When Is a Rescuer a Hoarder?

When Is A Rescuer A Hoarder

Photo The Bakersfield Californian/Zumapress

When Is a Rescuer a Hoarder?

Staff at Frontier Veterinary Clinic in Cheyenne, Wyoming, sensed that something was wrong as soon as they met the woman driving the white pickup with California plates. It was a cool May day in 2014, and she wore a down jacket over her pale blue tracksuit. Kimi Peck had called earlier, asking to get rabies shots for 20 dogs—a strange request in itself—but when she opened the jury-rigged plywood door of the camping trailer she was pulling, there were close to 60 animals inside: Chihuahuas, terrier and border collie mixes, pit bulls, an Australian shepherd, a saluki, and a shaggy Great Pyrenees. Some ran loose; others were in rows of stacked animal crates. The trailer was wet with urine. It stank.

She was part of a rescue operation, Peck explained, and en route to a sanctuary in Utah. The story made no sense. Peck looked worn and wan; her hands were twisted with arthritis. What rescue would send someone like this to drive a load of unvaccinated dogs through the harsh emptiness of the West?

A clinic employee called animal control, which, it turned out, had gotten a call about the driver and her cargo earlier in the week, when they’d been parked at a nearby Walmart. In fact, the driver’s name was all over the Internet, with claims from people in California that she was an animal hoarder. Officers had inspected the trailer and reported the dogs to be well fed and not in distress. The Frontier Veterinary staff disagreed. The animals were dirty and too thin; several had serious health issues, like eye problems and hair loss. When officers arrived, they confiscated all but four (the maximum local law allowed as pets).

Afterward Peck, the former head of Burbank-based Chihuahua Rescue, towed her trailer south to rural Weld County, Colorado, where she’d previously camped behind a mobile home off I-25. As she slept the next morning, two neighbors who’d read about her online found the saluki and shepherd running loose and took them to Boulder’s Humane Society. (Peck later said that the women had broken into her trailer and stolen the dogs.) Humane Society staff pronounced the saluki emaciated, and two days later, on May 5, a sheriff’s deputy arrested Peck on a charge of animal cruelty.

News of the bust, covered by media in both Colorado and Wyoming, quickly traveled to the Southern California animal rescue networks. For a handful of women who had once worked with and for Peck and devoted considerable effort to having her declared a menace, it was a moment of triumph. Other activists just felt a grinding sadness: Please, not again.

While the rescue movement has helped alter the fates of countless unwanted pets, it has also given birth to a perversion of itself: the rescue hoarder, who “saves” animals only to hold them forever, often in horrific conditions. Dozens of cases, involving thousands of suffering animals, are exposed yearly. Randall Lockwood, the Washington, D.C.-based senior vice president of forensic sciences and anti-cruelty projects for the ASPCA, says that as many as 25 percent of the nation’s large-scale animal hoarding cases involve individuals and groups that self-identify as rescue efforts.

For almost two decades members of the animal welfare community in L.A. have called Kimi Peck a rescue hoarder, an accusation that enrages her. “A hoarder!” she hissed when I raised the subject one afternoon, four months after her arrest. We were having breakfast in a small café in Boulder, Colorado (she’s remained in the state while awaiting trial). “A psychologically disturbed person, a terrible-looking person! You could not be sitting here talking to a hoarder. They’re not capable of relating to another human being.”

Peck came to meet me, driving the white truck. Nearly 65, she was dressed in the style of a young woman—long blond hair and pink lipstick, leggings, Uggs. She had been suspicious when I first contacted her by e-mail, responding that people lied about her and asking how she could be sure I was who I claimed to be. Then, writing “I had a different feeling about you,” she agreed to talk to me in person. Peck had read my work online, learned that I drank strong coffee, and brought me a pound of organic dark roast. We spoke for more than four hours; she asked only that I tell the truth.

The truth about Peck, though, isn’t a question of “Is she or isn’t she?” Her alleged offenses have been far less gruesome than those committed by others who’ve been exposed as rescue hoarders—at Spindletop “sanctuary” near Houston, which was busted in 2012, 38 dogs suffocated in an unventilated room—but the accusations have been constant, consistent, and come from people in five counties in three states. Her rebuttal is a litany of conspiracy and persecution.

Peck’s sad, disturbing saga is both specific and archetypal. Most rescue hoarders are female, intelligent, articulate, driven, media wise, good at accumulating animals, litigious—and excruciatingly hard to stop. In large part that’s because we all enable them. To understand how a self-proclaimed “savior” of animals becomes the prime agent of their misery is to explore the intersection where personal pathology meets the public’s blind faith that there’s an easy, happy ending for our society’s endless stream of discarded, sick, stray, overbred, takes-up-too-much time, shouldn’t-have-been-born dogs and cats. Everything will be OK, we tell ourselves, as long as they get out of the shelter alive.

When you witness a dog being rescued from the pound, it’s easy to appreciate the difficult, quixotic nature of the work. At 10 a.m. last April, I followed Jessica Landesman, the founder and president of What’s Up Dog! L.A., through the West Valley Animal Shelter, where she’d gone to “pull” an elderly Pekingese. “That dog is too old to live here,” she said. Two weeks later I was in South Los Angeles with Carole Pearson, the founder of the group Dawg Squad, who was after a neglected chow mix: “I saw a picture of her, and I just liked her face.”

Both women had been up since dawn. Rescuers’ days typically start early, with a flood of photos and e-mails from others desperate to place some endangered creature.

THIS SWEET GIRL NEEDS A HOME, NOW!

PLEASE SHARE! TEXAS DOG ON DEATH ROW!

FW: FW: FW: HIS TIME IS UP! SAVE THIS BABY!

The worst of the e-mails threaten: “If this dog dies, it’s on you.” Landesman and Pearson had found out about the dogs they intended to save from a friendly member of the shelter staff or a volunteer who knew the type of animal that interested them. (Most rescues have a specialty—bottle-feeding kittens, senior dogs, specific breeds.) They had learned to walk through the rows of metal cages, avoiding all the other pleading eyes. A rescuer can’t visit a shelter just to see what’s there, says Pearson. “It’s like going into Costco without a list.”

Each took legal ownership of her chosen dog quickly: All that was required was a bit of paperwork and cash. Registered nonprofits, like their groups, get a break on the adoption price at public shelters, and if an animal is considered at high risk for euthanasia and a group is one of the city’s “New Hope Partners,” it’s just $5.50. A vet checkup would come next, then a visit to the groomer. Both women post photos of available dogs online on their own Web sites and on Petfinder.com, which receives more than half a million visits a day. Pearson has a weekly meet-and-greet at a Ladera Heights pet store. Neither pulls a dog without having somewhere to house it before it’s adopted, or funds to cover care, although reality often messes with planning. The day I followed Landesman, she took an additional dog—a young Chihuahua whose leg had been amputated—after a staffer whispered that the shelter didn’t have the medical facilities for good follow-up. Pearson’s vet discovered a gaping wound on the chow’s chest; it needed immediate surgery. Still, these two animals would live and, with luck, find their “forever home.”

That wouldn’t have been the case a few generations ago, when a stray or unwanted animal’s only future was death. In the 1970s, some 20 million dogs and cats were being euthanized each year in the United States, 110,000 in the City of Los Angeles. With the spread of pet sterilization the numbers came way down, but as late as the mid-1980s, an animal brought into a shelter was likely to die there. The city’s annual death toll stood at 60,000. In 1989, Rich Avanzino, president of the San Francisco SPCA, implemented a radical change, a city policy that came to be called No Kill, which declared that no healthy animal should die because it doesn’t have a home. No Kill is now the dominant national paradigm, with about 70 percent of people responding to a 2011 AP-Petside.com poll saying that only terminally ill or dangerous animals should be put down. Municipal shelters can’t hold large numbers of animals for years on end; rescue is the response.

The movement almost resists definition. It’s decentralized, unregulated—anybody can join in—and exists as a loose collection of disparate groups and individuals, most of them women. Some handle seven animals; others, hundreds. Efforts are regional, national, well funded, broke. A rescuer may keep animals in her own living room or yard, board them in kennels, find foster homes, open a “sanctuary” for those too damaged to ever join a family, or arrange transport to another part of the country. Some help strays, but most pull from crowded public shelters—which, under pressure to reduce their euthanasia rates, are glad to help.

Anyone who’s tried to adopt from a rescue group knows how exasperating the experience can be, with volunteers visiting prospective homes to ask where the animal will sleep and who gets custody in case of divorce. For rescuers the stakes of each adoption are high. Hours of unpaid labor (and love) go into every animal, and placements fail. About 30 percent of shelter animals were turned in by their owners in the United States; 20 percent of those surrendered animals were adopted from the shelter to begin with. The City of L.A.’s No Kill effort is three years old, but we still euthanize 25 percent of shelter animals. In facilities run by L.A. County, the figure is twice as high.

Rescue’s central fact is failure: Choosing to save one animal means leaving another behind. “I had a volunteer tell me ‘it’s like Sophie’s choice,’ ” says Lori Weise, the founder of Downtown Dog Rescue. “But you have to accept that you can’t save them all, or you’ll go crazy.” The flip side of the failure is a high as addictive as any drug. To be known as a rescuer is to receive constant praise: “You’re a saint for what you do! You’re an angel!” The act of rescuing is one of awesome power. For each animal saved, it’s the rescuer who stood between life and death. It takes being strong and self-aware, with good boundaries, other interests, and a network of sane friends, to avoid succumbing to the despair or getting drunk on the power.

That’s where the trouble can start.

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Kimi Peck tells her story as one of heroic struggle. She’s the woman who fought the system, who gave up everything for her animals, only to be persecuted by fellow rescuers. “They never liked me,” she says. “I’m sorry to say, but people were jealous. Most rescuers do not come from a privileged background. They end up in rescue because there’s nothing else for them.”

By contrast, Peck says, “I’ve had an extraordinarily exciting life.” The family history she offers is cinematic, grand. She leans forward eagerly as she talks. Peck grew up Kimi Moore in a hillside Bel-Air home, the granddaughter of a celebrated silent-film writer; she owned horses, went to private schools, came out as a debutante. Her parents adored her, and her best friends, she says, “were always celebrities’ kids.” If bad things happened, she triumphed. When she was 16, her 26-year-old boyfriend slammed his sports car into a telephone pole as they raced through Brentwood, and she broke her neck; though hospital caregivers predicted she’d never walk again, she proved them wrong. At 17 she was impregnated by a high school classmate, but her parents and the boy’s parents shared custody of the baby, who, she says, “grew up to be a fantastic guy.” After her mother confessed that Kimi wasn’t her adored father’s biological child but the product of an affair, she reports taking the news calmly: “I said, ‘Mom, he is my father. Our spirits were meant to be together.’ ”

Kimi majored in film at USC; slender, pretty, and popular with men, she was 21 when she wed Hollywood legend Gregory Peck’s 25-year-old son, Stephen, in a ceremony that made the papers nationwide. The marriage was over in seven years. She wed her divorce lawyer, but that didn’t last, either. A number of romantic relationships followed before she married the handsome older key grip she calls her soul mate, although she admits the two actually lived together only a short time.

Though some portions of Peck’s autobiography check out, others don’t. A friend who’s been close to Peck since college says her son wasn’t part of her life: “She never told me she was a mother. When we met, she said she was a virgin. She never saw that child.” Nor does Peck mention that one of her affairs led to another sad foray into motherhood. Her second son, like the first, vanished from her life, to be raised by others.

Before Peck was 30, she sold the original script that became the 1980 Tatum O’Neal and Matt Dillon film Little Darlings, and she says that afterward she sold a dozen more, which enabled her to buy a small ranch in the Valley, a Jaguar, and a “stable of Andalusian stallions.” None of these other screenplays was produced, and she quit Hollywood. “I couldn’t stand the awful people anymore,” she says. Later, low on funds, Peck wrote and directed four porn features with titles like The Hunchback of Nasty Dames and Outlaw Sluts.

If men and movies came and went, animals were a constant. In college Peck rescued and found homes for a series of pound dogs, and she carried her own Chihuahua everywhere in her purse. For several years she used her screenwriting money to fund adoptions of broken-down racehorses and discarded family ponies that had been destined for slaughter, work she apparently did responsibly and well.

Then in February 1994, when she lived in a Burbank home near the Los Angeles Equestrian Center, Peck adopted a second Chihuahua—one of the many animals left homeless by the Northridge quake—from the West Valley shelter. She says she doesn’t know how it happened, but her name and unlisted phone number were later included on a list of breed rescuers. Within days strangers were leaving unwanted Chihuahuas on her doorstep.

It was a pivotal time, with the Internet enabling nascent rescue groups to advertise animals online. Taco Bell introduced a Chihuahua mascot, starting a craze for the little dogs, which were then abandoned at shelters in droves when they proved noisy and difficult to housebreak. Peck says she didn’t define herself as a rescuer: “I was Kimi Peck, successful screenwriter, and somebody dumped Chihuahuas on me, but they’re adorable, they’re worming their way into my heart, and I will get them great homes.”

Most people trying to save animals know their own limits; Peck never accepted them. “I had a lot of money,” she says, “so I didn’t have to. How about that?” Soon she had problems. In 1997, the City of Burbank cited her for operating an illegal kennel. Separated by then from her third husband, she sold her home and with a boyfriend moved to Sunland, then Agua Dulce. The landlady there evicted her, later saying that Peck had kept more than a hundred dogs confined to crates in one room, including an intact male “covered in urine bed sores [with] nails so long…they were curling.” Peck relocated back to Burbank, where she soon drew another illegal kennel citation.

Animal Rescue
One of the 130-plus rescues Peck surrendered to authorities in Kern County that year.

In 2000, she made a new friend, Susan Marlowe, a Beverly Hills accountant who, Peck says, suggested she register Chihuahua Rescue as an IRS-approved nonprofit. Marlowe was married to Michael Goland, a politically connected businessman who’d been found guilty years earlier in a case involving campaign finance violations. Peck says that Goland gave her the down payment to buy a modest two-bedroom in Burbank (the deed was in his name); later she rented an adjoining warehouse to serve as a kennel. No Kill was by now a passionate national effort of conferences and declarations. Eighteen animal welfare leaders from across the country met in Pacific Grove, California, to formulate the Asilomar Accords, a set of protocols aimed at eliminating euthanasia and later signed by hundreds of organizations.

Chihuahua Rescue, with its defiant motto, “Never Kill,” attracted the support of minor celebrities and brought in donations of $70,000 to $100,000 a year. In 2003, Peck became a hero by winning a court fight that forced the L.A. County Department of Animal Care and Control to turn over more than a hundred near-feral Chihuahuas that had been confiscated from the squalid home of an unlicensed breeder. Animal Planet devoted an episode of the series Adoption Tails to the drama, filming the dogs’ exodus from the Baldwin Park shelter after “one woman rallie[d] to set them free.” People magazine ran a story about Peck, calling her “Dog’s Best Friend,” and the rescue’s own Web site went further: “A Chihuahua in need or injured is blessed to be delivered to Kimi…She is an inspiration to us all.”

“Other rescues picked the cute dogs,” Peck told me. “We would fight to save everybody. My favorites were the biters, because you know they’ve been beaten and tortured, and they don’t trust anybody. You have to tell them that there are good people in the world…I did the training myself. I can’t explain what I do. It’s a feeling. A communication with them. You can trust me, dog—if you just come to me and trust me, I will give you life.”

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Peck’s triumph with the near-feral Chihuahuas brought a crowd of eager volunteers to her operation, but they were stunned by what they discovered. There were dogs—including larger breeds like boxers, German shepherds, and salukis—everywhere, in Peck’s home as well as in the warehouse. Animals spent their days in closed rooms, crates, or crowded dog runs. Medical treatment was administered unevenly, with thousands spent on one animal, nothing on many others. Daily care was spottier still. Crates were stashed in out-of-the-way places, and animals might be ignored for days. With rows stacked three and four high, waste from dogs on top ran over those below. Signed statements from eight men and women who worked at or with Chihuahua Rescue also said “the filth was constant” and described infestations of fleas and ticks as well as intestinal parasites. One volunteer described a dog with a broken leg whose brace was left on so long, the leg “eventually required amputation, after which the dog was confined to a crate.”

Peck denies there were such problems at the rescue. “I never said we were the Ritz. Though my kennel was beautiful,” she maintains. Any shortcomings were the fault of a changing roster of employees, most of whom lived at a nearby halfway house. “Susan hired them all,” Peck recalls, referring to her CPA friend (through her attorney, Marlowe denies this). “They were all very defective people,” she adds.

The point of pulling shelter animals is to find them new homes, but Peck’s volunteers saw little effort being made to do that. On adoption days, says Ida Noack, a neighbor who’d acquired a Chihuahua Rescue dog and then did volunteer work at the rescue, only 10 to 20 dogs in their crates would be lined up on the driveway while hundreds more languished inside, unseen. Would-be adopters complained that applications were lost and that when Peck scheduled visits to check their homes for suitability, she wouldn’t show.

“At first I thought she was just disorganized,” says Noack. “I tried to increase the adoption rate, but Kimi would say, ‘No, that one has a heart condition.’ ‘You can’t hold that one because it will get hurt.’ There was always a reason a dog couldn’t go.”

Peck certainly did place some animals; whether the figure is close to 5,000—a claim she has made for years—is impossible to say. But consistently more arrived at the shelter than left. Dogs came from the pound and from other organizations wanting to send their Chihuahuas to a “specialist.” Former volunteers assert that Peck purchased dogs, too, from Craigslist sellers, even backyard breeders, and allowed her own unfixed animals to reproduce. (Peck flatly denies this.) Joan Rudd, who began working at the rescue in 2004, recalls seeing litters of puppies with weirdly splayed feet. “I found out from a story on puppy mills that that’s what happens to dogs born and kept in crates with wire bottoms—their toes end up stretched open to keep balance.”

Attempts to approach Peck went badly. “Why don’t you just shut your fucking probably drunk mouth?” Peck wrote to a volunteer who sent an e-mail complaining about the dogs getting inadequate care. “…Continue this sick shit and I will get a restraining order.”

Before long, says Noack, “I realized I was dealing with something I couldn’t control.” She and other volunteers turned to the Internet, where they found a name for what they saw.

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Until the late 1990s, no one talked much about the practice of “collecting” animals, as it was then called, except to joke about the local cat lady. Gary Patronek, former director of the Center for Animals and Public Policy at Tufts University, is a veterinarian who’d seen collectors’ homes crowded with starving, excrement-caked dogs and cats. He coined the harsher term “animal hoarding” to describe the behavior. Patronek and a loosely connected, interdisciplinary group of researchers formed the Hoarding of Animals Research Consortium, or HARC, to study a phenomenon they felt had been ignored by medical, mental health, and public care professionals.

Consortium members produced a variety of studies that mapped some of the “what” of animal hoarders, if not the “why.” Along with mostly being women, they tended to focus on dogs or cats, which they kept in large numbers while failing to provide even minimal care. Some hoarders were predatory and selfish; others, well intentioned but overwhelmed. For the rescue hoarder, a once-benevolent mission had become a compulsion. All somehow failed to see either the suffering they caused or the filth in which the animals (and frequently the hoarders themselves) lived. Even corpses would go unacknowledged. And all were compelled so powerfully that without treatment, recidivism was virtually 100 percent.

“What drives hoarders remains a bit of a mystery,” says Patronek, now an adjunct assistant professor at Tufts’s Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine. For a time researchers believed hoarding was related to obsessive-compulsive disorder or was a variant of addiction; today the theory is that it may be a product of past trauma. With hoarders, “we oftentimes see histories of terrible trauma, chaotic childhoods, inconsistent parenting, sometimes abuse,” says Patronek. “In a trauma-based model you’ll see difficulties with attachment, delusional behavior, efforts at self-repair.” In other words, animals fix a broken self—they offer a relationship that hoarders can’t get from people. Animals, unlike lovers or children, never demand, never say no, never leave. “They’re mine and they need me,” reads the hoarding narrative. “Without me, they will die.”

True rescue isn’t anything like hoarding. But as No Kill and rescue spread, they offered an avenue for it, a way to disguise the practice as something acceptable. Pressured shelters weren’t inclined to ask who was taking the animals they were desperate to avoid euthanizing. A public focused only on the act of saving didn’t ask questions, either. As the rescue movement expanded still further, it took in legions of part-timers and freelancers—also mostly women—who combed online listings for at-risk animals, then posted photos and pleas for financial “pledges” to pull them. What would happen afterward was rarely well thought out, and into the gap between good intention and the real capacity to provide care came serial tragedy.

During the years Peck operated Chihuahua Rescue, former Beverly Hills mayor and self-declared animal rescuer Charlotte Spadaro was forced to give up the 135 dogs and 30 cats she kept in her urine- and feces-soaked Rialto home. One hundred fifty dogs lived in squalor in the Riverside County trailers of nurse Sylvia Gyimesi’s Best Buddies Rescue. More than 100 hungry dogs and puppies inhabited feces-strewn kennels and abandoned RVs at lawyer Diane Carey’s South Central Stray Rescue. Alexia Tiraki-Kyrklund’s Noah’s Ark shelter in Long Beach held 300 filthy dogs and cats in a sweltering warehouse, with corpses in a freezer. Nationally some two dozen animal-hoarding situations have come to light in the last 12 months alone.

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For several years Chihuahua Rescue volunteers sent repeated complaints to the City of Burbank. It’s not clear why nothing worked. But except in Illinois and Hawaii, there’s no actual law against hoarding, and not every district attorney will pursue charges of animal cruelty since hoarding usually involves long-term neglect, rather than deliberate acts of hostility. Filing a cruelty charge can also mean that hundreds of animals must be impounded, treated, and held as evidence for months until trial, sometimes running up vet bills “into hundreds of thousands of dollars,” says Patronek. Worse, the shelters may be forced to put down some of the animals they already have to make space for the influx.

Peck’s volunteers contacted local rescues, which seemed reluctant to criticize anyone working toward No Kill. “I’d be admonished by other rescuers for talking about Kimi,” says Jeanne Develle, who worked for Chihuahua Rescue in the early 2000s. “ ‘You could ruin someone’s ability to help animals.’ ”

“When someone puts ‘No Kill’ before their name, people think the animal will be living in Disneyland the rest of its life,” says Noack. “The sense was, ‘At least the dogs are safe. It’s better than being euthanized.’  ”

Eventually, however, local papers began tracking the story, and Burbank inspectors issued Peck a series of citations for inadequate sanitary conditions, space, drainage, and record keeping. The charges put her on Los Angeles Animal Services’ Do Not Adopt list. In mid-2005, she agreed to relocate in order to have them dropped. “I’m retiring,” she told a Los Angeles Times reporter. “I’m opening a sanctuary for dogs in retirement. Maybe in Northern California or Arizona.”

Instead Peck relocated all the dogs to a two-story house in Tehachapi that she says was purchased with Chihuahua Rescue funds. The home, on 22 acres, was in a canyon, so sound and odors traveled. Soon Peck faced a new round of protests from neighbors, who spent four years futilely asking county government to do something about her, complaining about dogs fighting and yelping in pain as well as the smell of excrement and dead animals.

The legal system moved slowly, but Peck invariably responded to critics with a scorched-earth policy. In 1997, when her Burbank neighbors had complained to the city about her, she sued them, and relations grew so frightening that today they’ll say only “she’s a monster.” A former Tehachapi neighbor also declined to talk to me, saying of their interactions, “It was a very scary time.” Some Chihuahua Rescue volunteers report that they quit after being cursed at and told things like they’d “die from cancer because the anger will eat you up inside” or were threatened with lawsuits. Peck did file, then drop, a number of suits, including one declaring that the volunteers who’d gone to the authorities had defamed her. She and a former friend who worked at Chihuahua Rescue filed restraining orders against each other. “Hey, you stupid little bitch, I hear you’ve been saying I don’t give my dogs medical attention,” began the message she left on one former worker’s phone. “You can fuck yourself…You want to kill my dogs? I’ll kill you.”

Peck’s attacks were frightening but also bred opponents as obsessed as she was. One created a Web site called Hoarding Chihuahuas, which ran graphic pictures of the crowded cages in the Burbank kennel, accompanied by a list of Peck’s many citations. At one point an L.A. resident named Julie Feiner sued Peck for fraud and won a $28,000 judgment. When a Chihuahua belonging to Feiner’s mother died soon after giving birth, Peck promised to provide them with a lactating mother on a temporary basis. Later she refused to return them, saying that they’d been adopted and that Feiner didn’t deserve them. (Peck says she lost the suit only because she couldn’t get to court the day the case was heard.) Feiner didn’t get her dogs back for five years; they were among those confiscated in Cheyenne. Furious, she forged an alliance with some of the Burbank volunteers and Tehachapi neighbors, then produced a seven-minute documentary, Kimi Peck’s Reign of Terror, which she posted on YouTube.

By 2009, Kern County had declared Peck a public nuisance and her home was in foreclosure. She moved with 200 dogs to a nearby home owned by Susan Marlowe but was evicted when Marlowe faced code violation fines for having too many dogs on her property. When she was on the verge of being homeless, Animal Planet returned to film Peck for a show about people whose lives had been upended by their involvement with animals. In Dangerously Devoted she brandishes a pink rifle, complains she’s the object of a “witch-hunt,” and reports being on food stamps despite having had a successful career as a screenwriter and husbands who were all multimillionaires. Shortly afterward, for the first time, she gave up and asked for help. In the summer of 2010, the Humane Society of the United States took custody of about 180 of her animals in an operation so large, it required the use of the Kern County Fairgrounds. They were transferred to the Sacramento SPCA for adoption; the organization’s president and CEO told me that most were neither healthy nor neutered or spayed.

Peck had told the Animal Planet crew that she was working on a book and screenplay deal: “I will never, ever get back into animal rescue again—it’s full of dysfunctional people.” But when she left Tehachapi, it was for Phelan, in San Bernardino County, where the old cycle of new friends, dog accumulation, and bitter falling-outs repeated itself. Her college friend says he offered her a room in his home, but only without the dogs. She declined and set off for Colorado, her trailer of animals in tow. By now anguished debates over how to stop rescue hoarders and eliminate bad rescue filled animal welfare blogs, and attempts at vigilante justice sprawled through Web sites like Petabuse.com and Facebook pages such as “The Good, the Bad, the Unforgivable of Animal Rescue.” From Los Angeles a new page went up: “Where on Earth is Animal Hoarder Kimi Peck?” There was nowhere to hide.

The court date of Kimi Peck’s trial has been postponed several times; as of May, it was scheduled for July. In Boulder she told me emphatically that she’s done nothing wrong, that all of her troubles have been caused by those working against her: There was the leadership of L.A. County Animal Control, which resented her for saving the near-feral Chihuahuas, and corrupt officials in Burbank and Kern County. Peck sometimes blames Madonna because of an InTouch magazine report that dogs “abandoned” by the singer had been saved by Chihuahua Rescue. More recently she’s added to the list the Weld County Animal Control Unit, along with her ex-accountant and ex-friend Susan Marlowe and Marlowe’s now-former husband, about whom Peck’s accusations frequently revolve. Not only did he threaten to “destroy” her, she claimed, but he also “planted and paid” the volunteers who turned against her. (Goland couldn’t be reached for comment.)

She ate half her breakfast and asked for a doggy bag. “I’ve been through hell,” she told me. “Would I do it over again? I would for the animals, but believe me, I paid a huge price. I’m ruined! I’m broken! They killed my dogs in Cheyenne! They adopted them out to unscreened homes! When I try to sleep at night, I see their faces. It’s so painful. I just say, ‘God, take me! I’m done!’ ” She started to cry. “Either let the truth come out or take me! I can’t do it anymore!”

She paused at that, then took a deep breath and wiped her eyes. “Or…I’m not done. Or…I will hang in there for one more.”

The Veterinarian Brings His Healing Presence to Pets of the Unhoused

 

 

The man standing outside the tent on Skid Row in downtown Los Angeles clearly doesn’t live in the neighborhood. Tall and fit, he’s dressed in jeans and a doctor’s blue scrub shirt and carries a medical bag. The tent, one of many rough structures on the stained sidewalk, sits amid heaped wooden pallets, old furniture and trash. But the man’s eyes are fixed on the dog lounging nearby.

“Hi, how are you?” he says when the tent flap opens. “I’m a veterinarian, Dr. Kwane Stewart, and I offer free pet care to people experiencing homelessness.” He gestures at the dog. “Can I examine your pet?” 

First comes confused silence—you’re who?—then suspicion: Is this animal control, here to take my dog? Finally, a slow nod. Stewart, who calls himself the Street Vet, kneels, pulls out his stethoscope and goes to work.

These Skid Row streets hold the nation’s largest concentration of homeless people who are not staying in a shelter, and at first glance it’s an unrelieved landscape of despair: mental illness, poverty, addiction. But love exists, too, including the love of pets. Across the nation, 10 to 25 percent of the people who are homeless keep pets, and there’s no reason to think the number is lower in sunny Los Angeles. Cats sit on sleeping bags, pit bulls, scruffy terriers and mutts trot alongside filled shopping carts, and chihuahuas ride in bicycle baskets and the laps of people who themselves are in wheelchairs. Various local groups and volunteers help the owners of these animals care for them, with weekly and monthly clinics, mobile spay and neuter vans, handouts of flea meds and food. 

Stewart, 50, has usually worked solo, walking the streets and looking for animals and people in need. “Maybe it’s because when I began this work, it wasn’t uncommon to find a pet that had never received care,” he says. “Everyone I met looked at me as if I’d just dropped out of the sky.”

Stewart grew up with dogs, loved them and science, and by the time he was 10 knew he would become a veterinarian. It was an unusual ambition for a Black track star in Albuquerque. Once, a coach asked about his future plans and laughed with disbelief when Kwane told him. “I’ve never met a Black vet,” the coach said. Stewart goes on, “At the time I didn’t think much about it. But here’s the thing: He was Black himself.” Decades later the number of African American veterinarians is still so small the Bureau of Labor Statistics has reported that it might as well be zero. 

Stewart graduated from the University of New Mexico, got his DVM degree from Colorado State University College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, and headed to San Diego. He spent a decade there treating a suburban clientele with “bottomless bank accounts.” Then, in 2008, he relocated to Modesto, in California’s Central Valley, for a job as the veterinarian for Stanislaus County. And everything changed. 

The Great Recession flattened Modesto, a city of around 200,000, with plummeting home prices and 17 percent unemployment. And when humans go broke, animals often pay the price. Pet surrenders surged until the area’s aging shelter, built for 200 animals, held twice as many, and its euthanasia rate became one of the nation’s highest.

“I was destroying 30 to 50 animals every morning,” Stewart says softly. “Healthy dogs and cats. It was killing my soul. I felt like God was keeping score and I was losing. I didn’t go to school all those years to destroy animals. I wanted to help and save them.”

At first that meant he helped a homeless man he encountered almost daily by treating the man’s dog, which suffered from a bad flea bite allergy. Then he held a free clinic at a local soup kitchen. And then, on his own time, he began to walk around Modesto and some Bay Area sites looking for pets to help. He moved to Los Angeles to serve as chief veterinary officer for the American Humane Association, which makes sure animals are treated well on film sets, and his ramblings shifted to San Diego and Los Angeles. He wore scrubs to identify himself, carried a bag filled with meds, vaccines and syringes, nail trimmers, and he did what he could, free of charge. 

He was stunned by what he found. Like many people, he questioned why homeless people had animals to begin with—if humans couldn’t take care of themselves, how could they be responsible for pets? And yet they were. In fact, numerous academic studies over the years have revealed the vital role pets play in the lives of unhoused men and women—providing structure, purpose, meaning and love. “Researchers have consistently found very high levels of attachments to pets among the homeless,” Leslie Irvine, a sociologist, writes in her 2012 book about the phenomenon, My Dog Always Eats First.

Stewart agrees. “Pets were a lifeline to the people I met,” he says. “Most of them were great pet owners. They did remarkably well with the resources they had, and made sacrifices for them well beyond what you or I would. The bond between them was on a completely different level. They needed each other.”

 

For five years, his efforts were a kind of secret hobby that he says even his family—he has three children—didn’t know about. Then, in 2017, he and his brother, Ian, produced “The Street Vet” as a reality TV series­—it has aired on broadcast TV in Scandinavia and Eastern Europe and in the States on a Utah cable channel­—and Stewart acknowledges he’s now a “media personality.” These days he’s founding a new veterinary practice in San Diego and writing a book about his experiences on the street.

Last September he started a nonprofit, Project StreetVet, raising money on GoFundMe to cover the cost of treating pet medical problems beyond the scope of a sidewalk exam. He has occasionally volunteered with larger organizations assisting people who are homeless. Though he says “there are probably more efficient ways I could spend my time,” he likes doing it his way. 

“The wound is healing well,” he reassures a man named Ben, whose pet rat had been attacked by a cat. (“I’ve seen birds and snakes, but this was my first rat.”)

“The puppies look great,” he tells Julian, a tattooed man who has lived on the same stretch of pavement for two years and whose dog recently gave birth. (He also vaccinates the pups.) 

Stewart marvels at the generosity of a young man named Reggie, who lives in a school bus and uses his own cash to make lemonade that he gives away to his neighbors. Stewart vaccinates the man’s dog, Daisy. “You’re doing a good job,” Stewart says.

“Oh, this is such a blessing,” the young man replies. 

Most Americans Have Pets. Almost One Third Can’t Afford Their Vet Care

Since mid-2020, more than a thousand low-income families have brought their sick and suffering pets to the nonprofit Pet Support Space, housed in a tiny Los Angeles storefront. One 14-year-old dog had a tumor that a veterinarian had quoted $5,000 to remove. A four-year-old pit bull had been vomiting for days, a cat’s painful bladder stones required surgery, a pug limped from the foxtail embedded in its paw. Skin and ear infections abounded. Neither the animals’ problems nor their owners’ inability to afford help for them was a surprise.

recent nationwide study found almost 28 percent of households with pets experienced barriers to veterinary care, with finances being the most common reason. In low-income households, the researchers found, financial and housing insecurity can increase the risks that animals will not receive the care they need. Sociologist Arnold Arluke, author of Underdogs: Pets, People and Poverty estimates that 66 percent of pets in poverty have never seen a vet at all.

The “why” behind those numbers is complex. Of course, money is the primary problem. Veterinary care is expensive. A majority of practitioners work in for-profit clinics, consolidation in the industry has increased emphasis on profit margins, and vet prices have risen faster than the overall rate of inflation. That has checkups starting at $50, dental cleaning going for $70-$400, and blood work and x-rays at $80-$250. If a dog breaks a leg or eats a sock, surgery costs begin at four figures.

High prices aren’t necessarily about greed. Michael Blackwell, a former Deputy Director of the Center for Veterinary Medicine at the FDA, is the chair of the Access to Veterinary Care Coalition (AVCC) that was formed in 2016 to study this very problem. Veterinary training, he said, teaches vets to practice a “gold standard” of care, which means running every possible diagnostic test and pursuing every treatment option, even when a client’s budget is limited. (Many pet owners don’t know they can decline a recommended procedure, such as blood work, and even fewer are willing to decline care for fear of looking heartless.)

Some private vets offer struggling clients discounts, added Jeremy Prupas, DVM, Chief Veterinarian for the City of Los Angeles, but they themselves carry an average of $150,000 in student loan debt, so they simply “can’t carry the immense existing need on their own.” Telling clients you can’t help them because they have no money is one of the leading causes of burnout in the veterinary profession, according to Prupas. Pet insurance might help defray costs but requires monthly premiums and comes with such a complicated array of deductibles, co-pays, caps, and exclusions that one how-to guide recommends hiring an attorney to review the policy. Credit cards designed for medical care financing, if one can qualify, can carry punishing interest rates as high as 26.99 percent.

Equally critical is a long-term failure on the part of the animal welfare movement to consider, much less prioritize, the needs of low-income pet owners. Since the 1990s, the rescue/humane world has poured vast amounts of funding and energy into cutting shelter euthanasia through adoption, but far less into helping those without money take care of the pets they have. “If you can’t afford an animal,” the thinking went, “then you shouldn’t have one.”

“Until recently, we focused on shelter-centric challenges,” acknowledged Amanda Arrington, senior director of the Humane Society of the United States’s Pets for Life Program, which assists low-income pet owners. “There was a lot of judgment and making determinations on who was or wasn’t deserving of support and resources that was influenced by what I think a lot of society is influenced by, which is classism and racism. We conflated a lack of financial means and access with how much someone loves their pet or desires to care for it.”

In fact, owners can be punished because they can’t afford veterinary care — “most humane neglect cases stem from an inability to get care for a pet,” said Prupas. In Michigan, for example, failing to provide an animal with adequate care, including medical attention, is a misdemeanor that can carry 93 days in jail and/or a fine of up to $1,000. With a second violation, it becomes a felony.

The distorted belief that ‘those people’ don’t care about their pets has never been true.

What exists for pet owners in poverty is a patchwork of low-cost care options, ranging from local efforts — such as Emancipet in Texas and the Philadelphia Animal Welfare Society — to well-funded national enterprises such as Pets for Life, which operates in several dozen cities. The great majority, however, offer only basic services like sterilization, vaccination, and flea treatments. “We are not a full-service veterinary clinic and do not treat sick or injured pets,” warns one low-cost option on its website. Another suggests that needy people travel, since “vets in smaller towns may charge lower fees,” or start a GoFundMe. As a result, many types of care are largely unavailable: emergency care (by some estimates one in three pets will have an emergency need each year), management of chronic conditions such as diabetes or kidney disease, medication, dental care (dental disease affects perhaps 80 percent of older dogs), and the mercy of humane euthanasia (which can run $50-$300).

The final piece of the care gap is a practical and cultural disconnect. Because many economically challenged neighborhoods are “vet deserts,” with few if any practitioners, it’s not easy to find care, and reaching it can require wrangling an unhappy animal over distance and/or arranging private transportation. Keeping an appointment at an office with weekday-only business hours or a once a month clinic can mean losing a day’s pay. Paperwork raises the fear of immigration status inquiries. The veterinary profession also remains one of the country’s whitest: Just as people who feel alienated or unwelcome don’t utilize human health care options, pointed out Arluke, they don’t utilize care for their pets.

The result has been suffering: most directly for animals that remain untreated, die from what vets call “economic euthanasia” (putting an animal down because treatment costs too much), or end up in shelters. Fear of a looming vet bill, and the mistaken belief that all shelter animals receive medical care, is a prime cause of owner surrender.

But people pay, too.

Some sick animals can infect their humans. Roundworms, for example, can pass through contact with pet feces and cause lung, heart, and eye problems. Blackwell reports meeting an optometrist who practices in a low-income Florida community who has seen increasing numbers of children with roundworm larvae in their eyes.

The psychic toll is just as real. Families in poverty who love their pets and for whom “they offer an emotional core and possibly one of the only sources of joy” face “mental and emotional” devastation from the unimaginable choice of weighing that love against potential financial ruin, said Blackwell. Professor Katja M. Guenther, author of The Lives and Deaths of Shelter Animals, called the rupture of an animal-human bond “a kind of community violence” in a 2021 webinar.

Change seems increasingly possible. Covid-19 and the country’s recent racial and economic reckoning has prompted humane organizations to examine their assumptions and biases about who has the “right” to a pet’s love, and, said Arrington, there’s increasing recognition that “racial and economic injustice really impacts animal welfare.” Meanwhile, AlignCare, a new program out of Michael Blackwell’s Program for Pet Health Equity, is trying to create a national model of something like Medicaid for domestic animals. Under the program, families already found to be struggling (because they participate in SNAP or a similar program) and who ask for help at a shelter or veterinary clinic will be signed up and paired with a veterinary social worker or support coordinator. They’ll then be directed to a veterinarian who has agreed to offer preventative, dental, and even critical care, for a reduced fee; AlignCare will pay 80 percent of the cost. After three years of pilot programs in 10 disparate communities, it’s taking on its biggest challenge yet, Los Angeles, where one in five people live in poverty.

AlignCare won’t offer “gold standard” care, instead emphasizing preventative, incremental, and cost-saving measures (such as offering telehealth appointments and limiting diagnostics that won’t change treatment options) when possible. But it will expand the human safety net to include the animals most of us now consider part of our families. And while the effort is currently funded by grants from Maddie’s Fund, the Duffield Foundation, and Petsmart Charities, Blackwell’s goal is “community ownership:” The combined involvement of local vets, city animal services departments, social service agencies, rescue and community organizations, pet food and product manufacturers, and affluent pet owner-donors can make the model self-sustaining.

There is no perfect solution for low-income pet owners who need help accessing veterinary care. But growing awareness of the problem is a big step forward. “What we call ‘animal welfare’ is changing,” said Lori Weise, whose nonprofit, Downtown Dog Rescue, runs the Pet Support Space. “The distorted belief that ‘those people’ don’t care about their pets has never been true. People can’t afford care. Sometimes they don’t even know what’s out there; they themselves have never been in a hospital. As more people are brought into the system, we’ll see the first generation to get proper veterinary care.”

 

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