It could have been the setting of an eerie movie that our Humane Society of the United States rescuers and law enforcement officers walked into this cool fall morning. The location was Washington County, Pennsylvania, and they were responding to an alleged large-scale animal neglect situation. Before them was a sprawling, old Victorian house with peeling, white paint, and behind the house, on a hill, was an abandoned, red-brick church with a towering steeple, partially wrapped in vines.
It was just heartbreaking inside the church basement. Cats were everywhere, including in the basement of the house, which was a dark, dungeon-like space. The air was stifling, with the rank stench of urine. Some of the animals were in crates piled on top of each other, and others were just wandering around.
Some of the animals are thin, with no apparent source of food or water. Many appear to have upper respiratory infections – “you could hear them breathing, it was this really congested breathing,” said one staff member. Despite their suffering, some of the animals, seeking any kind of attention, approached the visitors and rubbed against their legs.
The house itself was filthy, with trash and clutter piled everywhere and spilling onto the floor – so much so that the responders couldn’t enter some of the rooms. There were feces on the floor and overflowing from litter boxes. Chickens flapped around, some underfoot as our rescuers made their way down the stairs to the basement, which was caked in animal waste.
HSUS and Washington Area Humane Society rescuers will be working late into the night today, with assistance from the county district attorney’s office, Pennsylvania State Police and the Humane Animal Rescue of Pittsburgh, to pull out what we estimate could be upwards of 150 animals on this property, and in another townhome belonging to the same person in nearby Westmoreland County. Most of the animals are cats, but there are also chickens and three dogs. The animals will go to an undisclosed shelter location where they will receive much-needed medical care and TLC from RedRover responders.
Our assistance was requested by the Washington Area Humane Society after concerns about the welfare of animals on the property were raised. The privately funded shelter did not have the resources to carry out the rescue by itself, and we were happy to pitch in, both with our resources and with our expertise in carrying out such rescues.
In coming days, we will also be working to ensure that those responsible for such intense animal suffering are held accountable. Fortunately, Pennsylvania lawmakers, in 2017, passed Libre’s Law, a statute that strengthened penalties for those found guilty of animal abuse, cruelty and neglect. The HSUS was among the organizations that led the fight for Libre’s Law, named for a dog who survived terrible abuse and neglect at a Lancaster puppy mill.
When rescues like these occur, government agencies funded by taxpayers as well as privately-funded animal welfare organizations like ours are typically left holding the bill for veterinary and other care that these animals, desperately need. These costs can be considerable, often running into hundreds of thousands of dollars. In recent years, several states have moved to place this burden where it rightly belongs – on those responsible for the animal suffering. Pennsylvania does have a provision addressing the cost of caring for the animals rescued from abusive situations, but the law requires charges to be filed before rescuers can apply for funds, which can result in considerable delays. Our state legislative team will be fighting to strengthen the cost of care law in Pennsylvania and to encourage other states to pass similar laws in the future.
The animals we are transporting today are in safe hands now, and we will do everything possible for them to get a chance at being adopted into loving homes. We are grateful to all of our partners, including the Alex and Elisabeth Lewyt Charitable Trust, and our longtime partner, GreaterGood.org, for their generous donations to support the expert care and supplies these animals will need in the days to come. We would also like to thank the Brandywine Valley SPCA for their assistance in this case. Tomorrow is a new beginning for these animals, far from the horror and squalor of their basement home, and it is one these animals well deserve.