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County hamstrung without hoarding restrictions

When Lee County Sheriff's deputies arrested Barbara Munroe and charged her with the neglect of hundreds of cats, dogs and birds kept at her rural home, it was the second time in four years such a thing had occurred in Lee County. In December 2003, the Illinois Department of Agriculture, the Lee County Animal Control Department and several other agencies removed about 200 dogs from a rural Amboy location on Sleepy Hollow Road. The animals were transported to various agencies for treatment of malnutrition and other conditions. Many others were euthanized.

At that time, county officials knew Barbara Munroe's name. They also knew she had a relatively large number of animals.

In 1998, when Munroe bought her property in Reynolds Township south of Rochelle, former Lee County Animal Control officer Dee Duffy helped her through the paperwork of registering her animals with the county.

Duffy estimated that Munroe had about 35 animals at the time.

When the county moved in on Munroe's property last month, the numbers dwarfed the Amboy case of Tiffany McCoy - 106 dogs, 160 cats and 31 birds were seized from Munroe's property, and another 200 cat carcasses, along with a couple of dead dogs.

So could the county have intervened before Munroe's animal collection grew out off hand?

Although the horrific conditions surrounding McCoy's arrest put the county on edge about Munroe, Lee County Animal Control Supervisor Nancy Cullen said her department could not demand entry into Munroe's home without a search warrant, and to obtain the warrant she needed probable cause to believe Munroe was violating a law.

While Animal Control suspected things were not going well inside Munroe's home, Cullen and other county officials felt hamstrung without any state or local law preventing the collection of a large number of animals.

Isn't there a law?

Long before Munroe moved to northeastern Lee County and began collecting her menagerie of companion animals, she had previous brushes with the law over animals while living in two locations in Will County.

One location was governed by an ordinance restricting the number of dogs a resident could own. The other was not.

Will County Administrator of Animal Control Dr. Leroy Schild said Munroe moved from her home in Joliet to a family home in unincorporated Plainfield after zoning officers found her in violation of the Joliet ordinance restricting the number of dogs per household to five.

In rural Plainfield, as in unincorporated Lee County, there is no such restriction.

About the only hard and fast rules are that dogs must be vaccinated and registered, and dog owners can have no more than five breedable females without a required kennel operator's license. As long as her dogs were vaccinated and registered with county officials, Munroe could keep as many as she liked.

Schild said the simple regulations are there by design. Counties want to make it as easy as possible for dog owners to comply.

"The last thing you want is the alternative where people just don't register at all," Schild said. "It's our goal to have as many animals compliant as possible from a public health standpoint."

Cullen wonders whether there's a middle ground - something that makes it easier for her to obtain a search warrant, or something that gives her office the authority to intervene with suspicious homes before they reach dereliction.

In 2001, Illinois became the first state to pass a law directly addressing animal hoarding. It provides a definition of an animal hoarder, puts an emphasis on psychiatric treatment for the accused and includes sentencing guidelines that encourage judges to prohibit convicted hoarders from ever owning another pet.

Although the 2001 Illinois law provides clearer direction to the criminal justice system in handling cases once authorities have discovered them, the state statute does not give authorities any greater opportunities to sniff out potential hoarders before things get out of hand.

That's up to local municipalities and counties to decide for themselves.

Cat and mouse

Lee County Animal Control employees, Sheriff's deputies and Environmental Health inspectors had all made several house calls to Munroe over nearly 10 years.

Neighbors complained about noise and sanitation. Dogs occasionally escaped their pens, rats scuttled across the road, and Munroe became increasingly withdrawn in the months leading up to her arrest.

"There were a lot of red flags ... ," Cullen said.

Munroe could not care for the hundreds of animals on her own, so she hired kennel assistants and local teenagers to help her purchase and feed the animals 200 pounds of food every day.

Turnover on part-time help was high, and Cullen said chance encounters with kennel assistants confirmed what she suspected about Munroe: "You could tell there was something not right about her ... but she would never let anyone in her house, not even friends," Cullen said.

"I would ask her, 'Hey Barb, you got any dogs in the house?' because I thought she had some in there ... Turns out she'd been doing this for a long time," Cullen said.

The same was true of Environmental Health officials. In 2003, Environmental Health answered a complaint about mounds of trash and filthy clothing that piled up in Munroe's front yard. They went to the property to insist she remove the garbage. Munroe cleaned up her yard, and officials backed off.

Another complaint came a year later, and the cat-and-mouse scenario replayed itself.

Much like Animal Control attempted to help Munroe keep up with the vaccination and veterinary care of her animals, Environmental Health Director Tim Trader worked with Munroe to help keep her and her property in the best shape they could.

"Things had been moving in a positive direction for a long time," Trader said, but there are legal restrictions on how far Environmental Health could impose on Munroe, while civil liberties concerns kept both agencies from prying their way into Munroe's home.

"There weren't children in the home ... The person is making a choice to live a certain way, and it's something you and I might not understand, but you have to work with them as best you can," Trader said. "This is something we can all learn from, so we can try to avoid something like this in the future."

Reach Sam Smith at (815) 284-2222, (815) 625-3600 or (800) 798-4085, ext. 525.

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