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.