SPCA hit hard by Val­ley of­fend­ers

Non­profit cut­ting back after large num­ber of in­takes last two years.

The Morning Call - - FRONT PAGE - By Michelle Mer­lin

The non­profit that seized dozens of horses, goats and other crea­tures from two con­victed Le­high Val­ley an­i­mal abusers has been brought to its knees by a near-record num­ber of large an­i­mal in­takes over the past two years.

The res­cue cases are driv­ing up costs and help­ing force cut­backs in the cov­er­age area of the Penn­syl­va­nia So­ci­ety for the Pre­ven­tion of Cru­elty to An­i­mals, which is car­ing for the menagerie that also in­cludes minia­ture don­keys and cows while law­suits wind their way through court.

The state SCPA took in 72

large an­i­mals in 2018 and 87 in 2017. Those num­bers are sub­stan­tially higher than 2016, 2015 and 2014, when the or­ga­ni­za­tion seized 12, 28 and 13 large an­i­mals, re­spec­tively.

The re­cent spikes are largely due to two peo­ple: One, Derbe “Skip” Eck­hart, kept dogs, cats and horses at Hid­den Hill farm in Hei­del­berg Town­ship, which he rented along with a prop­erty across the street, and his Al­most Heaven Ken­nel on Chest­nut Street in Up­per Mil­ford. The other, Jah­jah Mel­hem, kept mostly res­cued an­i­mals at Heaven on Earth Farm in Beth­le­hem Town­ship.

Eck­hart and Mel­hem have had a “tremen­dous im­pact” on the or­ga­ni­za­tion, said CEO Julie Klim. Her or­ga­ni­za­tion has cared for their an­i­mals, vis­ited their prop­er­ties mul­ti­ple times and fought them in pro­tracted court bat­tles.

“All those things com­bined have kind of brought us to our knees this year and last,” Klim said.

Last month, the or­ga­ni­za­tion housed more than a dozen of Mel­hem’s an­i­mals at one of its five lo­ca­tions in Danville, Mon­tour County. They in­cluded two cows who came to Danville as calves last year after they were taken from Mel­hem’s sanc­tu­ary. A third cow, orig­i­nally Eck­hart’s, was in an ad­join­ing cor­ral. Some of those an­i­mals have since gone to other res­cue or­ga­ni­za­tions, while oth­ers are still in the SPCA’s care.

About a dozen other farm an­i­mals taken from Mel­hem in De­cem­ber were there nos­ing hay too. Two of the horses were so ema­ci­ated that their ribs were vis­i­ble and their hair was mat­ted. Many of Mel­hem’s an­i­mals, which range from full-sized to minia­ture horses and even an al­paca, had cracked and over­grown hooves.

Dozens of charges of an­i­mal abuse and ne­glect, in­clud­ing two felony counts of ag­gra­vated an­i­mal cru­elty, were filed against Mel­hem on Dec. 12. The SPCA first raided his Beth­le­hem Town­ship prop­erty in Novem­ber 2017, when they con­fis­cated 30 of his an­i­mals, in­clud­ing goats and calves. They con­tin­ued to in­spect the prop­erty for months and found more prob­lems. A week after Mel­hem was charged, the SPCA con­fis­cated 118 an­i­mals he was keep­ing in Cen­tre County.

Eck­hart was charged a year ago with dozens of counts of an­i­mal cru­elty, in­clud­ing sev­eral felonies. Pros­e­cu­tors say he ne­glected nu­mer­ous dogs, cats and other an­i­mals at Hid­den Hill farm in Hei­del­berg Town­ship, which he rented, and his Al­most Heaven ken­nel on Chest­nut Street in Up­per Mil­ford. His trial is sched­uled to be­gin Jan. 28.

The Le­high Val­ley is re­spon­si­ble for 17 of the large an­i­mals in 2017 and 46 in 2018. Spokes­woman Gil­lian Kocher said that be­tween Mel­hem and Eck­hart alone, the SPCA spent about $250,000 more than they’d an­tic­i­pated in the Le­high Val­ley this year. Do­na­tions from the area amount to about $32,000, she said.

The or­ga­ni­za­tion has a bud­get of $10.8 mil­lion.

The large an­i­mals have a lot of needs, such as spe­cial vets.

Rou­tine care is also more com­pli­cated; when the or­ga­ni­za­tion takes in cats and dogs, it can rely on vol­un­teers to help take care of them. But with the larger an­i­mals, it’s trick­ier, es­pe­cially if they’ve been abused and have health is­sues.

“It hits us at ev­ery point along our care­giv­ing spec­trum,” Klim said.

Some­times the or­ga­ni­za­tion can send the an­i­mals to fos­ter care, but it’s still on the hook for their food and med­i­cal care un­til they find a per­ma­nent home, which can’t hap­pen un­til court cases con­clude. Of­fend­ers may be or­dered to pay resti­tu­tion, but are of­ten un­able to pay, Kocher said. Ad­di­tion­ally, any fines lev­eled against them in sen­tenc­ing go to the mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties that the crime was com­mit­ted in, not the SPCA.

The an­i­mals are some­times taken from the Le­high Val­ley to Danville, about an hour and 45 min­utes away.

Shay Martin, who works at Danville, re­mem­bers a calmer time, when maybe five horses would stay in cor­rals at the site.

But lately — for more than a year — there are more likely to be 15 to 20 horses there.

“It’s been a crazy year for our guys, with all the hu­mane law en­force­ment in­takes,” Martin said.

Once they had so many goats they had to turn an out­door dog run into a play­ground for the hoofed an­i­mals.

The cost of car­ing for the Le­high Val­ley’s an­i­mals com­bined with other fac­tors forced the or­ga­ni­za­tion to re­duce the num­ber of coun­ties it serves from 23 to 18. Of­fi­cials de­cided not to take on new cases from Hunt­ing­don, Cen­tre, Tioga, Ju­ni­ata and Berks coun­ties, a de­ci­sion that went into ef­fect in early De­cem­ber.

Nicole Wil­son, the SPCA’s di­rec­tor of Hu­mane Law En­force­ment, said the de­ci­sion was driven by how far the coun­ties are and whether there are other agen­cies that can take over hu­mane du­ties there.

In Berks County, for ex­am­ple, lo­cal po­lice can still re­spond to an­i­mal res­cues. There’s also a lo­cal shel­ter with hu­mane of­fi­cers that can re­spond and house any abused or ne­glected an­i­mals, she said.

“It’s go­ing to be up to the com­mu­ni­ties to de­cide what’s im­por­tant to them and what they want to do about it,” Wil­son said.

She said the SPCA would be open to re­turn­ing to the coun­ties if res­i­dents give them more fi­nan­cial sup­port.

The or­ga­ni­za­tion re­lies on do­na­tions and doesn’t re­ceive state fund­ing.

Wil­son at­tributes the in­crease in in­takes to a grow­ing recog­ni­tion that an­i­mal abuse and ne­glect are wrong.

Wil­son, who has been in the shel­ter­ing busi­ness for 20 years, said peo­ple started to be­come more aware of the is­sue when shows like “An­i­mal Cops” cropped up.

“Peo­ple started see­ing more about the abuse and ne­glect side of an­i­mals and so that raised con­cerns and sen­si­bil­i­ties sur­round­ing the po­ten­tial ne­glect and cru­elty is­sues,” she said. “You see those types of is­sues and you start re­al­iz­ing that it is our re­spon­si­bil­ity as cit­i­zens to call and re­port con­cerns.”

The SPCA isn’t the only or­ga­ni­za­tion that re­sponds to an­i­mal com­plaints. The Le­high County Hu­mane So­ci­ety also re­sponded to sev­eral high-pro­file cases in 2018: Of­fi­cials took in 65 ne­glected bea­gles and re­sponded to a home in Ma­cungie where ex­otic an­i­mals were be­ing kept in filthy con­di­tions. It took in 2,520 an­i­mals last year, more than 2017 (2,425) and 2016 (2,053).

Klim, from the SPCA, said she hopes the large-scale large an­i­mal res­cues are more unique than a trend.

“I think the large an­i­mal prob­lem is go­ing to con­tinue, and we don’t have the ca­pac­ity for it.”

She said that the num­ber of sanc­tu­ar­ies will­ing to take in large res­cued an­i­mals is shrink­ing, and the ones that ex­ist are fill­ing up.

The SPCA is col­lect­ing do­na­tions from the Le­high Val­ley at https://www.pspca.org/do­nate/ lehigh­val­ley.


A minia­ture horse with an eye con­di­tion and a mat­ted mane at the Penn­syl­va­nia SPCA in Danville in De­cem­ber.


Shay Martin of the SPCA smiles as she looks around to one of the horses on the prop­erty Dec. 20 at the Penn­syl­va­nia SPCA in Danville.


Dash (left) and Heart­break look at pigs squeal­ing Dec. 20 at the SPCA farm in Danville.

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