The Truth About Cats & Dogs

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.

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Terry Greene Sterling