Jonathan A. Segal

is a lawyer with Duane Morris in Philadelphia

In June, the Montgomery County SPCA was granted a search-and-seizure warrant to rescue 36 cats that were being hoarded in Hatboro. The stench of animal waste, fleas, and decay was everywhere. The animals cried out for help, for human mercy, from conditions that defy description.

We took pictures of what we found, but they are so horrific that we cannot publish most of them. The home was so decrepit that our officers required breathing apparatus and hazmat suits to enter the condemned building.

A lawyer for 25 years, I speak for management in employment matters. For the last eight years, I also have been a volunteer for the truly defenseless at the county SPCA.

On weekends, I find homes for my four-legged clients, primarily older cats and dogs that have so much love to give and ask only for love in return. This year, I was asked to join the board and happily said yes.

As part of my responsibilities, I now have exposure to hoarding cases. I hear people say that hoarders just have hearts that are too big. I cannot judge anyone's heart, but I can judge actions. The animals in Hatboro were neglected and abused. Make no mistake about it: Animal hoarding is abject animal cruelty.

Some of the cats we seized were very sick and still are receiving medical care. But others were well enough to be adopted and most, thankfully, have been.

One particular cat, who was in isolation, stole my heart. Perhaps it was how thin and frail he looked. Perhaps it also was his visible joy whenever he saw someone come into the room.

He was not yet adoptable, but I would visit him before and after adoption hours (during which I and others volunteer to encourage adoptions). I also would visit him on the way to and from work.

He would dance on my shoulders and crawl up and down my back. He loved being held like a baby and would purr in my arms and rub his head against mine.

One day, Carmen Ronio, the executive director, told me he was worried that my little friend was losing weight. He wanted to have the cat checked by the vet more thoroughly, even though he already was receiving care while in isolation. With hundreds of animals under his care at three locations, I was struck by how attuned Carmen was to each creature's condition.

Well, the little guy had lost weight. The vet also reported that he was old and suffering from, among other conditions, advanced kidney disease. So he was moved by Carmen to the clinic for closer supervision by our full-time vets.

The next Saturday, before and after adoptions, my friend and I played together. The old soul in my arms captured my soul and I left determined to adopt him.

On Sunday, however, I could see things had taken a very fast and very bad turn, not uncommon with advanced kidney disease. He could barely lift his head and his breathing became more and more shallow. He began to cry in a way that made clear it was not long. It was a cat's death rattle.

An employee and I named him Jeffrey. He deserved a name by which to be remembered.

After adoptions were over, I heard Jeffrey wail. He cried except when in my arms, so that is where he stayed. He tried to pick up his head to rub against mine, but he would only collapse. A few hours later, he effectively died in my arms.

Negotiating with a very aggressive adversary the prior Friday was relatively easy. Helping an abused animal die a peaceful death was extremely hard.

Family and friends have told me that at least Jeffrey knew love and did not die alone. I appreciate the kind words, but this isn't about me. It's about the many Jeffreys out there.

Yes, he was loved at the end and did not die alone. But when I met him he was starving for food and for love. Knowing his capacity for love and knowing he'd experienced it for only a short time made me red-hot angry at his abusers.

The perpetrators in Jeffrey's case were found guilty of cruelty in mid-August. Justice. I am grateful for the growing recognition that animal rights truly matter, and I thank the Montgomery County District Attorney's Office for taking animal cruelty cases seriously and prosecuting when appropriate.

I will never forget Jeffrey. I can almost smile when I think of him dancing in his cage when he saw me coming to play with him. However, I also will never see hoarders the same way again.

Perhaps some are well-intentioned but lose their moral compass. Or perhaps they narcissistically bathe in each rescue, not realizing that they are condemning a living creature to a living hell.

If you are a hoarder, stop. Turn your animals in, for their benefit and for yours. If you know someone who is or is becoming a hoarder, talk with them. If necessary, blow the whistle. To see and ignore is to condone.

Hoarders are not victims. They are criminals who should pay a harsh price for their cruelty - though it will be less than the painful and unnecessary price that Jeffrey and other animals have tragically paid.

E-mail Jonathan A. Segal at jsegal@duanemorris.com.