MORRILL, Maine — A Morrill family that escaped a trailer fire at the end of December is under investigation by the state after officials received allegations of animal neglect.
Several pets were killed in the fire, but family members, who have since moved into a new trailer with at least 16 surviving dogs, deny any wrongdoing. They say there’s no law against keeping many animals as long as they are cared for correctly. But a concerned woman who created an online petition earlier this month because of the fire would like the state to create a law against animal hoarding. She has already gathered more than 250 signatures.
“We’re going to get the laws changed,” Joanne Carl of Brooks, who started the change.org petition, said recently. “This is an animal hoarding issue. I think this needs to become public … I would like to talk about animal hoarding and how a devastating fire, locally, has brought to light a severe issue. You neglect an animal, it’s a form of abuse.”
On Dec. 28, a fire sparked by a malfunctioning circuit breaker gutted the Hartshorn Road trailer that was home to four people and more than two dozen pets. Becky Nibby, Pamela Nibby, Eleanor Hartshorn and Betsy LeSan, who are all related, and some pets were able to escape, but a dog, two cats, a macaw, two rabbits, two ferrets and four chinchillas perished in the blaze. LeSan’s mother, who lived in another trailer next door, took the women and some of their surviving animals in after the fire to live with her. For a while, eight people and many animals were staying in a home with no running water, heat or electricity. But community, family members and groups like the Red Cross pulled together for the family, providing them with food, clothes, heat, pet food, portable toilets and ultimately a new trailer.
“The community has been really great with us,” Becky Nibby said Wednesday in a telephone interview. “They’ve been constantly checking in. We can’t be more grateful.”
Some of their dogs stayed temporarily in a Knox County animal shelter, but have since been returned to the family.
“The dogs are very grateful they’re all back together again,” Becky Nibby said, her voice underscored by the sounds of barking and yipping dogs.
She took umbrage at the suggestion that the animals were abused or neglected, and said that the family has been working with the local animal control officer and also a state agent who works for the Maine Animal Welfare Program. Officials have been checking on the animals several times a week, she said.
“There’s not a thing wrong with any of our dogs,” Becky Nibby said. “We were told it didn’t matter how many dogs we have … I’ve got things to do besides being ridiculed for how many dogs we have.”
In addition to the dogs, the family has cats, birds and a turtle. Many of the animals were rescued from bad situations, she said.
Sandra Peeler, the Animal Control Officer for Morrill, said the family has been cooperative.
“They are all in great shape,” she said of the dogs.
Because the investigation is ongoing, she said she couldn’t discuss the case in more detail. No charges have been filed, according to Liam Hughes, the director of the Maine Animal Welfare Program.
“We are gathering information. We can’t share particulars until a case is either closed or goes to court,” he said. “Speaking in general terms here, when it comes to hoarding, it is a very difficult thing to recognize, prosecute or resolve. Prosecution alone will not solve the problem.”
Hughes confirmed that there is no law against hoarding, or having many animals. There are laws, however, against neglecting or abusing animals.
They are aimed at ensuring that the animals are kept in humane, clean conditions, with enough food and veterinary care.
Hughes said state authorities are continuing to monitor the situation in Morrill and to work with the town to resolve any issues.
“We’re going to keep looking into it to make sure that the animals and people stay in compliance with the laws,” Hughes said.
But Carl, and the people who have so far signed the petition, believe that more should be done by authorities to stop the problem of animal hoarding and any related neglect or abuse.
According to the petition, animal hoarding is “very prominent” in Maine.
“The resources are not there to help the animals, so we as people have to make people accountable for actions but also have to get the hoarders the help they need for this disease,” it states.
After the fire, Carl took in the family’s pony, which she described as being 150 pounds underweight and living in its own feces. She also took in their goats, which she said were being kept in a crate. She now has ownership of the farm animals.
“There’s a problem,” Carl said. “They need to lose those animals.”
In response to these claims, Nibby said that before the fire, the family had been spending a lot of time at Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor with her aunt, who was in critical condition.
“When I was in Bangor, I called several of my neighbors to see if they could keep an eye on [the pony and goats],” she said. “Nobody at that time was able to care for them.”
So while the animals were fed, their stalls weren’t cleaned out much during that time, she said. She did not agree that the pony was 150 pounds underweight.
“He ate good,” Nibby said.
Hughes said the state looks at instances of reported animal neglect or abuse on a case-by-case basis.
“There are a fair share of hoarding cases here in Maine,” he said. “It seems like it might be easier for someone to cut themselves off from the world here. There are isolated areas in the state.”
State agents work to protect animals and to get people who need help access to resources.
“It is a very complicated issue,” he said of hoarding in general. “There could be mental issues. There could be economic issues. There’s a lot of reasons why the situation could have gotten out of hand.”
His office aims to educate and to help people struggling to manage their animals get down to a reasonable number.
“Some people are very grateful there are people in the world who are willing to help them. They were hiding. They were embarrassed,” he said. “Other people are combative. They don’t think there was a problem.”