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.
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.”
Carol Mithers is the author of a forthcoming memoir and the co-author of Mighty Be Our Powers: How Sisterhood, Prayer, and Sex Changed a Nation at War. She has written for The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and LA Weekly, among other publications.
This feature appears in the July 2015 issue of Los Angeles magazine