Las Vegas Animal Control officials have removed 165 cats from a woman’s home since October 2010, and now the Southern Nevada Health District has deemed the house an “unacceptable health risk” to the 71-year-old homeowner and her adult daughter.
Three separate code enforcement cases have been opened and closed since 2010. Each time the owner, Diane Dejongh, cooperated and cleaned up the area ... for a while.
A fourth case launched June 5 remains open. Since then, Animal Control has removed 118 cats from the home, which lacks air conditioning.
The health district last inspected the home Aug. 5 and reported to city officials that “the conditions observed at this property remain an unacceptable health risk to the occupants.” The inspection showed improvement over the July inspection, health officials wrote, but they warned, “Cat feces and urine have the potential to transmit illness and disease.”
Andy Chaney, the district’s environmental health supervisor, said Friday that even though the cats used the yards on either side of Dejongh’s home as litter boxes, that doesn’t pose a health risk to neighbors. The health risk is to Dejongh, who is a home health care aide, and her daughter.
“They’ve removed a lot of contaminated material, but it still needs more work,” Chaney said.
WHAT TO DO?
City officials are trying to figure out what to do next and how far their responsibilities reach. If they declare the home uninhabitable, do they turn the mother and daughter into homeless people? Do they find housing for the two women? Do they clean the neighbors’ yards?
Neighbors living on Lucaccini Lane say that for at least eight years, the odor of cat urine and feces has wafted from Dejongh’s home to theirs, creating such horrible smells they can’t use their backyards.
Cindy Miller, who bought the home north of Dejongh’s in April, has complained relentlessly about the odors and sparked the most recent code enforcement investigation.
“At first, I didn’t know what it was,” Miller said, referring to the smells. She called the former owners of her new house, who reached out to Councilman Bob Beers.
The neighbors to the south, who asked that their names not be disclosed, described the mom as pleasant and friendly. “She’s not creepy,” the wife said.
They said the cat problem became worse after Dejongh’s husband died and the divorced daughter moved in.
Experts on cat hoarding say it’s a disorder that affects mostly middle-aged women and is often provoked by trauma or loss.
Cat hoarders tend to believe they are helping the cats, despite creating filthy conditions.
Despite intensive clean-up efforts by the city, the smell of cat urine was strong Thursday at the home’s front door. No one answered the door, a call was not returned, and a card asking them to call the Review-Journal was ignored.
This is the second major hoarding incident in the city of Las Vegas, and each time, city officials stepped up their efforts after the respective councilmen became involved.
Councilman Stavros Anthony was involved in a Sun City Summerlin case in which Kenneth Epstein’s house was packed floor to ceiling with possessions in what officials called the worst case of hoarding they had seen. He was criminally charged in 2012.
There were 55 cats — some dead, others alive — found in that house, and 44 tons of materials were removed.
HOARDING AND CODE ENFORCEMENT
The latest case occurred in a pleasant upper-middle-class neighborhood near Charleston and Rampart boulevards, where homes sell for $200,000 and up. Lucaccini Lane shows no evidence of hoarding from the outside.
But inspections showed cats, including feral cats, living inside and outside the home at 1417 Lucaccini with cat urine and feces inside and outside.
Beers’ involvement prodded city officials to move, although not as quickly as Miller would have liked.
In a July 3 inspection by code enforcement, the health district and Animal Control, cats were living all over the house.
“Owners had windows of house open for ventilation. Apparent cat feces and urine were observed covering cement surfaces, furniture, cabinets and all other surfaces in almost all areas of the interior of the house,” according to a code enforcement summary.
The health district told Dejongh that the interior was a health hazard and required the removal of all porous surfaces including drywall, cabinets and furniture.
An inspection a month later concluded Dejongh “seemed overwhelmed with all that needed to be completed to bring the property into compliance.”
The city has taken another holistic approach, which it began in 2012 after the Sun City Summerlin case was uncovered, trying to balance compassion for the hoarders while respecting the neighbors’ rights. Joining Code Enforcement and Animal Control are the health district, a certified industrial hygienist, the city offices of Community Services, the city attorney and the city manager.
In addition, the city has hired an odor consultant to assess the nuisance orders and identify the appropriate remediation methods.
Neighbors on both sides believe the city has an obligation to clean their yards as well as the yard of the hoarders.
“We can’t enjoy the pool or the patio; the smell is embarrassing,” one neighbor said.
Her husband added, “I don’t harbor any resentment to Diane, but I have a right to a good life and a secure and healthy home.”
“It got to the point that it could even be smelled from the sidewalk and beyond,” Beers said, calling the home a biohazard.
While the women are still in the home, Beers hopes the city can help find them temporary and even long-term housing.
No decision has been made on what should be done with the house, and officials are questioning the city’s liability and the worries of creating a homeless situation for two women.
Beers said a lot of the efforts by the city to resolve these kinds of problems take time and are slow.
Miller is furious at the city and the people who sold the home to her, threatening to sue both.
“In the morning, if I walk outside, it burns your eyes,” said Miller, a physician’s assistant. “I’d tear that frickin’ house down.”
When the clean-up was underway, workers wore hazmat suits and face masks, as they did at the Epstein home.
The other neighbors also are critical of the slow responses by the city, going back to 2010 with the first code enforcement investigation. “The city waited far too long,” the husband said.
The first code enforcement case in 2010 was closed after the owner was warned to clean up the fecal matter in the backyard and treat the odor issues.
The second case in 2011 was opened and closed in two months when, after the fifth inspection, the officer found no odors and fecal matter had been removed.
The third, about a year later in 2012, was opened and closed within two months. The officer told the owner to stop leaving cat food on the back patio and for the first time contacted Animal Control to tell of feral cat issues. From July to October, Animal Control picked up 47 cats at the home.
Since June, 118 more cats have been picked up, and Dejongh and her daughter stopped feeding the cats, according to code enforcement.
The total of 165 cats, plus another 27 trapped by a neighbor over two years, surpasses the North Las Vegas case in July, when a 47-year-old woman living in the 800 block of Harp Way had 112 cats in her home, which also was deemed “uninhabitable.”
North Las Vegas police said Thursday the woman has been charged with animal cruelty and the case is ongoing, so it’s possible other charges could be filed. She no longer is living in the house.
The cats from the North Las Vegas home and the Las Vegas home were taken to The Animal Foundation.
Shelter spokeswoman Meghan Scheibe said with births, 124 cats from the North Las Vegas home ended up at the shelter.
“Two died in our care, 97 were euthanized, seven were adopted, five were too young and were in foster care, 12 were taken by our partners and one is still waiting to be adopted,” she said. “We do get cats from hoarding cases, and it strains our resources.”
Contact Jane Ann Morrison at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0275. Find her on Twitter: @janeannmorrison.