UPDATE: More than 360 animals rescued in Polk County

Tuesday, August 12, 2008 | 6:04 p.m. CDT; updated 11:59 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, August 12, 2008

ST. LOUIS - More than 360 animals, many of them emaciated, injured and suffering from mange and parasites, were rescued Tuesday at a southwest Missouri property where they were hoarded and bred, authorities said.

The Humane Society of Missouri and Polk County authorities descended upon the property with warrants after the family that 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.

Many of the animals had been released from their cages in the days since those warnings, prompting neighbors to complain and authorities to take a closer look and see that children were on the 80-acre rural property near Pleasant Hope in southwest Missouri.

Six children, ages 1 through 11, were removed from the property by child welfare workers about a week ago, Polk County Sheriff Steve 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.

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

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

Authorities described a scene of 12 to 15 house trailers stacked to the ceilings with junk, trash and debris, crawling with cockroaches, with water provided only by a bunch of garden hoses linked together.

The homes and a menagerie of 363 domestic and farm animals were "in the brush in the middle of nowhere on a dead-end road" that deputies rarely visited, Bruce said. The property also was littered with 15 to 20 abandoned vehicles.

"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.

Authorities removed 363 animals Tuesday, but said some horses, exotic birds and mice that had been noted on earlier visits were not there when they arrived.

The Humane Society, calling Tuesday's animal rescue the largest it ever had undertaken, said the people were "clearly hoarders" but were also raising and breeding rabbits and dogs, although not necessarily for sale.

Bruce said it did not appear to be a profit-making operation. He said Gambriel told him most of the dogs were abandoned strays she picked up and brought home.

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

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

The animals include more than 50 dogs, more than two dozen cats, 51 rabbits, 20 ducks, 20 chickens, 25 hamsters, six donkeys, 10 goats, 40 exotic birds and more than 150 fish. They also found 12 to 15 dead rabbits, dogs, cats and poultry.

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

The horses and farm animals are being treated at the Humane Society's Longmeadow Rescue Ranch in Union. The others animals are being treated at the Humane Society's headquarters in St. Louis.

The animals will not be available for adoption for weeks, but in the meantime, donations of money, bedding, hay, bird and rabbit cages, and toys are needed, along with volunteer animal handlers and persons willing to do laundry, the Humane Society said.

St. Louis psychotherapist Alec Pollard said hoarding is a serious psychiatric disorder that impairs the judgment of an otherwise lucid person.

He said the disorder has early warning signs, but it isn't until a collection gets blatantly problematic that the irrational thinking becomes obvious and identified.

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

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



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