Poor Mental Healthcare Drove Animal Hoarder with 73 Dogs and Cats to Reoffend, Experts Say

"I don't know what's going on," said Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio after police busted into a squalid Wittman mobile home Wednesday to find 54 dogs and 18 cats crawling over urine-stained furniture. One striped cat, nestled inside an old, cardboard produce box, was nursing three Chihuahua puppies. Another lay dead on the carpet surrounded by feces. "We just seem to be coming across more and more animal-cruelty cases."

Arpaio really shouldn't have been surprised.

The homeowner, 71-year-old John Koepke, had been convicted of animal hoarding once before, and the recidivism rate for the crime, driven by mental illness, is nearly 100 percent. Because the American Psychiatric Association only recently recognized animal hoarding as a disorder, many states -- including Arizona -- have not yet adapted laws to properly address the mental-health component of the issue.

See also: -MCSO Videos: Jail Inmate Beats Up Detention Officers, Cat Cares for Puppies in Hoarder Home

Little is known about what compels someone to begin hoarding animals, said Gary Patronek, founder of the Hoarding Animals Research Consortium at Tufts University, but many people report histories of abuse or trauma in early childhood and struggle to maintain human relationships in adulthood. Most hoarders believe they are helping the animals by giving them a home.

"Animals provide companionship. They're always available. They can't reject you," Patronek said. "It's like heavy-duty therapy. If one cat makes you feel good, the thinking goes, 50 cats is going to make you feel great."

The most common approach to fighting animal hoarding is to raid the home, rescue the animals, and press charges for animal cruelty and neglect, Patronek said. Arizona, ranked eighth in the nation for strong animal-protection laws by the Animal Legal Defense Fund, is one of just a few states that categorizes neglect as a felony alongside abuse.

"We're getting better at taking care of the animals -- which is great -- but we can't forget the human component," Patronek said. "Unfortunately, prosecution is often the only tool we have in the toolbox."

Prosecution is important, he said, but, by itself, it's not effective.

"This person has an incredible bucket of need, and the animals fill that bucket," Patronek said. "When you take the animals away, you haven't helped them. You've just emptied the bucket."

Koepke was "highly emotional" when police came to collect his pets, which he called "his children," the Sheriff's Office reported. He is now facing 72 counts of failure to provide shelter and must pay the medical bills for the cats and dogs, which could amount to thousands of dollars.

Arizona law currently permits the court to order a mental-health evaluation in animal hoarding cases, but the ALDF argues that it should be mandatory, said Lora Dunn, an attorney with the nonprofit's criminal justice division. As part of sentencing, she said, animal hoarders also should be explicitly required to complete counseling and banned from owning animals in the future.

Furthermore, experts in the field say, laws need to be changed to empower law enforcement officials and human society workers to intervene in animal-hoarding cases before the situation merits prosecution.

Tamie Murrillo, an animal-cruelty investigator with the Humane Society of Arizona, said she has been able to help animal hoarders pare down their collections from 40 or 50 animals to more manageable numbers, like 10 or 5, depending on their capability to care for them. She refers them to counseling services and helps them get their pets spayed and neutered. She tries to build a relationship so they will feel comfortable reaching out if they ever get overwhelmed again.

"After we've established rapport, sometimes a hoarder will call to tell me, 'My cat had kittens. It's too much for me. I need help,'" she said. "The key is helping them to keep their dignity."

Oftentimes, Murrillo is able to head off prosecution. She can only help, however, if the individual agrees to let her in the door. If they refuse, she can call in police, but even they can't investigate until they've gathered enough evidence to justify a warrant.

Patronek argues that, because of the mental health component of hoarding, animal-protection laws should be more like child-protection laws. If someone suspects child maltreatment, residents must allow police in to take a look.

"These people need help, but they may not know it," he said. "Someone should be able to knock on the door and get everybody on the right track."

Got a tip? Send it to: Elizabeth Stuart.

Follow Valley Fever on Twitter at @ValleyFeverPHX. Follow Elizabeth Stuart on Twitter at @elizMstuart.

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Elizabeth Stuart
Contact: Elizabeth Stuart