Hundreds of animals found at filthy property

August 13, 2008 5:48:13 AM PDT
More than 360 domestic and farm animals, many of them emaciated, injured and suffering from mange and parasites, were rescued Tuesday from a filthy southwest Missouri property where they were hoarded and bred, authorities said.

The owner of the property was charged with child endangerment because six children, ages 1 to 11, also had been living in what authorities described as an unbelievable scene: 12 to 15 house trailers stacked to the ceilings with junk, trash and debris, crawling with cockroaches. The only water source was a bunch of garden hoses strung together.

"These homes are not fit for anyone to live in," human or animal, Polk County Sheriff Steve Bruce said.

The 363 animals include more than 70 dogs and more than three dozen cats, plus donkeys, rabbits, ducks, chickens, and exotic fish. The Humane Society of Missouri and Polk County also found 12 to 15 dead rabbits, dogs, cats, and poultry.

Authorities descended upon the property with warrants after the family who owns the land failed to heed warnings last month to begin providing proper care, said Tim Rickey, the Humane Society's director of rescues and investigations.

In the days since those warnings, many of the animals had been released from their cages, prompting neighbors to complain. Authorities took a closer look and found that children also were on the 80-acre rural property near Pleasant Hope in southwest Missouri. Child-welfare workers removed the children were about a week ago, Bruce said.

Property owner Virginia Gambriel, 61, was arrested and charged Tuesday with two counts of felony child endangerment over living conditions Bruce described as the worst he's seen in 16 years of public service.

More charges are expected, against Gambriel and others, Bruce said. Gambriel is being held on $7,500 bond, and doesn't yet have an attorney, he said.

Three families lived on the property, authorities said, but the total number of residents wasn't clear. The property, littered with 15 to 20 abandoned vehicles, was "in the brush in the middle of nowhere on a dead-end road" that deputies rarely visited, Bruce said.

"We've known for a while they were a little strange, that they didn't want interference from the outside world, but unless we're down there on a call, it's not part of our routine patrol," Bruce said.

The local Humane Society called the rescue the largest it ever had undertaken and said the people were "clearly hoarders" who were raising and breeding rabbits and dogs, but not necessarily for sale.

The creatures were half friendly, half shy and almost all of them afraid. Many of the animals were running loose, Rickey said.

Investigators said the animals had lived in filthy, deplorable conditions without adequate food, water and shelter. Many are underweight and suffering from poor skin and coat conditions and other maladies.

Bruce said Gambriel told him most of the dogs were abandoned strays she picked up and brought home.

A custody hearing for the animals was set for Sept. 2 in Bolivar.

The horses and farm animals will be treated at the Humane Society's Longmeadow Rescue Ranch in Union, while others will be taken to the St. Louis headquarters.

They will not be available immediately for adoption, but donations of money, bedding, food, cages, and toys are needed, along with volunteers, the Society said.

St. Louis psychotherapist Alec Pollard said hoarding is a serious psychiatric disorder that impairs judgment.

Pollard said typically an animal hoarder goes to court, evokes the judge's pity, and walks away with a warning but no mandated treatment.

"Jail is inappropriate for these folks, but to go untreated is not the answer either," he said.