A woman who hoarded more than 100 dogs in two homes she owned in Harford County was sent by a judge to a psychiatric hospital yesterday after being found not criminally responsible for animal cruelty.
Donna Lee Bell was charged with 118 counts of animal cruelty after authorities in May 2006 found about 100 dogs, dozens of which were dead, and some cats in the two Whiteford homes without food, water and ventilation. Animal feces covered the floor -- up to 3 feet in some areas -- and decaying carcasses laid throughout the homes.
"What happened here is very severe," Harford District Judge John Dunnigan told Bell. "How a person gets into a situation like this boggles my mind."
Dunnigan accepted a psychiatrist's report stating that Bell, 60, could not be held criminally responsible for her actions because she suffers from obsessive-compulsive disorder, which compelled her to hoard animals. She was found not criminally responsible for the first five charges, and prosecutors deactivated the 113 other charges.
After the ruling, two sheriff's deputies took Bell to Spring Grove Hospital Center in Catonsville. The length of her stay there, and whether she will be admitted on inpatient status will be determined by hospital staff, said her lawyer, Leonard Shapiro.
The judge warned Bell, a former Harford resident who more recently lived in Baltimore, to follow doctor's orders, saying the other 113 charges could be re-activated.
"What happened here developed partly because people dropped animals off at Ms. Bell's place. It snowballed and got bigger and bigger where there was no control anymore. ... " Dunnigan said to Bell. "You should've said, 'No, I can't take it.'"
"I understand, judge," Bell replied.
The dogs Bell took in developed skin conditions and fleas after living in the two homes in the 2900 block of Whiteford Road. Many suffered muscle atrophy and had to re-learn to walk after they were rescued. Authorities discovered 12 dead cats and 32 dead dogs, and rats feeding on their remains.
Shapiro said the defendant had good intentions but that her behavior spun out of control.
"She took in animals no one wanted -- lame, blind and injured, and spent thousands of dollars in vet bills," Shapiro said after yesterday's ruling. "She was so concerned about the animals, that they'd be euthanized.
"This is a classic [not criminally responsible case], because she couldn't control that aspect of her behavior."
The surviving 73 dogs and four cats were sheltered at the Humane Society of Harford County and later adopted.
Some with an interest in the case were not satisfied by the judge's ruling.
"It's a double-edged sword," said Tammy Zaluzney, executive director of the humane society. "On the one hand, I don't think jail would be the best solution. On the other hand, I would've liked to see some lifelong monitoring."
Lori Simmons-Cameron, a Bel Air resident who adopted Peso, one of the surviving dogs, expressed outrage at the ruling.
"The poor dogs who died have no justice at all," Simmons-Cameron said when reached by phone yesterday. "Considering all the attention being given to Michael Vick and that dog-cruelty case, you would think that the deaths of 44 animals and the atrocious conditions would have merited some form of criminal punishment."
When Simmons-Cameron first saw Peso, a Chihuahua mix, at the humane society last year, his body was infested with fleas, his ears crusted with sores, and his teeth worn down from chewing metal cage bars. He had difficulty walking on his hind legs because of muscle atrophy.
"The court has done absolutely nothing from preventing this from happening again," she said.
The Hoarding of Animals Research Consortium at Tufts University found that recidivism in animal hoarders is almost 100 percent.
"It's an addiction," said Dr. Gary Patronek, founder of the consortium. "The people have emotional holes in their lives. All we do is take away the thing they're abusing, the animals. That's never worked for other addictions, such as alcohol or drugs."
Between 2,500 and 3,000 animal-hoarding cases occur in the United States every year, he estimated.
A majority of animal hoarders tend to be older females from a disadvantaged social-economic status who live alone, according to the research consortium. The causes of hoarding vary from a troubled past to abusive parents that result in a person to turn to animals, Patronek said.