When I was a kid, a cat lady lived near my grandparents. The cat lady's cheeks were rouged in perfect round circles and she muttered to herself. Everyone said she was crazy, and that she smelled funny because she had hundreds of cats in her house. Sometimes, I would sneak up to her home to try to catch a glimpse of her. I was too frightened to get close enough to look in her windows.
I got the same creepy feeling as I walked up Dr. Lise LaBarre's junky driveway. I recalled the November news accounts after LaBarre's west Valley farm was raided by the Sheriff's Office, Arizona Humane Society and Child Protective Services. I read about how LaBarre, a neurologist, was slapped with multiple animal-cruelty charges. Her kid was removed from her filthy home by CPS. And I remembered the TV coverage of the raid--young reporters asking LaBarre to respond to allegations of animal and child abuse. LaBarre adamantly denied the charges and begged for some privacy.
But the creepy feeling vanished when I met LaBarre. She isn't a crazy cat lady. She's a kindhearted, extremely eccentric woman who has lost her livelihood and her child after being savaged by journalists too stupid to realize they were being exploited.
Lise LaBarre is such an easy target.
She lives west of Luke Air Force Base, in an old modular home that sits on 20 acres of farmland. Her driveway is cluttered with old appliances, old cars, discarded furniture and large garbage cans filled with dog kibble.
There are rescued animals everywhere.
An enormous 14-year-old Hereford cow that LaBarre had rescued as a calf from the slaughterhouse lives in a pasture. An elderly hog that LaBarre had saved from slaughter as a piglet wallows nearby. A pot-bellied pig hangs out near the house, with the dogs.
When I reached the front gate, 75 dogs barked and yowled. Several mutts jumped against the chain-link fence in the front yard; the rest were in 39 kennels, out back.
When LaBarre walked out to greet me, she wasn't dirty or stinky or crazy. I saw a friendly, slightly dowdy 47-year-old woman wearing clogs, a tee shirt and bright pink slacks.
She took me to see her kennels, which cost her $200,000 and are far more impressive than her house. Practically yelling over the barking din, she explained that in 1989, she began rescuing hundreds of dogs from "kill lists" at animal shelters. She paid to have the creatures inoculated, neutered, de-wormed. She then took the animals to pet-supply stores like Petco or PetsMart, from which she adopted them out to good homes. So far, she figures, she's placed about 600 dogs once condemned to lethal injection.
Behind the kennels, she shows me the pet cemetery the authorities and media found so horrific--"a virtual burial ground."
"Better to bury my dogs here than in a landfill," LaBarre says, explaining that on the rare occasions when she must take a dog to be euthanized, she always brings it home to be buried.
Problem is, the living dogs dig and, sometimes, they'll unearth bones of their deceased companions.
Last year, she says matter-of-factly, she shoveled dirt over a pet hog named Miranda that had died of old age. She had no choice but to leave the 1,000-pound carcass in her west pasture, right where Miranda died. After a hard rain, the hog's foot sticks out of its burial mound like a periscope.
For reasons I can't explain, all of this makes perfect sense to me. Where there's sickness, there's also death.
But I asked LaBarre if she hadn't been a little obsessive-compulsive about her rescue work, if it didn't interfere with her being a mother or a doctor--or both.
"I always had time for my son," she says. "I worked eight hours a day as a doctor. No, I'm not obsessive. I do what I do by default. All these people abandon their animals, and someone has to take care of them."
Before the well-publicized November 14 raid, LaBarre also took in sick cats that needed nursing. She figures she had 50 or so dispersed in kennels in her television room, her son's bedroom and in two unused rooms at her medical office.
"CPS and the Humane Society made it seem as though my entire house was covered with cat shit," she says. "That's not true."
Although I saw no cat droppings in her home, LaBarre could take a few tips from Heloise's Housekeeping Hints--her bathroom and bedroom were immaculate, but her kitchen and living room were cluttered and dirty. The place smelled of animal.
"Okay," says Lise LaBarre, "I'm not a very good housekeeper. Is that a sin?"
LaBarre tells me that the need to care for the animals took precedence over housekeeping. For years she managed to juggle her medical practice, parenting and animal care. But something spun out of control in early 1996, when she started taking in sick cats. The cats she rescued from death row had viruses and ringworm, but being a doctor, she figured she could nurse them back to health, then find them good homes.
When the deputies, Humane Society and journalists descended on LaBarre's property last November, they found her as exhausted and defenseless as one of her ailing pets.
She needed help, but she didn't deserve to lose everything she loved.
She lost her son and most of her neurology patients. Now she fears she'll lose her medical license. Officials from the Arizona Board of Medical Examiners were to interview her this week to see if she is fit to practice medicine. I checked LaBarre's file, and she's only been disciplined once in nearly 20 years--for having a disorganized office.
LaBarre has no money to hire a lawyer. She's spent it all on the animals.
"I feel so violated," she says. "As though every civil right I had has been bulldozed. To tell you the truth, I don't care if another person ever sets foot in my house."
Two agencies--the Sheriff's Office and the Humane Society--have reaped PR benefits from LaBarre's misfortune.
One of them tipped off the reporters who arrived minutes after the raid began. Sheriff Joe Arpaio--whose jails might not withstand a Humane Society inspection--has not responded to my requests for comment. But his office got wonderful news coverage--Brave Officers Rescue Abused Animals at Crazy Lady's House!--and I suspect this show-bust was choreographed by Arpaio's people.
Lise LaBarre believes the Humane Society called the media. After all, she says, she found more homes for more animals than the society did. She was, in a way, its competitor. Busting her would put her out of business and publicize the Humane Society's good deeds.
Ken White, executive director of the Arizona Humane Society and part-time columnist for the Arizona Republic, says his organization did not tip the media. The Humane Society did get a few extra donations after the bust, he says, but he claims the organization took in far less than it spent caring for LaBarre's sick cats and finding them homes.
White suggests that LaBarre's long-suffering neighbors might have called the TV crews. I find this implausible. Lise LaBarre does not live in Clearwater Hills--her neighbors are as trashy as she is. This is an area where junked cars are part of the landscaping and everyone seems to breed dogs or some species of loud and smelly livestock.
I'm willing to take White at his word when he says the Humane Society did not notify the press--although the day after I called White, Lise LaBarre received three voice-mail messages from a Republic reporter suddenly interested in doing a follow-up story.
Lise LaBarre's 13-year-old boy has grim memories of November 14, 1996--the day the authorities whisked him from his mother. I met him during his weekly "home visit."
The boy knows that LaBarre, whom he calls "Mom," is not his real mother. He knows the goodhearted neurologist raised him from infancy because his biological mother had asked her to. He knows LaBarre never formally adopted him, thinking the birth mother would return one day. But the boy does not want to be with his birth mother. He wants LaBarre to adopt him.
After all, LaBarre rescued him, just like she rescued hundreds of dogs and cats.
The boy says he found nothing unusual about his life with Lise LaBarre and her menagerie of creatures, both living and dead.
What he did find scary was the Child Protective Services worker named Claudette who came to his house. (His teacher had complained to CPS because the boy's clothes smelled of animals.)
After a few minutes, Claudette told the boy the house was "unfit" for him. She drove him to a CPS shelter in Mesa, 50 miles away.
The next day, he watched television news reports. He saw strangers--deputies and Humane Society workers--swarm over his home. There were close-ups of White Mama, a dog with a huge tumor.
Reporters asked his mother to respond to allegations of animal cruelty and child abuse. He was upset to see his mother looking so bewildered, denying the allegations and asking everyone to leave the property. She looked like, well, a trapped animal.
The Arizona Republic reported that Love Tub, the cow, was a "bull."
It also reported that CPS had removed the boy from his filthy home. The paper described LaBarre's property as a place "where hundreds of dogs and cats, some of them injured, wandered among animal carcasses, a skull and pieces of cat strewn across a 'virtual burial ground.'"
It was a grisly story indeed. "One dog was so infected it had lost its nose," the newspaper reported, adding that another dog "with a basketball-sized tumor" (White Mama) had been taken away to be euthanized.
Of course, all of this caused the boy in the shelter to be teased.
"Your mother's a dirty bitch," kids told him.
The boy fought with his tormentors.
He learned quickly not to show weakness. Instead of dogs and cats, he lives with streetwise teenagers who are bigger and tougher than he. To show vulnerability, he learned, is an invitation to attack.
"I keep my spirits up with a picture on the wall," the boy says. It is a picture of his home.
Sometimes he takes out a pad of paper and pencil and writes the same five words over and over again: "Get me out of here."
Not a single charge of child abuse has been filed against Lise LaBarre.
Listening to the boy as I sit in Lise LaBarre's kitchen, I have no doubt his "mom" is a very unusual lady. Not many physicians live in a cheap modular home surrounded by hundreds of rescued animals. Not many docs live in humble digs while their dogs reside in a $200,000 kennel facility that features (honestly) Greek and Roman statuary.
But I can tell you that the dogs were well-fed, watered and in clean kennels. They are not abused animals--just unwanted mutts.
If the Humane Society or Sheriff's Office had found otherwise, surely the dogs would have been confiscated.
There's nothing wrong with the dogs--not even Misty, the Republic's noseless dog. Misty's nose looks funny--she had mange--but a veterinarian's notes say the dog's nose is healthy but overlicked.
The Humane Society pressed the Sheriff's Office to cite LaBarre with 48 misdemeanor counts of animal cruelty (the charges are pending in Justice Court). Forty-seven charges stemmed from the conditions of the cats. The 48th was for White Mama.
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But LaBarre didn't make these animals sick. She was trying to make them better.
Is she really the cruel cat lady she was made out to be? Did she deserve to lose her livelihood and her child?
I don't think so.
It's the people who invaded her home and took away her son who should be charged with inhumane treatment--of humans.