When Is a Rescuer a Hoarder?

Kimi Peck was good at taking in stray and unwanted dogs that were at risk of being euthanized in public shelters. How she cared for the canines was another matter. After years of accusations, she’s on trial for animal cruelty
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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.

Photograph by The Bakersfield Californian/Zumapress

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.”

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