Case Snapshot
Case ID: 19593
Classification: Hoarding
Animal: cat, dog (non pit-bull), bird (pet)
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Judge(s): Joseph S. Skocelas

For more information about the Interactive Animal Cruelty Maps, see the map notes.

Saturday, Apr 7, 2012

County: Allegan

Charges: Misdemeanor
Disposition: Convicted

» Cheri Rae Burke
» Burke Army Burke

Case Updates: 2 update(s) available

Julie Kowal, office administrator of the Allegan County Animal Shelter, was told late last week her facility would be getting about 60 dogs Monday from a Cheshire Township home.

Over the weekend, that number was revised to 90.

Monday morning, Kowal accompanied animal control officers to a small, two-bedroom house near Grand Junction. After they pulled almost 100 dogs from the house, the homeowner told the officials, "There's a dozen more."

"Then it was 'a dozen more' and 'another dozen more,' " Kowal said. "The dogs just kept coming and coming and coming."

In all, officials took almost 350 dogs from the property, plus 12 cats and two birds, Kowal said.

Kowal said the home was occupied by a couple who were breeding dogs for profit and got in over the heads.

"The animal control people said they had been trying to work with her to lower her numbers," but finally decided they need to take the dogs into custody, Kowal said.

Officials said it was the largest single intake involving the Allegan County Animal Shelter in memory.

"I've not only never seen that before, I've never even heard of anything like this," said Josh Mohler, kennel manager for the shelter.

The dogs -- mostly Shih Tzu and Pomeranian mixes, with a few Maltese and Yorkshire Terriers -- were found crusted with feces and "urine-soaked to the bone," Kowal said.

Many also had issues with their teeth, Kowal said, "plus we had lots of pregnant moms and lots of babies.

Still, only one dog needed immediate medical treatment and once the dogs are cleaned up, many should be available for adoption, according to Kowal. "I haven't seen any dogs that we need to put down," she said.

Monday afternoon and evening, several dozen volunteers from Wishbone Animal Rescue, which runs the shelter, were helping to process the dogs. Each animal was getting a preliminary health check and they were being sorted by gender and color.

Many of the volunteers wore rubber gloves and some had masks as they handled the filth-encrusted dogs.

"It makes me want to cry," said volunteer Brittany McMillan, 18, of Allegan.

The processing started at 1 p.m., and there were still more than 100 dogs to process as of 6 p.m. Mohler said groomers would be coming in Tuesday to start shaving the dogs and then they would all need to be bathed.

"We're taking it one day at time," Mohler said. "It's going to take a couple days for us to wrap our heads around this.

"We're hoping some other groups will step in and help us," he added. "We're clearly not set up for a situation like this."

Kowal said the shelter desperately needs donations of cash and dog supplies, especially soft dog food, to help care for the animals.

"We also need professional dog groomers," she said. People wishing to donate or help can call the shelter at 269-686-5112.

The names of the homeowners who kept the dogs was not released.

A news release from the Allegan County Sheriff's Office said the couple were cooperating with the Animal Control officers and are assisting in making arrangements for the animals to be relinquished to the county so that homes may be found for them.

The case remains under investigation by Animal Control.

If you want to help
The Allegan County Animal Shelter is seeking donations and volunteers to help with the care of almost 350 dogs seized Monday from a Cheshire Township home. To help, call 269-686-5112. People also can apply online to adopt one or more of the dogs.

Case Updates

Allegan County District Court Judge Joseph Skocelas said there was only one explanation for the behavior of the Cheshire Township couple recently discovered to have possessed more than 350 animals.

"You're both hoarders," Skocelas said according to a recording of the sentencing hearing Thursday, May 17.

The judge told George Army Burke, 64, and Cheri Rae Burke, 64, psychological evaluations of them and their known behavior fit the diagnosis to a tee. He sentenced each to 60 days in jail and two years of probation for one count each of failure to care for animals. The misdemeanor was punishable by up to a year in jail and a $2,000 fine. During probation they will not be able to possess animals.

The pair will also have to submit themselves to counseling from Allegan County Community Mental Health and random searches by police, animal control or parole officers.

Hoarding living creatures made the behavior more problematic than general hoarding, Skocelas said.

"It's one thing if you're hoarding magazines, pieces of soap, trinkets or whatever; you were hoarding living, breathing animals. That's a totally different situation," he told the couple.

Nearly 375 animals were seized from their property on Monday, April 9; they were mostly dogs, but there were also a dozen cats and two birds.

The dogs were caked in their own feces and urine; many had eye and respiratory tract issues related to the poor grooming. One had a broken leg, and many suffered from eye and skin infections as well as flea infestations.

The sentence was more than the prosecutor's recommendation of probation, fines, costs and community service; Skocelas had said he would not follow that recommendation previously.

Assistant prosecutor Daniel Norbeck said the Burkes' choice to completely surrender animals to the county when Animal Control officers approached them was factored into the recommendation.

"Had the defendants chosen not to completely surrender the animals and ownership to the Allegan County Sheriff Department, the animals couldn't have been treated by volunteers they couldn't have been shipped out to anywhere else other than the shelter that couldn't take that capacity," Norbeck said. "It was their decision to surrender the animals fully on that first day and we took that into consideration."

Neither of the Burkes addressed the court when given the chance during sentencing.

Cheri Rae Burke's attorney Chris Antkoviak said his client had been caring for animals for nearly 40 years and did not intentionally neglect them.

"She has spent a lifetime caring for animals," Antkoviak said. "Ever since she can remember, she put the interest of her animals before her own."

He said the Burkes would often forgo buying food for themselves to pay for dog food. Skocelas noted that his record indicated the couple had delayed seeking medical attention for their own health problems in order to pay for dog food.

Antkoviak said both Burkes were dealing with heath problems, which partially caused conditions in their home to get out of control, prior to the animals being seized.

Cheri Rae Burke contracted pneumonia when hand washing blankets for the dogs after her washing machine broke down, he said. She was also caring for her sick husband at the time.

"This is not a puppy mill, " Antkoviak said. "This is a family that, because they could not bear to see their animals go to an animal shelter and face the possibility of extermination, held on to them."

Skocelas said that others would call the situation a puppy mill and conditions at the Burkes' home were "horrendous." He compared the conditions at the home to a "a dog POW camp."

The couple knew they were having difficulty and chose not to react, he said.

"What the two of you did was absolutely nothing - absolutely nothing," he said.

He said he understood their concerns over having their animals put down but noted that, if he had to make the same choice for his three pets, he would risk it.

"If you do nothing, it's a guarantee that these dogs are going to suffer and suffer and suffer from neglect," Skocelas said. "If those were my dogs, I'd take them to the shelter every time; I'd give them a chance. I'd give them the benefit of a doubt rather than a guarantee of suffering for the rest of their lives."

The judge was also critical of the Burkes' response to the seizure of and community effort to care for and adopt out their dogs.

"When the call for help came out for your dogs, people came - more help than what they knew to do with," he said. "Given that you're animal lovers, (I would) think you would be so grateful people were doing that and taking care of your animals you couldn't take care of yourselves.

"According to the assessment I got, you two were angry."

Noting a report from the psychologist, he said George Army Burke believed "the government had stolen his animals."

He called into question Cheri Rae Burke's concern over her treatment in the media and her fears over the dog food the animals were being fed in the shelter.

She had claimed to have nightmares over the "crap dog food" being donated to the animals.

Skocelas countered that the volunteers likely "had nightmares about shaving your dogs, to get the crap off of your dogs - literally their own crap."
Source: Allegan News
Update posted on May 25, 2012 - 9:52AM 
An Allegan County judge has ordered a psychological evaluation of the two people who kept more than 350 dogs, many caked in feces and crawling with fleas, in their house and barn before the animals were seized by county officials earlier this month.

"I want to find out what happened here," said District Court Judge Joseph Skocelas after accepting guilty pleas to a lesser change Wednesday morning from George and Cheri Burke, both 64, of Cheshire Township.

They will be sentenced at 8:45 a.m. May 24.

The two originally faced one felony count of animal abandonment/animal cruelty to 10 or more animals punishable by up to four years in prison, $5,000 in fines and 500 hours of community service.

The Burkes pleaded guilty to a charge each of animal abandonment/animal cruelty to two or three animals, a misdemeanor with the possibility of up to a year in jail, $2,000 in fines and community service.

To be guilty of the charge, the Burkes had to admit to failing to maintain adequate care, such as a lack of food, water, shelter, sanitary conditions, exercise or veterinary care. Skocelas asked Cheri Burke why she felt she was guilty.

"They didn't have baths and haircuts. ... They needed baths," she said when the judge interrupted, saying unbathed dogs are not a crime.

"Did they need veterinary attention?" the judge asked.

"No," Cheri Burke said.

"We have a problem here, Mr. Antkoviak," the judge said, speaking to Matthew Antkoviak, Cheri Burke's attorney. The guilty plea would not be admissible unless a higher standard than not bathing the more than 350 animals was met.

Both Burkes then admitted the animals had not received proper medical care.

"I hadn't taken them to vets for shots. I had given them my own shots," Cheri Burke said.

The Allegan County Animal Shelter began the process Tuesday to adopt out the more than 30 dogs remaining at the facility at 2283 33rd St. Most of the more than 380 dogs " several have given birth since being removed April 9 from the Burke property " have been moved to other shelters and rescues. Some of those facilities have begun finding the dogs new homes.

Many of the dogs need "heavy duty rehab," said Julie Kowal of the shelter. They need to be house-trained and have socialization and emotional issues from being kept in crates for most of their lives. Many have medical conditions related to their eyes, ears and teeth.
Source: Holland Sentinel
Update posted on May 25, 2012 - 9:48AM 


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