Neighbors began complaining about the house a couple years ago.
The stench. The mess. The cats. None of it seemed normal. But it wasn’t until Dennis Benson cracked open a freezer in Penny McIntosh’s backyard nearly two weeks ago that he decided it was time for drastic measures.
He didn’t have time to look inside. The smell made him throw up. Authorities later told him it was filled with dead cats in varying stages of decomposition. In response to his complaint, SpokAnimal C.A.R.E. raided the small house at 2812 W. Sharp Ave. two days later, seizing 85 cats and four dogs.
“It’s like living next to a human toilet,” said Benson, sitting in his living room, windows shut and a fan keeping him cool. “You can’t even enjoy a nice summer evening with the breeze blowing through an open window.”
Animal experts say a cat advocate – which McIntosh has been called over the years, according to past reports – can quickly transform into a cat hoarder because of the region’s animal overpopulation problem.
“People will call and say, ‘You’re this animal’s last hope,’ ” said Cheryl Mitchell, a Spokane lawyer and animal rights advocate. “You have to be really hard-hearted to say, ‘No, I think you should kill your cat.’ There just aren’t resources for people who encounter these problems.”
With euthanasia always a threat, cat hoarders usually think of themselves as the animal’s only hope, said Curt Ransom, West Coast regional program manager for the Humane Society of the United States.
“There’s not a quality of life gene working here. There is just life or death,” Ransom said. “It’s rather ironic. … They might be safe from death, but they’re not safe from suffering.”
The fear of cats being euthanized appeared to aid McIntosh’s transformation over the years, said her lawyer, Dave Hearrean, who fielded questions on his client’s behalf.
He said McIntosh needs “serious, serious help,” not criminal punishment.
“I think the fumes affected her ability to reason, and that’s sad,” Hearrean said. “She’d never do anything to hurt an animal. Never.”
McIntosh worked with several cat rescue groups in the region, where she obtained most of the cats seized Aug. 1, said Gail Mackie, SpokAnimal executive director. The cats had respiratory problems that cleared up after leaving the home, and most have been adopted or returned to rescue agencies, she said. SpokAnimal wrapped up its investigation and forwarded it to the county prosecutor’s office this week, which will decide whether to file charges.
McIntosh fits the profile of a cat hoarder, Mackie said.
“A lot of the time it’s someone who starts with good intentions and things just get out of hand,” she said. “They’re reluctant to even relinquish dead bodies.”
Two freezers at the home – one outside and one in – contained cat carcasses. McIntosh rented the property, so it’s up to the home’s owner to deal with the dead cats, Mackie said. SpokAnimal passed along contact information for companies specializing in bio-hazardous material removal.
“I’ve never, never seen anything that even comes close to this,” said Bryan Townsend, an animal control officer who raided the home. “Basically, we walked into a house filled with massive amounts of fecal matter and a lot of animals.”
A fire at a home McIntosh was renting on West Buckeye Avenue in 2004 killed about 10 cats; more than 20 survived. At the time, an animal control officer described the cats as “very well taken care of,” and McIntosh’s daughter, Karie Dubee, told the newspaper that her mother boarded cats while finding them homes.
“It made her so happy to rescue the animals that were going to be put down,” Dubee said at the time. But Benson said he and his wife began noticing the mess next door a couple years ago and tried to contact homeowner Pat Morgan, a lawyer for whom McIntosh once worked as a secretary.
Nothing seemed to change, so Benson offered to help McIntosh clean the backyard last summer. He was working back there again when he peeked inside the fly-covered freezer.
The freezer was removed last weekend, and Benson said he has seen people moving things out of the house. The smell is gradually improving, he said, but comes back in wafts.
Mackie said cat rescues in the region began to realize McIntosh had a problem over the last couple of years and stopped sending felines her way.
“This problem has been going on for a while,” she said.
But it can be difficult to pinpoint when a situation turns from a cat-rescue effort to a cat-hoarding situation, said Ransom.
“You can never tell when the switch turns, but it’s usually when their resources run out – physically and mentally – to where they just can’t deal with what they have,” Ransom said. “That’s where denial happens.”
And often, he said, such people feel there’s nowhere to turn for help.
In the Inland Northwest, packed cat shelters often don’t have room for more.
“The help they can give you is ‘bring the cats in here and we’ll put them to sleep,’ ” Hearrean said. “She didn’t want that. She loves these animals.”