The Thin Line Between Dog Rescuing and Dog Hoarding

With the city overrun with strays, Dallas' animal rescuers want to save dogs from cruelty and neglect. But some need to be saved from themselves.

"We told them what our findings were," Muñoz says of the neighbors. "That wasn't to their satisfaction, so they kept calling."

One neighbor, Jose Mejia, seemingly became her biggest adversary. He called Code Compliance hundreds of times, Steel says, and one day in 2009, she found him standing in her yard, trying to get the dogs to bark while filming them. Neighbors claim Mejia was standing in the street, not in the yard. (Mejia declined to discuss the incident.)

Steel marched outside to confront Mejia, wielding a dowel that was supposed to hold curtains she'd been making. "He baited me," she says. "I was so sick and tired of the whole thing. ... I'm not some kind of crazy woman who just goes berserk." She screamed at him to get off her property.

Mejia didn't budge, she says. He just stood there laughing at her. "So I lost it, totally lost it. I took the curtain rod and knocked the camera out of his hand and tried to break it. I picked up camera and audio recorder, gave him a filthy look and marched off to the house." (Her indictment claims the weapon was actually a pipe, which Steel denies.)

When the cops showed up, they asked for Steel to return the camera. She said no.

"I wanted to give it to an attorney," to prove she was being harassed, she says. Instead, she was arrested.

"They took me to the southeast division of Lew Sterrett. I sat there for five days. I lost my job and a bunch of other shit happened." She was charged with aggravated robbery, a first-degree felony. "It's the same as going into 7-Eleven with a gun," she says, bitterly. It would take a full two and a half years before the case finally went before a judge and she was offered a plea bargain, which included probation instead of jail. For Steel, the monthly probation fees and visits almost sounded worse than being locked up.

Testifying at the first of two sentencing hearings, she could barely hide her anger. "Maybe if I went to prison, I'd get some peace," she told the judge. "I'm in ruins."

"You still don't believe you did anything wrong, do you?" the prosecutor asked her.

Steel smiled tearily. "No, I don't," she said finally.

Although Steel's case, in the eyes of the law, was about a swinging dowel and a stolen camera, for the city's animal-obsessed it was about more: the role of rescuers, the rights of neighbors and the specter of the dreaded H-word. "We were always sent out on the pretext that she was a hoarder," Ehrenfeld would testify. And although Muñoz agrees that wasn't the case, Steel's neighbors disagree.

"Do you realize she doesn't adopt dogs out?" Nancy Thompson says. "She just hoards them. People on the street have tried to adopt them, but she won't."

"She fits the profile," Brent Thompson adds. "She said to me, 'God gave me those dogs.' I told her, 'Nell, you went out and found those dogs.'"

Hoarding has long been rescue's dark shadow. Everyone involved with animal welfare knows that in rare but troubling instances, rescuers can wind up with dozens or even hundreds of animals they can't care for. One prominent local animal-welfare advocate, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of alienating other rescuers, says that's the case with a number of Dallas' independent rescuers.

"Many are essentially hoarders," the advocate writes in an email. "They are all well-intentioned — or start off that way. But they get in over their heads, get overwhelmed and lose touch with reality."

Rescuing often becomes hoarding for financial reasons, Muñoz says. An animal gets sick, the rescuer can't afford to care for it, the sickness starts to spread to other animals, and soon there's an expensive, highly contagious problem. The rescuer becomes afraid to alert anyone, for fear their animals will be taken away, which some believe is the worst possible fate. Meanwhile, they continue to bring more and more animals home.

"Quite often the owner will say, 'I got overextended, I was trying to do a good thing, and I couldn't say no,'" says James Bias, president of SPCA of Texas. The unfortunate truth, he adds, is that "a good person could go bad any time."

In November of last year, Colleen Ogden, a Duncanville woman, became the latest cautionary tale. Police and the SPCA seized 102 dogs and six cats from her property, where she'd been running a rescue group called Elliot's Friends. SPCA investigators said that when they inspected the house, they found animals in "urine-soaked" cages without adequate food or water. (The District Attorney's office confirmed there are 10 cases of animal cruelty filed against Ogden.)

"When the SPCA of Texas arrived, we saw a horrific situation where these animals were living in filth," says Maura Davies, an SPCA spokeswoman. In parts of the houses, she adds, "there was over a foot of feces" on the floors. SPCA of Texas says she was pulling dogs from several local municipal shelters, as well as from outside the state, and that no one knew how many animals she had.

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