Down the hall from his cluttered, closet-sized office, Harry D. Brown III opens the door to a room of cages stacked two high against the wall.

He stops to poke his finger through the bars, petting the cats that come to meet him at their cage doors. On one cage, the message "Canned food only. Just had dental. No dry food!!!" is scrawled on a piece of paper, alerting caretakers to the recent extraction of one cat's rotten teeth. Inside, Silly sits back from the bars, staring through them with the only eye she has left.

Silly and 26 other cats live in the room down the hall from Brown's crammed Animal Rescue League of Berks County office. But six months ago, the room was intended to be a new office for Brown, the executive director.

On June 29, the plan changed; Brown has indefinitely delayed his office move, happy instead to make room for more than 30 animals found living in their own urine and feces at Mary Lou Petrucci's city home in the 1500 block of Mineral Spring Road.

Today, Brown has more-pressing problems than having to stay in the same office another year. His concerns lie instead with Silly and the other cats, dogs, rats and hamsters - even two raccoons - that the Animal Rescue League rescued from Petrucci between that June day and Nov. 30.

The Cumru Township nonprofit has spent more than $100,000 caring for the animals, and doesn't expect to get it back.

Agencies also victims

Across Pennsylvania, shelters like the ARL take in the victims of animal abuse cases, holding the animals until their owners have their day in court. But as costs build - oftentimes through lengthy appeals and the owners' refusal to surrender the animals for adoption - the agencies become victims themselves, shouldering thousands of dollars in costs as their space for new animals runs thin.

"This is one of the reasons why it puts such a stress on shelters," Brown said. "You'd be surprised how many shelters look the other way because they know they're going to be stuck with them for months or years."

That fear is why the Humane Society of Berks County does not accept animals involved in ongoing cruelty cases, unless the owner surrenders them or they are the responsibility of the police or district attorney's office.

"You just never know what's going to happen down the road," said Karel Minor, executive director of the county Humane Society. "Someone can just stick you with an animal that you'll have for three years during appeals. There's no incentive for these people to give the animal up and there's no way to adopt that animal while the case is going on."

One hoarder's high price

Of the 22 cats the ARL took in the June rescue, Petrucci, 55, has surrendered two. Also seized were three dogs, five hamsters and four rats, now caged just inside the doorway in what was supposed to be Brown's new office. The rats were not included among the 25 animal cruelty charges filed in July.

Authorities returned to Petrucci's home Nov. 30 to rescue another seven cats, a dog, a box turtle, fish and two raccoons, which have since been taken by the state Game Commission. She was charged Dec. 6 on eight counts of animal cruelty.

At a daily cost of $146 per animal, the ARL has taken on more than $100,000 in overhead costs associated with animals rescued from Petrucci. For Silly and two other cats, the shelter has spent hundreds of dollars to remove eyes. Another $4,400 has been spent on extracting rotten teeth.

The shelter doesn't expect to receive a dime from Petrucci. But with fees falling short of the actual cost of care, she would be billed more than $50,000 if she paid today for the shelter's services.

Donations the difference

With little flowing in from fees and agreements with Reading and surrounding municipalities, the shelter survives on the generosity of its donors.

Ashley Mikulsky, the ARL's director of development, said that next year the shelter will encourage more membership donations - or monthly commitments of smaller amounts - rather than larger, one-time donations in order to take some guessing out of the game.

"What people often forget to consider is how it affects the animals," Mikulsky said. "They're in a crate right now, and they're going to be there for we're not even sure how long."

Seeking systemic change

But there is also a movement among animal shelters statewide to lobby state lawmakers for compensation from owners involved in animal abuse cases.

In the last legislative session, the House of Representatives passed a bill that would force defendants in animal abuse cases to contribute to the shelter's cost. The state Senate referred the bill to its Judiciary Committee in October, where it died with the session's end.

"When you've established that it's very likely that this cruelty did exist, that's a point where owners of the animals might post bond for the reasonable care of their animals," said Anne Irwin, executive director of the Bucks County SPCA and vice president of the Federated Humane Societies of Pennsylvania. "It's not unknown for humane societies to hold animals for years while they're waiting for appeals to run their course.

Prime example

Such was the case with Petrucci in Montgomery County, where she was convicted in 2008 on 50 counts of animal cruelty.

Over two years, the Montgomery County SPCA spent just short of $140,000 caring for Petrucci's animals, said Carmen Ronio, the shelter's executive director.

In a previous, more famous, instance, his shelter spent $267,000 housing the animals of Janet Jones, a Montgomery County resident who was convicted in 2002 of 105 counts of animal cruelty.

The shelter was awarded $47,000 in restitution - "but we never received a nickel," Ronio said.

A crime - and a condition

Ronio believes animal hoarding should not only be prosecuted criminally but also treated as a mental illness.

Dr. Timothy E. Ring agrees. Earlier this month, Ring was encouraged by the announcement that the upcoming "Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders," the veritable bible of psychiatry, would include hoarding disorder as a separate diagnostic category.

Hoarding had previously been associated with obsessive-compulsive behavior, though experts have held that the two disorders aren't always connected.

Ring, a psychologist at Berkshire Psychiatric and Behavioral Health Services in Wyomissing, said hoarding's causes often stem from a childhood trauma, sometimes from abuse or another dysfunctional human relationship. It can begin with love and a desire to help animals before becoming overwhelming and abusive, he said.

Hoarders are often vilified, he said. But in truth, they are tormented souls who should be directed to therapy.

"These individuals grow up with a hole in their heart, and so they compulsively seek these animal attachments to fill that hole," Ring said. "But these attachments never adequately fill the hole, so they keep seeking more and more animals."

Contact C. Ryan Barber: 610-371-5081 or rbarber@readingeagle.com.