The smell was so overwhelming that, from a distance, someone driving by on a gravel road could tell something was wrong at Marsha Erskine's house. When Spokane police came to her front door two years ago, they gagged on the unmistakable reek of animal urine.
But it was what animal control officers saw in Erskine's basement that they'll never forget: cats stacked in plastic carriers and wire cages in a pitch-black, dirt-floored cave. They were standing in pools of their own feces, their stomachs burned from the urine they couldn't escape from. There were more caged cats in the yard, covered by a tarp. There was a newborn kitten who let out a feeble cry to the last animal control officer to walk through the basement. She scooped it up from a dark corner and saw it was well past saving.
It took two days for animal control officers in hazmat suits and respirators to remove 29 caged cats from Erskine's basement; two days to unchain the 21 dogs crowded into her yard among piles of garbage and stacks of tires; two days to swat away the flies from sick animals and consider whether the humane thing to do was kill them.
But even after her guilty pleas for animal cruelty charges were filed, fines paid, community service served and probation completed, the 59-year-old Erskine still says that none of this is her fault. That she had things under control. That she tried to find those cats new homes. That people kept bringing animals to her and, well, how could she say no? That what animal control officers called cruelty, she'd call love.
That's all over now. At the end of last year, Erskine was able to bring her favorite dog — an 9-year-old long-haired Chihuahua named Chico — home again. In the past few months, she's gotten four other pets — a cat, two more Chihuahuas and a black Pomeranian named Teddy Bear — back, too.
"My little animals are like my little kids that I never had. And right now they're the only thing I have in my life to care about," she says. "Right now my little animals ... are the only thing that's keeping me going. Seriously."
Officials at SpokAnimal and Spokane County Regional Animal Protection Service say that since television programs like Hoarders have grown in popularity, agencies like theirs have become more aware of local hoarders and serial animal abusers than ever before.
In some ways, that increased awareness is symptomatic of a greater conversation occurring — one in which people are asking moral and ethical questions about the animals we share our homes with, and the animals we eat.
It's an issue that was hotly debated in the Idaho Statehouse this session as lawmakers passed the so-called "ag-gag" law — making it a crime to surreptitiously record activities on Idaho's farms. It's an emotional topic that crosses party lines and political leanings.
People like Erskine reflect an extreme example of that conversation. To her, animals are a matter of life and death; she says she would go so far as to hurt the person who reported her and caused her to lose her animals.
"Her day is coming, baby," Erskine says. "Seriously. I'll kill her. With all the trouble she has caused me. ... Payback's a bitch. Believe me."
Protections and Property
There is no Constitution for pets. Animals — companion or otherwise — have no explicit rights. But increasingly, people are asking for more legal protections for them.
In Washington, Oregon and Idaho, when it comes to protecting the interests of animals — be it a dog wrongfully shot by a police officer or a custody battle over a cat — Adam Karp is the man people turn to. On his website animal-lawyer.com, the Bellingham, Wash.-based attorney says he's been providing "tenacious representation for all species since 1999."
"Although there's no right that's expressly conferred to animals, there are interests that are recognized," he says over the phone last week. "An animal can't trot or fly into court and ask for a hearing, [but] they can through an owner."
Karp says that more and more people in the Northwest are viewing animals differently — less as property and more as companions.
In a study released by the American Veterinary Medical Association earlier this year, Washington and Idaho were in the top 10 "pet-owning states." In Washington, 62.7 percent of households own an animal (with Idaho following at 62 percent). In 2011, AVMA said that 63.3 percent of pet owners "considered their pets to be family members."
"I brought it up in a trial [once]. ... I asked [the jury], 'How many of you are familiar with Hurricane Katrina and the people carrying their animals on their shoulders? Or how many people said that they refused to leave, and said 'I'm staying here with my animals,'" Karp recalls. "People make those choices, and I think that's a dramatic way of saying how we feel about our animals."
Karp says that humans' shifting views about their animal companions goes hand in hand with studies of fewer people having children. "Companion animals tend to fill that gap of nesting or need for companionship," he says.
George Critchlow, an associate professor at Gonzaga University School of Law, says legal communities are acknowledging scientific research that animals feel pain and experience fear, suggesting that they're more than property. He points to the 2012 Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness, which was signed by some of the world's top neuroscientists and declared that humans are hardly the sole conscious, sentient beings on the planet. (Stephen Hawking presided as guest of honor at the signing ceremony.)
"Animals should be considered not as property ... but they should be wards of guardians, in the same way that incompetent or incapacitated people have guardians," Critchlow says. "It's hard to deny the fact that a cat or a dog or a cow or a pig or a horse is not like a chair. It's just so palpably obvious and true, that animals have to be treated differently. So the struggle, legally, is ... Where is the balance?"
Idaho and the Ag-Gag
The first time that the cow is slapped in the face by a man in a baseball cap and blue gloves, it hardly seems to notice.
But after the man punches, slaps and pokes, he lifts his rubber-booted foot high enough to kick the cow — whose head is confined in a metal gate — in the face. Finally, the cow flinches. It tries to back up and cowers underneath the gate. The man kicks it in the nose.
It is one of several nauseating moments captured on video in 2012 at an Idaho Bettencourt Dairy facility by Mercy for Animals, a nonprofit animal rights organization. Workers violently wrench cows' tails until they bellow and moan. They wrap chains around another cow's neck and drag it behind a tractor. A worker jumps up and down on a cow's back. Others slap the animals with electrified cattle prods again and again and again.
In the video's final moments, a clearly injured cow drags itself on its front legs across a muddy cement floor — its hind limbs crumpled beneath it.
In response, Bettencourt issued apologies, fired those employees and installed surveillance cameras in its facilities.
But that footage was later used as ammunition by Idaho Sen. Jim Patrick, R-Twin Falls, to drum up support for his controversial Senate Bill 1337, better known as the Idaho ag-gag bill. That legislation proposed that any person who enters an Idaho agricultural production facility under false pretense and then proceeds to make audio or video recordings without the owner's permission could be punished with up to a year in prison and $5,000 in fines. Critics lashed out, asking: Did Idaho farmers have something to hide?
Despite outcry from 113,000 people who signed a petition against the bill, a protest on the steps of the state Capitol and even a letter from vocal animal rights supporter and former Price is Right host Bob Barker, the bill passed. Two days later, Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter swiftly signed it into law.
"Senate Bill 1337 is about agriculture producers being secure in their property and their livelihood," Otter wrote in a statement. "My signature today reflects my confidence in their desire to responsibly act in the best interest of the animals on which that livelihood depends. No animal rights organization cares more or has more at stake than Idaho farmers and ranchers do in ensuring that their animals are healthy, well treated and productive."
The Idaho Dairymen's Association backed that bill, and Bob Naerebout, the group's executive director, says he was as shocked as anyone when he saw the video at Bettencourt. He says no farmer in his right mind would be OK with that kind of treatment. "You don't want to lower the value of your asset. And the thing is, when you're working with animals, they are your asset," he says. "You raise them to be a productive unit. When you treat animals the way they were in that video, you're damaging your asset. They don't return value to you."
It was the next step that Mercy for Animals took — to try to shut down Bettencourt's farms and put farmers out of business — that the dairy group took issue with.
The law's passage means that reporting animal abuse in an Idaho farm actually carries a harsher penalty than the abuse itself.
A group of 17 organizations — from the Animal Legal Defense Fund and the American Civil Liberties Union to the grassroots Sandpoint Vegetarians group — filed a lawsuit in mid-March against the law, claiming it's unconstitutional in the way it casts a chilling effect over free speech and inhibits Idahoans from knowing the truth of how their food is raised.
Naerebout argues a law like this was the only way to protect honest farmers from being hurt by animal activists, saying that animal rights groups want to penalize an entire industry because of a few bad eggs.
The Animal Legal Defense Fund doesn't buy that.
"I think that rings hollow to us," says Matthew Liebman, a senior attorney with ALDF. "These kinds of videos are so common and so pervasive that virtually every undercover investigation finds this really gratuitous cruelty. You have to ask yourself: 'How many bad apples before you find out the whole tree is rotten?'"
Idaho's ag-gag law is the latest ding in the state's less-than-stellar reputation when it comes to animals. The Humane Society of the United States recently ranked Idaho in 49th place in its 2013 Humane State Ranking. That report shows that Idaho's animal protections are not only few and far between, but often bizarre and negligent of obvious socially frowned-upon practices. For example, in Idaho it is legal:
• to possess big cats, primates, wolves and crocodiles as pets;
• to attend a cockfight;
• for puppy mills to operate without a license or inspection;
• to hold "canned hunts" — where animals are kept in fenced-in areas to increase the likelihood that hunters will make a kill.
Virginia Hemingway formed her nonprofit organization, Idaho 1 of 3, in 2007 when she discovered that Idaho was one of just three states that, at that time, lacked a felony penalty for animal cruelty. For the past few years, she's been lobbying state legislators and interest groups to make laws in the best interest of animals.
Hemingway says she's discovered animal welfare is an uphill battle in her state — a place where it seems lawmakers' farming and ranching backgrounds and Big Ag's influence on the state economy cloud the conversation. Though Idaho has passed a felony penalty since she started her work, Hemingway claims the law is weak at best.
"They made it absolutely impossible for anyone to be convicted, because you have to be convicted three times of the intentional and malicious pain, physical suffering, injury or death upon an animal," she says. "It's impossible to prove, unless someone witnesses what's happening. To be convicted once has never happened. So to stretch that out to three times for the same person, it's just not gonna happen. So as far as I'm concerned, it's a fake felony."
Karp, the Northwest animal lawyer, agrees that the Idaho law isn't great. "But it's a start," he says.
Hemingway says the passage of the ag-gag bill in Idaho is frustrating to her because so many other states in the West with major agricultural industries are opting to treat animals better. She wonders: Why can't that happen in her state?
"You go down and you talk to these legislators, and you point out that Wyoming has a felony [animal cruelty law], Montana has a felony law," she says. "But they'll just look at you and say, 'We don't care what they have. This is Idaho.'"
The way that animals are viewed by some Idaho lawmakers reflects a centuries-old way of thinking — a school of thought that Elizabeth Cherry, a professor of sociology and anthropology at Manhattanville College in New York, has made a career out of studying. She teaches courses on the way animals are a part of human society and wrote her dissertation on the evolution of the animal rights movement.
Much of Cherry's work has revolved around "the symbolic boundaries that people have constructed between humans and animals," she says.
In the United States, like other Western countries, there's a dominant cultural belief that "humans are allowed to use animals, that using animals is a part of the status quo." But that's just a social boundary we, as humans, have set up for ourselves and have all decided to buy into in some way or another, she says.
Cherry argues that when it comes to animals, we've even set up boundaries within our own boundaries. "Scholars and animal rights activists agree that humans generally do not separate companion animals from farm animals to celebrate companion animals' status as 'honorary humans'; they do so in order to demarcate which animals they love, and which animals they love to eat."
Scholars argue that one reason humans moved slaughterhouses out of urban centers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was to separate ourselves from atrocities we didn't have the stomachs for.
In his book, Animal Cities: Beastly Urban Histories, Peter Atkins — a professor and writer at Britain's Durham University — says that animals were a big part of urban society until sanitary ideas started to be widely adopted. That marked the beginning of "The Great Separation" — when humans began to become detached from the production and slaughter of their food.
Before that, animals were an integral part of city life, writes Atkins: "The Victorian town would strike us as an incongruous mixture of urbanity and barnyard setting, with townhouses interspersed with stables, pigsties, and slaughter-houses, and where sheep and cows jostled with horse-traffic, and pigs and chickens dwelt in close proximity to human habitations."
The 19th century city was a smelly place, one where blood from slaughterhouses ran in street-side gutters. Cities like Paris and London were so overwhelmed with dung that Victor Hugo, in Les Misérables, was inspired to write that "a great city is the most mighty of dung makers." But Atkins says that as Victorian-era cities urbanized and sanitation practices came into play, the dirt and the persistent odor of live animals, not to mention the gruesome factories that processed animal fat, blood and bones, were out of step with the new purity of ideas.
"Within the city as a whole, the abattoir was generally pushed toward the edge," Atkins writes. "Here society's growing queasiness and guilt about the killing of animals could be mitigated because it was out of sight and out of mind."
Though questions of animal welfare and slaughterhouse conditions popped up sporadically through the 20th century (perhaps beginning with Upton Sinclair's 1906 book The Jungle), Cherry often refers to the 1980s as "the first wave of animal rights activism" — seeing it as the first moment when widespread animal welfare movements emerged.
"They were still focusing on fur and hunting and animal testing," she says. "When you think about '80s animal rights, you think about 'Save the Whales!'"
But in the 1990s and 2000s, the focus of animal rights activists became less about calling for protections of species the public might not ever see, and more about concern for what was on the dinner plates right in front of them.
"People were focusing more on what they ate from an ethical point of view, no matter what view of ethics that was," Cherry says, pointing to the success of Michael Pollan's 2006 book The Omnivore's Dilemma, and the "locavore" movement.
Now, she says, animal rights is not just reserved for vegetarians or vegans. It's something that many Americans practice — whether it's a desire to buy cage-free eggs or humanely raised meat.
'To Honor the Sacrifice'
On a bright, windy weekday morning, Beth Robinette and her father Maurice sit at the family's dining room table sipping steaming cups of coffee. Since 1937, here on the same Cheney, Wash., property where they sit today, the Robinette family has owned cows. They milked until the 1950s, when they converted to a cattle ranch. "We've been beef ever since," says Maurice, who pronounces his name "Morris."
The conversation around the breakfast table here isn't what you might expect. The Robinettes talk of ethics and humanity, of systematic change and environmental impact. A conversation with Beth and Maurice about farming is less about the price of beef and more talk of desertification and sustainable grazing practices.
The family's Lazy R Ranch, a 100-cow operation, is small. And it's different: Here they raise cows from birth, and unlike most of the beef industry, slaughter them in the place where they've always lived. Most of that beef goes directly to families, with some going to restaurants like Spokane's Manito Tap House. Through their lives, the Robinettes are the only ones herding their cows, feeding them, aiding them in labor and moving them from pasture to pasture.
According to a report by the state Office of Farmland Preservation, the number of farms in Washington increased steadily from 2006 to 2011. And a 2010 Seattle Times article reported that 90 percent of those Washington farms are owned by individuals or families, like the Robinettes.
Tom Davis of the Washington Farm Bureau says he can't envision an ag-gag bill ever flying in the Evergreen State. "If the bill could make it out of committee, that's as far as it would go," he says. Davis says he thinks most Washington farmers are proud to show their animals are taken care of — and more and more, so do the stores that purchase their products.
Over the years, the Robinettes have begun to practice something called "low stress cattle handling" — which was developed when cattle feedlot owners started noticing their herds losing weight.
"Beef is sold by the pound. And so, pounds go away, dollars go away," Maurice says.
Researchers figured out that if cows aren't stressed — aren't corralled by horses or dogs, aren't slapped with electric cattle prods or yelled at all the time — they produce better meat. "There's sort of a saying in the beef industry: 'You have to go slow to go fast,'" Maurice says. "And what that means is you'll get your animals to where you want to go if you just take it easy."
Beth says that's part of the problem with industrial agriculture — the ability to have respect for the animals gets lost in massive factory farming productions. It's the system we've demanded as Americans, a system that encourages harm to animals to maximize cheap, fast output. Beth says Idaho's ag-gag law is like putting a Band-Aid on a gaping wound.
"People having the information and the ability to look inside and see what's happening is a million times better than passing a law saying, 'You can't do this' or 'You can't do that,'" Beth says.
The Robinettes believe the public should understand where their food comes from and are constantly extending invitations to customers to see their cows slaughtered. Occasionally, they get a taker.
"I think, as Americans in general, we're very distant from the phenomena of death," Beth says. "And having closer contact with that, I think there's something spiritual about that."
Her voice changes when she talks about the death of her animals. She knows none of these animals will be with her forever. When it does come time to butcher them, she wants for them to die respectfully.
"I owe a debt to that animal," she says, "to honor the sacrifice."
'Everything Hit Us'
Marsha Erskine's home is in a neighborhood that has more barbed wire than picket fences, more mud puddles and flipped-over, gutted cars than parks or playgrounds. Most of it is zoned for industrial businesses — which explains why shipping containers are piled higher than Erskine's roof on two sides.
Her yard is filled with her possessions: animal kennels, litter boxes, two motorhomes. Tarps, tools, broken-down engines, rusty bicycles, pots, planters and decomposing cardboard boxes. A sign on her front fence reads: "Never mind the dog, beware of owner!" A cartoon revolver points at whoever is reading it.
Randy Frost, a professor at Smith College and author of Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things, says there isn't much that's known about people who are animal hoarders. What is known, he says, is that animal hoarders tend to collect other things, too. And that, many times, they are able to care for animals until something catastrophic happens in their lives.
"Then they get overwhelmed with the number of animals. They simply can't keep up," he says. "They often have a belief that they ... understand animals in a way that other people don't, and have an ability to communicate with animals."
Erskine still maintains that she had the care of 50 animals under control until her mother died and her husband — who is in his 80s and lives in a nursing home — began to have severe medical issues.
"Everything hit us all at once," she says.
Today, sitting on a stool at a Hillyard bar in a massive jean jacket that's fraying at the cuffs and purple wire-rimmed glasses, she says that the day animal control officers removed the cats and dogs from her property, she was planning to purchase cat litter and food for the animals. And that before they were taken, she had asked SpokAnimal to adopt 10 cats, but couldn't afford to pay $35 apiece to admit them into the shelter.
She resents how the media eviscerated her over the fact that the cats in her basement and yard were caged without asking her why. "[The Humane Society] told me to keep them penned up and separated away from each other so they don't make babies because they needed to be fixed," she says. "So I was doing what I was told."
When Erskine talks about her animals, her voice grows soft, drawing out the syllables whenever she says "kitty cat." And when she ponders what constitutes animal abuse — if it's not confining cats to cages filled with feces in a dark basement — she thinks about the people in those videos beating cows or the local woman accused of starving her horses. Those are bad people, she says.
"I won't even slap my dogs for anything they do. If they bite somebody, I don't need to slap them for it," she says. "If they bit anybody, it would be in my yard, and I want them to bite." She laughs at that. "You need your dogs for your watchdogs."
To this day, Erskine can't believe that she was labeled a hoarder. She knew her house smelled and that the cats were in bad shape, but she was saving them from a worse fate.
"I would buy food for the animals more than I did for myself," she insists. "I didn't think I was hoarding. I thought I was helping!"
Those days are behind her, she says. She's not looking to take in any more unwanted pets. She finally got her own babies back, and she'll do anything — anything — to protect them. ♦
In February 2010, longtime trainer Dawn Brancheau at the Orlando, Fla., SeaWorld park was giving a whale named Tilikum a snack of herring, whispering to him and stroking his jet-black skin as trainers there have long been encouraged to do. Suddenly, Tilikum grabbed Brancheau, yanked her under the surface of the water and rattled her like a toy. She was dead within minutes.
The incident was the subject of a 2010 Outside magazine article, and the fodder for the hugely popular 2013 documentary Blackfish, which made a case, backed by scientific evidence, that Brancheau's death was a symptom of a far larger problem. The film discussed the grisly history of orca capture, and that orcas — animals who stay with their mothers all of their lives in the wild — actually go insane in captivity. In response, New York proposed legislation that would ban orcas being kept in captivity there, and last month, California lawmakers developed the Orca Welfare and Safety Act, which would ban orcas being used in the entertainment industry.