Armstrong County humanitarian worker helps create ‘action network’ of shelters to deal with animal hoarding

Chris O’Donnell had only been two months into his job as a state humanitarian worker for Armstrong County before realizing that none of the local relief shelters were equipped to handle a case of abuse or neglect involving large numbers of animals.

A specific case she responded to on St. Patrick’s Day involving many animals revealed a deficiency in the ability to handle some cases.

But it also planted the seeds for the creation of a network of shelters in Armstrong, Westmoreland and Indiana counties, dubbed the Humane Action Team.

The March 17 case happened in the small village of Templeton, where 20 animals were rescued that needed varying degrees of medical treatment. There were also eight dogs, 19 cats, 10 rabbits, two ducks, three chickens and a pot-bellied pig found dead.

The owner was charged with 198 counts of animal abuse and neglect.

With twice as many animals found dead as alive, the incident raised the question of what would be done if all were to be rescued?

“This case was the first time I realized that the shelter I’m affiliated with wouldn’t have been able to handle that many animals,” she said. “I contacted Frankies Friends (in New Kensington) and they were able to take some of the rescued animals. This was the first time we had cooperated with another shelter to help with the rescued animals.

O’Donnell, 60, noted that state aid workers must be affiliated with a rescue shelter. Her affiliation is with the Orphans of the Storm shelter just outside Kittanning.

O’Donnell investigated 104 cases of animal neglect and cruelty last year. She worked with local law enforcement, state police, and the Armstrong County District Attorney’s Office to prosecute violators.

The Templeton animal hoarding case prompted O’Donnell to contact other shelters to develop a network of organizations willing to take in animals when a local shelter has no room.

“We realized that neither of us could do it alone, so we have to work together,” she said. “It’s about creating partnerships.”

Besides Orphans of the Storm and Frankies Friends, the participating organizations that make up the Human Action Team are:

• Kiski Valley Cat & Kitten Rescue, Apollo;

• Four Legged Friends, Indiana;

• Rescue of the champion’s crusaders, Vandergrift;

• Allegheny Valley Animal Conservators, New Kensington;

• Dr. Sandra Rodkey and Altmeyer Veterinary Hospital, Kittanning;

• Humane Animal Rescue of Pittsburgh;

• Friends of Animals, Ohio Township.

In September, the need for the Human Action Team became apparent when O’Donnell was called to a home where 61 cats had been rescued.

“The cats were at the home of a disabled veteran and his young family who took in several cats that needed help,” O’Donnell said. “But the cats weren’t neutered, so their numbers multiplied quickly. They were providing them with the best possible care, but the number of cats was becoming overwhelming for them.

Participating organizations took in the cats and provided them with medical and behavioral care so that they could be placed in temporary foster care and possibly offered for adoption.

O’Donnell said smaller shelters need to be aware of the number of rescued animals they are taking in at one time to avoid the possibility of spreading disease.

“The challenge with hoarding cases is that if we get them to a shelter and don’t isolate them, there’s a chance we could spread disease to other animals,” she said. “Unfortunately, most small shelters don’t have the space to do this when it comes to large numbers of animals.”

She noted that it’s typical for a shelter to have more animals in their network of foster homes than they keep in their shelters. In addition to making room for more rescues, placing rescues in foster care helps animals socialize so they can be adopted.

O’Donnell said the Humanitarian Response Team is also needed because nonprofit shelters in the area typically face financial challenges that prevent them from expanding or upgrading their facilities. Most rely only on donations and small fees charged for adopting pets.

“The shelter I’m affiliated with is in a building that’s over 50 years old and needs work,” she said. “When it rains hard, the area where the cats live gets flooded, so we have to evacuate them all.”

She said the shelter operators would like to build a new, larger facility. But like other smaller rescues in the region, finding enough money to stay afloat, let alone expand, can be difficult.

At smaller shelters such as Champion’s Crusaiders Rescue, which can house up to 46 animals, keeping the doors open has meant finding sources of income other than the fees charged for adoption.

State Humanitarian Officer Amber Phillips, the shelter’s founder, said the nonprofit’s main source of income comes from a private pet spa it operates outside of the building.

Even the work of rescuing abused and neglected animals can be a financial challenge for state humanitarian workers, who are sworn law enforcement officers with powers of arrest — but receive no compensation. unless a shelter can afford to pay for them.

“I work as a volunteer,” O’Donnell said. “I have to pay my own transportation, gas and equipment costs. I am grateful that the shelter is able to cover the cost of my insurance. But everything else comes out of my pocket. My gift wish list last year included items such as personal protective equipment and mosquito nets.

O’Donnell said one piece of gear on his wish list was a body armor.

“People on hoarding or negligence aren’t always cooperative when I show up, she said, noting that she was unarmed except for a canister of chemical pepper spray. “I am usually accompanied by a law enforcement officer when I go to investigate a complaint, and on more than one occasion the officers who accompanied me mentioned that I should probably wear a vest for this type of circumstances.”

Tony LaRussa is a staff writer for Tribune-Review. You can contact Tony at 724-772-6368, [email protected] or via Twitter .