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Monday, December 29, 2008

Woman Lives in Van with 120 Dogs

ARDMORE, Okla. -- There is an old woman who lives in a van -- she has so many dogs, she doesn't know how her lifestyle can withstand.
Animal rescue organizers don't understand how 71-year-old Catherine Titus has been able to care for more than 120 dogs, either, while living out of an stripped van in rural Wilson, Okla.
"The dogs mean everything, but it is definitely overwhelming for her," said Scott Sutherland, director of Southern Oklahoma Animal Resources (SORE), an organization that facilitates low-cost spay/neuter initiatives.
"She loves the dogs, but she has to be taking care of herself, too."
Titus, who is unemployed, survives off the $700 Social Security check she receives each month. Five hundred of those dollars go toward the dogs, who were all strays she took in several years ago.
The rest is used to feed herself.
Initially, Sutherland said, Titus, who used to work for the Humane Society in Texas, had around 35 dogs that stuck around her van after she continued to feed them.
The dogs continued to breed and grow in number, eventually depleting the majority of Titus' funds and energy.
She heard about SORE two months ago, Sutherland said, and called him, seeking urgent help.
"She said, 'I can't live like this any more. I have all of these dogs and I don't know what to do.' I went out there, met her, saw all the dogs, and it was just a mess. We couldn't even tell how many there were," he said.
None of the dogs, which were mostly Lab mixes and in the 20- to 30-pound range, had any shots, or were fixed. They had never visited a veterinarian, but appeared well-fed and, aside from cases of sarcoptic mange, in good health. Titus had also treated them herself, Sutherland said, with penicillin shots she occasionally administered.
Even though she recognized the need for assistance, Titus wasn't willing to give all of her dogs up. She allowed Sutherland and his team to remove approximately 76 dogs, which were later spayed and neutered.
Around 40 dogs remain on Titus' empty lot, Sutherland said. SORE hopes to have all of the dogs removed within the next few months, a variable dependent on Titus' willingness to release them.
The surrounding community does not have many state or city run animal care and control resources to fall back on, says Karin Morrison, director of Compassion Seeds, a private organization that provides animal re-homing and foster services.
"We try to do as much as we can, but this is a totally different area," Morrison said, remarking on the high abandonment and stray numbers in the community.
"We have gotten calls from people wanting to help from Germany to Maine, but no one here is stepping forward. We can't do it all on our own and people don't care."
The closest animal shelter, Ardmore Animal Care, Inc., is a private facility, which admits nearly 8,000 pets a year, its director, Kim Lee, told Pet Pulse.
Though the shelter is based one-and-a-half hours away from Titus' lot, Lee has brought her dogs food on several occasions. Lee also "tried to get the dogs out of there," she said, but Titus would not surrender them.
SORE has been working "non-stop" to reason with Titus over the past few weeks, and to also catch her dogs, which Sutherland described as "shy."
Only 15 of the dogs are presently available for adoption. The rest will "need a little more time" until they have received all necessary medical treatment and are properly socialized. They are not aggressive, Sutherland said, but are unused to the human touch.
"They need to be pet a little more, to spend more time with humans," Sutherland said. "We will continue to work with them."
SORE's efforts have become convoluted by Titus' fickle, yet determined nature, Sutherland says.
"We will take some dogs and then she will say that she wants the 10 oldest back, and then begins naming them," he explained. "Then we have to convince her all over again to allow us to keep those."
The situation can't be simply classified as a traditional hoarding case, Sutherland says, given the need for Titus' cooperation, as well as her attachment to the dogs.
"This isn't an animal rescue, but a human one, too," Sutherland explained. "This woman has nothing. She lives in a filthy, shell of a van that sits on flat tires. These animals are everything to her."
"If you remove some dogs, then yes, you have rescued some animals, but maybe we have destroyed a human being in the process, too."
As a part-Cherokee Indian, Titus is willing to be admitted to a shelter or facility available only to people of Native American descent.
But she won't got unless she knows that all of her dogs are taken care of.
Now looking outside the community, the animal welfare organizers assisting Titus are hoping other shelters or agencies will step in and lend a hand.
"Ardmore is only a town of 30,000, and the surrounding towns are only 2,000 to 4,000-population," Sutherland said. "We don't have a big market here and we need someone to step in, from New Jersey or New York to say, 'We will take 30 dogs, we can help.' "
It's a step that would help pull both the 120 dogs, Titus and her van out of the mud and onto a better life.

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