Heather, a mixed breed dog at the Animal Refuge League of Greater Portland, looks up at Executive Director Patsy Murphy at the Westbrook facility Saturday morning. There is a variety of animals at the facility, including 30 that have been seized by the state and are being held as live evidence in court cases that are not being heard now because of the pandemic. Staff were not allowed to identify which animals were involved in these cases and which ones are up for adoption. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

As many as 175 animals considered “living evidence” are stuck in limbo as Maine’s courts grapple with the coronavirus pandemic and how to proceed with cases involving animal seizures.

In mid-March, the Maine Judicial Branch issued an order that curtailed the types and scope of court proceedings that would be allowed in Maine’s courtrooms, including hearings in animal cruelty cases.

Liam Hughes, director of Animal Welfare at the Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry, said Friday that there are four active cases currently in the court system from all over Maine that involve many types of animals in custody, including dogs, cats, chickens, horses and goats.

His department works with animal shelters across the state to care for the seized animals while the courts work on making decisions that will resolve their custody.

“Our sheltering partners work with the state investigators to address all of the animal’s issues,” he said. “The shelters are most commonly dealing with medical and behavior issues and work on these issues to help rehabilitate the animals while in the animal shelters’ care.”

If the courts end up awarding custody of the animals to the state, his program will work with the shelters to make sure the animals are healthy and permanent homes can be found for them, he said.

Nicco, a 5-month-old mixed breed dog, leans into Canine Technician Katie Webber at the Animal Refuge League of Greater Portland on Saturday morning as he gets a massage while out for some playtime at the Westbrook center. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

“The Animal Welfare Program could not complete its mission without the help from all of the animal shelters of Maine,” he said.

Even before the pandemic, the issue of possession would often drag out in court and could be continued for months.

“The courts are trying to sort things out and provide people a safe place to hear their cases in a timely manner, but the logistics of trying to reschedule these hearings is a huge task,” Hughes said. “We are all working to make sure these animals do not get lost in the system as the courts get reorganized to reopen.”

He said the state’s Animal Welfare Program has been working with the counties’ district attorneys to remind the court of the animals in custody.

“These hearings do require time to prepare and a lot of evidence that needs to be shared with the court,” he said.

A change in state law enacted last fall was aimed at preventing situations where animals sit in a legal limbo for months at a time, Hughes said, “but the court system is complicated with many checks and balances to ensure fair hearings. All cases are different, and we work with the district attorneys to find the best way to proceed with the cases and to ensure the animals receive proper care under Maine state law.”

Patsy Murphy knows all too well how long these cases can drag on in the judicial system.

Murphy is executive director at Animal Refuge League of Greater Portland.

Her shelter in Westbrook is housing 30 animals that were seized in January by the state, including cats, dogs, birds and guinea pigs.

“I’ve got a little of everything,” she said.

“Many of these animals are with us for a protracted period of time and certainly with this pandemic they’re with us even longer,” she said.

Her shelter will often see animals who are coming from homes where the owners are overwhelmed, she said. They may be suffering from mental health issues and are often in isolated or remote areas of Maine “with minimal oversight and, sadly, they have deprived the animals of necessary sustenance and medical attention.”

Patsy Murphy, executive director of the Animal Refuge League of Greater Portland, in the lobby at the Westbrook facility Saturday morning. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

Many of those animals lacked proper protection from the weather and were kept in unhygienic environments, she said.

The state notifies her of a seizure and she offers to take as many animals as she can accommodate.

“We help the entire state of Maine as animal welfare organizations,” she said.

The animals often are suffering from a broad range of behavioral and medical conditions, she said.

“We have adult dogs who have never learned to walk on a leash, they don’t know how to play with toys and don’t know how to run in a yard,” she said.

Some of the animals will jealously guard their food from others and some may eat “anything and everything they see because they’ve been deprived of food or the feedings have been inconsistent, sporadic or . . . lacking a routine,” she said.

“Many of the animals we see are confined to really squalid conditions and had no choices but to sit and sleep in their own excrement. We see animals in our care and custody that have suffered from malnutrition, inadequate or unsanitary food and water. They’ve seen little to no veterinary care and the zoonotic diseases (parasites) in these environments . . . spread rapidly,” she said.

“They have a long road ahead of them, so when they arrive here, for many of them it is a sanctuary,” she said. “They are treated with kindness and compassion.”

Because they are considered evidence in court cases, she said she and her staff must treat them that way.

“There’s plenty of logging, tracking, photographing and evaluating each animal’s specific needs,” she said.

They are examined promptly by a veterinarian and placed in clean housing, with adequate food and water.

“We’ll give them whatever time they need to settle and begin the process of helping them recover,” she said. “Many of these things are simple, that most people do in their own homes, from routine feedings to providing treats and toys and human contact, human touching. We give them playtime. We give them — when they’re ready — bathing and grooming. Make sure that they are in the optimal health as they can be while they’re in our care,” she said.

Bat, a mixed breed dog at the Animal Refuge League of Greater Portland, looks for some attention Saturday morning. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

As long as the animals are considered evidence in a court case, they can’t be altered, including spaying and neutering, Murphy said.

A pregnant great Dane was seized and brought to the shelter, she said. The dog gave birth to a litter, suddenly changing the scope of evidence in that case.

“Sadly, some animals pass in (our) care because of chronic underlying medical issues or the lack of veterinary care, depending on how far they are along, when we receive them,” she said.

Some of the animals at the shelter are eventually allowed, with the OK of prosecutors, to be placed in foster care pending the outcome of the court case, “so that they can learn some important milestones and receive love and care and attention, and have a family,” Murphy said.

But, she said, none can be adopted until the case has resolved and the state is given custody.

Katie Lisnik, executive director of Greater Androscoggin Humane Society in Lewiston, said her shelter has no state seized animals at the moment because her shelter is full.

In the past, she said she has taken in dogs, cats and rabbits from state cases.

Some might stay for a week, others for months.

If the owners surrender the animals, things can resolve pretty quickly, she said, as was the case recently when folks had to leave their home and gave up 47 cats to the local animal control officer. Lisnik said she has one of those cats left.

“If the person refuses to surrender them, then those animals are caught in that limbo,” she said. “We regularly deal with court cases that go on far too long.”

“I think this really highlights the fact that animals, as evidence here in Maine, are not given the prioritization that they should have,” she said. “These are living creatures. They are suffering by having to sit in shelters or even in foster care in limbo for so long.”

Kathryn Hurst, an animal care technician at the Animal Refuge League of Greater Portland, gives Bennett, a “chunky black mix cat,” some loving at the Westbrook facility Saturday morning. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

She said living evidence should be viewed by the justice system through a different lens than it does inanimate objects.

“This isn’t like having to hold onto a car or something that was stolen. I mean these are animals that have lives, that need enrichment. They need proper care. So, even above and beyond the pandemic, the court system really needs to recognize that this live evidence is something that needs to be prioritized and moved as quickly as possible through the system. It’s not fair, on the shelters, on the volunteers, on the animals, or the officers involved in the case to be caught in this situation for so long.”

Lisnik said the judicial system should strive to find a “kind of  middle ground here where we’re able to progress and address those animals’ needs while addressing the needs of the courts.”

Murphy said often the hardest part of the seizure process on caregivers is the point at which the long, hard task of bringing the animals back from the brink and having cared for them for so long comes to an end and the court returns them to their owners.

“That’s a tough message for the community as well as the foster families and all of our supporters who really offset the cost of care for these state-seized animals,” she said.

The state reimburses the shelters $5 per day for each animal. The real cost is closer to 10 times that, Murphy said.

So, the actual cost that’s borne by the shelter’s supporters, donors, corporate sponsors and fundraisers ends up benefiting the owners from whom the animals were taken in the first place, she said.

“This pandemic just really sheds a light on how important it is to have these cases adjudicated in a timely fashion,” she said.

Bat, a mixed breed dog at the Animal Refuge League of Greater Portland nuzzles up with Executive Director Patsy Murphy at the Westbrook facility Saturday morning. There is a variety of animals at the facility, including 30 that have been seized by the state and are being held as live evidence in court cases that are not being heard now because of the pandemic. Staff were not allowed to identify which animals are involved in these cases and which ones are up for adoption. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal Buy this Photo


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