The smell hit before anything else.
Descending into the dark and dampened basement, not even an incessant chorus of barking, whining and scratching could drown out the overwhelming odor of excrement and crammed bodies that wafted up to meet the rescue team. And then the reality before them sunk in.
"Walking into the conditions that they were living in yesterday, the first thing that just hits you across the face right away is the ammonia of just dogs living in their own squalor—feces, urine everywhere," Erica Geppi, North Carolina State Director for the Humane Society, said. "Seeing just that obvious lack of care was the biggest thing here. There was one dog who's tongue was sticking out of his mouth because all of his teeth were rotting our, and his jaw had basically rotted into the bone. Animals were spinning in their enclosures because they just go crazy."
The Cabarrus County Sheriff's Office teamed with the Humane Society of the United States to rescue almost 130 animals from a suspected Cabarrus County puppy mill Monday, Sept. 26.
Patricia Yates of 4048 Hilton Lake Road in Kannapolis was charged with cruelty to animals by the sheriff's office, which served a search and seizure warrant on the property Monday morning and found about 105 dogs, 20 cats and three goats. All animals were crammed in unsafe and unsanitary conditions, and many had untreated medical issues, were pregnant and in urgent need to veterinary care.
An anonymous tip came into local law enforcement, sparking an investigation into Yates' property. The Cabarrus County District Attorney's Office and the sheriff's office determined a need for further action, and deputies obtained a warrant.
“Animal cruelty comes with serious consequence,” Lt. David Taylor with the sheriff's office said in a release. “Our No. 1 priority is the protection and safety of the animals, including their environment. In Cabarrus County, we’re investigating claims and prosecuting to the fullest extent of the law. However, the investigation is just the beginning of the story. We are fortunate to have the support of The HSUS as we move forward with the response.”
Yates surrendered custody of the animals, which allowed rescue organizations to move ahead with caring for them.
The Humane Society of the United States assisted the two law enforcement agencies in removing the dozens upon dozens of animals to rescue vehicles, joined by the Cabarrus Animal Hospital for on-site veterinary care. The team moved the dogs and cats to a temporary emergency animal shelter. Animal rescue volunteers and responders from Red Rover helped care for the dogs and cats, and Banfield provided medical supplies.
Deputies transported the goats to a safe facility for large animals.
Yates was charged with one count of animal cruelty. The investigation remains ongoing, and more charges are pending.
The animals festered in their own filth, suffering from an apparent lack of medical care. Geppi said many of them had been overbred, forced to have litter after litter until they could no longer produce and therefore had no more value.
"You never know exactly what you're going to walk into, but the first thing that hits you is the smell and the barking and then just the sheer volume of dogs and cats that were on the property," she said. "But then walking in, seeing inside the enclosure, the urine, the feces they were having to sit in all day their entire lives, lots of pregnant dogs, very dirty water bowls, inadequate levels of food, just overall squalor—standing there all day but even standing there for a few minutes just gets to you. Physically and emotionally it's very heartbreaking to see."
Lack of standards
Unfortunately, Humane Society staff said they saw puppy mills like this one more often than they would like across the country but especially the state since North Carolina doesn't have any legal standards or regulations for breeders.
"Last year, [a bill] passed the house, and it failed in the Senate as it's done multiple sessions now, unfortunately," Geppi said. "Basically what it does is it just establishes a minimum level of care, so it's things like clean water, fresh food, adequate preventative vet care, proper sized enclosures, sanitary living conditions—nothing outrageous, very common sense and very widely supported by the public."
The Humane Society has continued to urge the state legislature—and others across the nation—to enact standards. Until then, Geppi said, they have to use state animal cruelty laws to prosecute.
"Currently we have cruelty statutes, which is what this case was able to tug on," she said. "However, the cases have to escalate to a level of cruelty and neglect to be able to trigger those laws. So these standards are getting at preventing that cruelty from happening in the first place."
Until then, Jessica Lauginiger, puppy mill response manager for the Humane Society, said many such operations go undetected or are allowed to continue because law enforcement has no legal course of action.
"A lot of these places kind of slide under the radar a little bit," she said. "They operate just above legal standards, so it can be very difficult to shut a breeding operation down."
The other side
The animals in this case, however, seem to have bounced back. After several warm baths, medical attention and lots of love, Geppi said the dogs and cats are doing great.
"It's amazing walking in, they're in the cage, you can tell they really haven't felt a human touch or been part of a family, so going to get them out of the enclosures and bring them to safety they're in the corner cowering," she said. "Build their trust, pick them up, pull them out, and as soon as the sunshine is hitting their back, they're being petted, their little tails started wagging, and their little spirits started coming out. Now, seeing how happy they are and bringing them on to their forever homes make sit all worth it."
None of the animals can be adopted out quite yet, however, Geppi said the case must go through the legal process before the animals' status is determined. Once that is in place, the Humane Society has a team of placement partners across the state dedicated to finding each and every dog and cat a home.
"We'll work with those shelter and rescue partners to bring them safely into their care and then get them adopted out to their forever homes, which we're very much looking forward to," she said. "Have you seen how cute they are? It's ridiculous. It will be good."