Decision pending on 19 dogs seized from home in Howard

Officials say woman, 78, unable to tend animals

April 12, 2002|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

The fate of 19 dogs, including 10 pudgy, playful tan and white puppies and their mother, Roxy, will be determined by Howard County officials in a clash with a 78-year-old woman who says she loves living with the large brood.

Animal control officers, who seized the dogs March 7, say they don't want to return them to Katherine Richards of Woodbine because she can't give them proper care. People who want to adopt the puppies await the county's decision. It is expected to be issued by May 2.

"Returning even a single animal to this environment, I think, would make me guilty of cruelty and neglect," animal control supervisor Lynn Neser testified before the county's Animal Matters Hearing Board last week.

Howard officials have seized dogs from Richards before and have repeatedly visited her isolated, rural home in the 15200 block of Frederick Road. In 1997, records show, the county seized 37 animals - dogs, cats, rabbits and chickens - from the property.

Richards' behavior might exemplify a phenomenon called animal hoarding, which is found among the elderly. It can range from a mild eccentricity to a sign of more serious problems, such as dementia, obsessive-compulsive disorder or paranoia, according to an article published in the American Journal of Nursing in 1993.

The county contends that Richards, who doesn't drive and lives alone on the second floor of a cluttered house that reeks of animal waste, neglects the dogs. Inspectors said rooms are filled with debris, passable only via narrow openings. The kitchen isn't used, and a downstairs room was a repository for dozens of plastic bags filled with dog waste.

But Richards and her attorney, Mary Reese, contend that she takes good care of her dogs, and "what has offended the county is that they don't care for the interior of Mrs. Richards' home and they don't care for the odor," Reese told the board.

"I like to have a crowd around me. I was taking good care of them. Now, I'm lonesome," Richards testified, crying at the memory of the 18 dogs the county seized and put to death last year. She is so lonely, she said, that she sometimes calls county social workers so she has someone to speak with.

She did not answer a reporter's calls to her home for comment, and Reese declined to comment.

Richards also testified that she fed each adult dog five or six large dog biscuits, fruit and cereal each day, plus pancakes at lunch and dog food in the evening.

She gave them water in buckets and other containers filled from a downstairs bathroom, she said. The puppies got oatmeal with bread chunks covered in milk, she said. Senior assistant county solicitor Louis P. Ruzzi, who handled the county's case, told the board that Richards' claims can't be believed.

"The place, I will agree, looks terrible," Richards told the board. And she acknowledged that she allowed the dogs to use newspaper on the floor to relieve themselves at night.

Neser, the animal control supervisor, said the odor of waste inside the house was so strong that it made her eyes burn. Pressing hard on the wood floor forced foul-smelling liquid from the porous boards, she said. On March 7, she said, the dogs cowered in corners and behind a wood stove, trapped in an upstairs room. All looked thin, and some had lost hair in places or had scars, Neser said.

In January last year, the county removed 18 dogs from Richards' homestead and put them to death because they were too ill or bad-tempered to be adopted. That case resulted in a Circuit Court trial two months ago that held her grown son, Joseph Richards, responsible for conditions in the house. He had moved out in December 2001 and was placed on 18 months' supervised probation for animal cruelty and neglect.

Katherine Richards, meanwhile, had assembled a new brood. After county inspectors were denied entry to the home several times, they obtained the search warrant for the visit March 7.

Neser said that although she saw no water or food bowls, she discovered a half-empty, 35- pound bag of dog food. She said Richards fed the dogs by spreading it on a cloth on the floor, leaving the animals to compete for their meals.

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