Northern Virginia Woman Caught Hoarding 575 Cats
The Washington, DC area is still buzzing over the discovery last week of five-hundred-seventy-five cats at two residences of a nearby Fairfax County, Virginia cat hoarder. Two-hundred-twenty-one of the felines were discovered decomposing in plastic bags and county officials quickly trapped and finished off the remaining three-hundred-fifty-four. Although they claimed that the cats were slaughtered because they were either too sickly (respiratory ailments, etc.) or too feral, the more likely explanation is that this unfortunate situation presented all the ailurophobes in the police, animal control, and humane agencies with a golden opportunity to quench their thirst for feline blood. Shelters in the United States exterminate more than ten million cats each year.
Three-hundred-ninety-three (306 live and 87 dead) of the cats were plucked from the walls, cabinets, and chimneys of eighty-two year old Ruth Knueven's two-story, cream-brick colonial on Ludgate Drive in Mount Vernon, a scant 1.5 kilometers removed from George Washington's old plantation. Another one-hundred-eighty-two cats (48 live and 134 dead) were later found twenty-nine kilometers away in Burke at the 9900 Lakepointe Drive town house of Knueven's fifty-seven year old daughter, Karen Forrest.
In both instances officials were alerted by neighbors complaining about the stench emanating from both residences. Once inside, they found both houses to be drenched in urine, coated with feces, and suffering from extensive damage to the plumbing. Accordingly, both properties have been declared unfit for human habitation and Knueven, her spouse, and Forrest have been forced to relocate to a hotel until both houses can be cleaned up and repaired. A civil petition has also been filed to have her declared as an unfit property owner.
Alarmingly, this is not Knueven's first offense. In August of 2001 officials removed one-hundred-fifteen cats, many of them Siamese, from her home but allowed her to hold on to five other cats. A year later in September 2002 the Fairfax County Health Department ordered her to clean up and make repairs to her house.
Since she is a repeat offender, the local police went to court on July 18th and convinced Judge Thomas Gallahue to declare her an unfit pet owner and to bar her from ever owning animals again. She also faces trial on October 19th for animal cruelty, failure to take proper care of animals, improperly disposing of dead cats, and obstruction of justice. The latter charge stems from her activities designed to prevent officials from removing the cats. Despite the magnitude of her crimes, she will likely get off with only a token fine. Her daughter is yet to be charged with any violations of law.
In the July 18th edition of the Washington Post, Knueven is quoted as saying, "It's over now and I never want to see another cat in my life." Not about to be duped again by her, prosecutors plan to ask the trial judge to order a mental evaluation of her and to grant them the authority to make periodic searches of her home in order to make sure that she keeps her word.
Malheursement, cat hoarding in Fairfax County is not limited to Knueven and her daughter. On Bastille Day, forty-three cats were removed from a house on Lorfax Road in Lorton belonging to seventy-one year old Margaret Gaffney and forty year old Walter Gaffney. Near the end of last month eighty-eight felines (29 dead and 59 live) and one live dog were discovered in the home of fifty-eight year old Jane Baldinger on Hillsborough Drive in Falls Church. In nearby Prince William County, sixty cats were removed from a Dale City house in 2000, and in Maryland's Anne Arundel County eighty-six cats were seized from a Crofton home last year.
Gary Patronek, a Tufts veterinarian who specializes in animal hoarding, paints an unflattering portrait of cat hoarders. While acknowledging that the stereotypical cat hoarder is usually a poor, elderly, unmarried woman, he readily admits that it is not unheard of for white-collar professionals, including veterinarians, to hoard animals. Furthermore, Patronek's research has disabused him of the notion that animal hoarders are motivated by altruistic motives. Au contraire, he believes them to be mentally disturbed, irresponsible exploiters of animals. In other words, the animals fulfill some unspecified need in them, not vice versa.
Cat hoarding is undoubtedly horrible business. It promotes inbreeding and genetic defects, disease, malnutrition, all sorts of unspeakable abuse, unsanitary conditions and, ultimately, the intervention of the police. As a policy it simply does not work for the cats, the hoarders, or society at large. Extermination, either en masse or on an individual basis, is far more barbaric and should be immediately outlawed by all jurisdictions. It is immoral to kill animals except under extraordinary circumstances. Precious resources should be directed toward the establishment and maintenance of both feral colonies and animal refuges where cats and other homeless animals can live out their short lives in peace and dignity. People who truly love cats should concentrate on caring for a few of them at a time and not take into their homes more than they can provide for in a healthy and sanitary environment. A concentrated effort should be made to find homes for all unwanted cats but if that is not possible they should be turned loose in the countryside. Perhaps at least under those very difficult circumstances they will be able to find shelter and food in some farmer's barn. Under no circumstances should cats be given up to the abatteurs at the shelters. They have not committed any crimes and they therefore have the undeniable right to go on living.
Unlike many other jurisdictions, Fairfax County to its credit does not set any limit on the number of cats that a person can own. It does, however, enforce its sanitary laws and it requires all companion animals to be vaccinated for rabies. It also has a Hoarding Task Force which has been in operation since 1998. In addition to cats, this unit regulates the accumulation of excessive newspapers, magazines, empty containers, old clothes, paper, trash, and rotting food but, oddly enough, not money. Nonetheless, Fairfax County officials grievously erred in not closing down completely Ruth Knueven's cat hoarding operation when it was first uncovered in 2001. There is not any advantage is having the administrative machinery in place if public officials lack the will power to act decisively in a morally responsible manner.