [Orangevale] situation and leave the cats," said Mike Winters, executive director of the Sacramento SPCA. "That ignores the fact that this has been going on for years, with ample opportunity for change, and none has been made."
Most of the cats in the Orangevale case will be euthanized, said Mr. Winters. Under Sacramento SPCA care since October, the cats -- all but three are purebred Siamese -- now look healthy, with sleek, glossy coats. But the years of deprivation have made them unresponsive. To give them the best chance possible, Mr. Winters brought in an animal behaviorist to determine if any amount of time and socialization would bring the animals around.
"She felt that a couple of them might make it under some very specific conditions," he said. "No children, no other pets and no stress."
"It's a common reaction in these cases," said Angel Rosado of the ASPCA, who was involved in the Brooklyn case. "The animals register fear about their environment, but where humans are involved they show nothing. There's no one home."
For such animals, it's a sad fact that the kindest person they'll ever meet is the one who finally puts them out of their misery.
Spadafori is a newspaper reporter and an animal obedience trainer in Sacramento, Calif. Questions about pets may be sent to her c/o Saturday, The Sun, 501 N. Calvert St., Baltimore 21278.