BROOKSVILLE — To Hernando County Animal Services officers, the home on Lanark Road seemed like a zoo run amok.
The owners of the nonprofit Our Animal Haus animal sanctuary had become overwhelmed with caring for more than 200 animals in their charge, officials would later say.
During eight visits to the 12-acre property of Carol Mas and her husband, Estebahn Agustinho, officers documented numerous examples of animal neglect.
Animal Services director Liana Teague said that despite repeated warnings, the couple allowed conditions to deteriorate. The agency offered to help find homes for some of the animals, yet Teague said Mas steadfastly refused those offers.
The couple are due in county court today for a hearing to determine their fitness to continue as owners of Animal Haus. A court order issued last Friday prohibited Mas from taking in any new animals.
What would make someone who professes a deep love for animals refuse numerous offers of assistance?
Mas' behavior is consistent with that of an "animal hoarding syndrome," said Jen Hobgood, state director for the Humane Society of the United States.
The syndrome, she explained this week, is a pathological disorder that involves a compulsive need to collect and control animals, coupled with an inability to provide proper nutrition, sanitation, shelter and veterinary care for them.
Animal hoarders, Hobgood said, are generally not physical abusers of animals. Rather, they see themselves as saviors, stepping in to prevent what they perceive to be the animals' certain death by euthanasia at a public shelter.
However, the more animals hoarders obtain, the more difficult it becomes to properly care for them.
"The problem is that they only see that they themselves are doing a good thing," Hobgood said. "They fail to recognize the suffering around them. By the time others get involved, it's usually too late."
According to reports, Animal Services officers responding to anonymous complaints at Our Animal Haus in February, March, May and August found no violations. But by September that had changed.
Not only had the shelter's menagerie grown considerably, Mas and her husband were no longer financially able to meet the animals' needs. With her home in foreclosure, Mas stepped up her pleas for donations on three Web sites she operates, but had little success.
During Animal Services inspections from Sept. 16 to Oct. 19, records show they found two severely undernourished horses, both of which had to be removed from the property. One mare had to be euthanized when a veterinarian deemed it too far gone to save.
Photos taken by Animal Services showed cats huddled in cramped cages and animals suffering from untreated wounds and diseases. Another set of photos showed more than two dozen dead animals inside a large freezer.
Mas, 54, has declined numerous requests for interviews in recent days by the St. Petersburg Times.
However, in an earlier interview, she admitted that she wasn't really interested in finding homes for her animals, saying that she "couldn't bear to think about the possibility of them being abandoned again."
Such words anger Joanne Schoch, director of the Humane Society of the Nature Coast. Simply professing a love for animals, she said, isn't enough to operate a successful animal sanctuary.
"You don't do the community any good if all you are doing is warehousing animals without regard for their health and well-being," Schoch said. "Operating a good shelter involves planning and forethought and a heck of a lot of hard work."
The Humane Society, a no-kill shelter on 2 acres on Wiscon Road, has been in operation for 45 years. Schoch said finances limit her to caring for no more than 17 dogs and 50 to 60 cats at a time.
The organization turns away about 10 animals every day because of a lack of space.
For Schoch, the saddest aspect of animal hoarding is that it denies many worthy pets a good home. Animals rescued from hoarding situations are often too ill, too old or too unsocial to place in legitimate shelters.
"It puts an undue burden on the community," Schoch said. "And it's certainly not fair to the animals themselves."
Logan Neill can be reached at [email protected] or (352) 848-1435.