HUDSON - As shocking as most people would consider the conditions of a woman's houses in Hudson after deputies discovered dozens of dogs and a carpet of feces inside, it isn't as surprising to Pasco Animal Services Manager Denise Hilton.
"Unfortunately, it's pretty classic as far as hoarding cases," she said.
After a 65-year-old woman died in one home this week, Animal Services took 43 dogs into custody from the homes, one where until recently three women were living and also the home across the street, which had been owned by the father of two of the women.
The canines are undergoing testing by animal services, but the majority of them were malnourished, possibly from parasites rather than lack of food, Hilton said.
Homeowner Diane Lombardi, 58, said Thursday that she simply got overwhelmed after taking in her adult daughter's dog about a decade ago, followed by another dog and then litter upon litter of puppies.
She said there were times she knew she needed help, but she couldn't find homes for the dogs and feared animal services would euthanize them.
"I was trying to protect the dogs," Lombardi said.
Though she was trying to protect the dogs, she was endangering them and those who lived in the house with her, Hilton said.
Since 2003, Lombardi has been warned six times for code violations involving her dogs, and was cited nine times, Hilton said. Those violations range from failing to vaccinate her dogs, failure to license the animals and allowing her dogs to run at large.
Until Wednesday, animal control officers and Pasco deputies, who also have been there on numerous complaints, weren't allowed inside either home.
That morning, deputies were called to 16034 Frost Drive in Viva Villas, where they found a woman's body in the back yard. Lombardi said she peeked in the rear bedroom window and found Linda Lesack, whom she cared for, dead inside.
A young man who runs errands for her helped Lombardi take Lesack's body outside through the window. Lesack had emphysema and a heart condition, Lombardi said, and complained she didn't feel well earlier that morning.
Pasco deputies are investigating the death but have found no signs of foul play. The Pasco-Pinellas Medical Examiner's Office has delayed the autopsy on Lesack, hoping family members can be found, said sheriff's office spokesman Doug Tobin.
On Nov. 6, Lombardi's sister, Lois Marie Lombardi, also 65, died in the garage where she and her sister were living. The dog waste in the home made it a challenge just to wheel Lois Lombardi through the house, her sister said.
So a few months ago they moved to the garage while the other woman stayed with her cats in a back bedroom. Lombardi would check on her periodically and feed her through the window.
When Lois Lombardi died, her sister moved her body to a lawn chair in the back yard, trying to keep the situation inside undercover, she said.
"It became so embarrassing," Lombardi said.
A doctor signed her sister's death certificate because she had numerous medical conditions including cerebral palsy, had recently been hospitalized for pneumonia and had a seizure, like she often did, right before she died. No autopsy was done.
It's not clear whether the living conditions contributed to the deaths of the women, but contact with animal feces and ammonia from pet urine pose a public health risk for even the healthiest people, experts say.
Houses Have Been Condemned
The conditions in the Lombardi homes were beyond the scope of what county Building Official Tim Moore normally encounters on the job.
"It's one of the worst I've ever seen," he said.
Both houses were condemned Friday.
"We're usually condemning because of structural problems," he said, "not for sanitation issues."
Once property is condemned, he said, property owners have 30 days to appeal. If they don't appeal, they have 45 days to tear the property down or else the county will demolish it, charge the owner and likely file a lien against the property if they can't foot the bill, Moore said.
Experts say hoarders aren't simply collectors of animals, that it goes far beyond that and has been considered a mental illness.
Hoarders often fail to recognize the severity of the problem and ignore the often deteriorating conditions of the animals, the household environment and even the possible negative effect on human health, according to The Hoarding of Animals Research Consortium, established in Massachusetts a decade ago.
It's a societal, and often unrecognized and misunderstood, problem affecting both human and animal welfare, which can become an economical burden to taxpayers, according to the consortium.
Consider Lombardi's case: On Wednesday when her secret was discovered, in addition to the sheriff's office, several other agencies were called to assist including animal services, the county's hazardous materials unit and the building official.
And though Lombardi insists she did nothing wrong and has nothing but love for the animals, she could be facing time in jail. Hilton, the animal services manager, said she was forwarding the case to the Pasco-Pinellas State Attorney's Office to consider charging Lombardi with animal cruelty.
Hilton pointed out that most hoarders are older women who don't have family but they can be entire families who keep the animals and live in deplorable conditions.
Case Was Referred To DCF
She urged people who suspect animal hoarding to report it so not only the animals but perhaps the people also can get help.
This year, the sheriff's office noticed a strong odor of feces and urine coming from Lombardi's home and noticed what appeared to be a lot of dogs.
Time after time, however, Lombardi downplayed the number of dogs and refused to let anyone inside. Deputies knew others were living in the home and referred the case to the Department of Children and Families, but it's not clear what happened to that agency's investigation.
Andy Ritter, a DCF spokesman, said he can't comment on specific cases but that it's not unusual for these types of situations to get referred to the agency. Often, though, there's little investigators can do, he said.
Adult protection cases are different than child protection cases, Ritter said, in that most adults can make their own life choices. If a child is living in such squalid conditions, chances are they would be removed for their own welfare, he said.
"If you are an adult and living in similar conditions and they are of sound mind, there is nothing we can do to change the way you live your life," Ritter said.
In some cases the agency will offer assistance in property cleanup or other help, but it can't be forced on the adults.
"They don't have to accept it," he said.
He urges people who find themselves losing control with their pets to contact DCF "before you feel like you're overwhelmed."
Fear for her pets seemed to remove that option for Diane Lombardi.
She says she did the best she could and then just threw her hands up.
"I got so damn disgusted," she said. "I didn't care anymore."