Animal Hoarding Case Study: Vikki Kittles
Vikki Rene Kittles, also known as Susan Dietrich, Rene Depenbrock, and Lynn Zellan, has a history of animal hoarding that goes back decades and spans the United States from the Southeast to the Northwest. She has effectively evaded prosecution and conviction on many occasions by so thoroughly frustrating authorities that they are eager to dismiss her case in exchange for her leaving the jurisdiction. In at least one county, exasperated authorities even gave Kittles money for a tank of gas to leave the jurisdiction.
In 1993, after being run out of several states, serial animal hoarder Vikki Kittles was keeping 116 dogs, all sick and some dying, in an old school bus in Oregon, where District Attorney Joshua Marquis and the Animal Legal Defense Fund were determined not to let her get away again.
Vikki Kittles is representative of exploitive hoarders, as defined by the Hoarding of Animals Research Consortium (HARC):
- Most difficult or problematic type to deal with
- Acquires animals purely to serve own needs
- Tends to have sociopathic characteristics and/or personality disorder
- Lacks empathy for people or animals; indifferent to the harm caused to animals or people
- Tends toward extreme denial of the situation
- Rejects authority or any outsider’s legitimate concern over animal care
- Believes his/her knowledge is superior to all others'; adopts the role of expert with extreme need to control
- Has superficial charm and charisma – very articulate, skilled in crafting excuses and explanations, and capable of presenting an appearance that conveys believability and competence to officials, the public, and the media
- Is manipulative and cunning
- Is self-concerned and narcissistic
- Lacks guilt, remorse or social conscience
- Acquires animals actively rather than passively
- Demonstrates predatory behavior – will lie, cheat, steal without remorse and potentially has a plan to use these tools to achieve own ends
- Plans to evade the law and beat the system
Kittles has been particularly exceptional in her ability to manipulate good Samaritans, unsuspecting veterinarians, and the legal system.
Florida, Mississippi, Colorado, Washington
1985 – In Broward County, Florida, Vikki Kittles’ neighbors had complained of stench and noise coming from animals at her house. She was charged with aggravated assault for pointing a gun at a neighbor whom she accused of harboring her missing dog. When neighbors gave a sworn statement that they had seen Kittles punch one dog and throw another against a wall, authorities went to the home and discovered 35 dogs, three cats and two horses living inside the home with Kittles and her 73-year-old mother, Jean Sullivan. Kittles explained the horses were inside to prevent them from being poisoned by the enemy. She was charged with cruelty to animals and violation of a local ordinance for keeping horses in a residential area. She fled before the trial, leaving in a trailer with the animals and her mother.
1987 – Kittles’ sister-in-law, concerned about Jean Sullivan’s well-being, hired a private investigator who found Kittles in Manatee County, Florida in September, two years after she had fled. Sullivan was not with her and had last been seen in February camping with Kittles, living out of the trailer and sleeping on the ground beside a campfire. Law enforcement officers have never been able to ascertain Sullivan’s whereabouts since that sighting. When authorities arrested Kittles on outstanding charges of animal cruelty, aggravated assault and grand theft, they discovered more than 40 dogs and cats she was keeping in various makeshift kennels – nine dogs in a van, four dogs in the back of a station wagon, and several dogs and cats in a shed.
1988 – Kittles spent a few months in a Broward County jail awaiting trial. She was acquitted of the aggravated assault charge, but convicted of battery for attacking a jail guard after her arrest. She was convicted of a misdemeanor for keeping horses at her home, but the judge cited no proof that the animals lacked exercise and fresh air, so Kittles was not sentenced to jail time, a fine, or community service.
District Attorney Joshua Marquis of Clatsop County, Oregon, describes Kittles history prior to her arrival in Oregon:
Kittles, who has a long criminal record of assaultive conduct dating back to the late 60s, surfaced most publicly in Broward County Florida in the early 1980s when she was charged with various crimes after neighbors complained about the scores of dogs and two horses she kept in her mother’s suburban house. Kittles claimed then – and now – that she is the victim of a massive government conspiracy, somehow tied to the Drug Enforcement Administration, that sought to poison her and ‘her’ dogs.
She was eventually run out of one part of Florida only to surface in another with her aged mother, Jean Sullivan, who has not been seen since living in filth with her daughter in rural Manatee County, Florida. From there Kittles (alone) went on to Mississippi, where she convinced some good-hearted souls that she would "save" scores of dogs by taking them to a "no-kill" shelter in Colorado.
From Mississippi she fled to Colorado where she once again claimed persecution. She left a wake of well-meaning vets with unpaid bills and sponsors whom she turned on when they failed to give her everything she wanted. From Colorado in the late 80s she travelled to rural Washington where she and ‘her’ dogs were delivered by a semi-truck. True to form, she was successful in conning some wealthy backers to send her $15,000 which she used to buy a school bus that became her home – and the prison for over 100 dogs. She once again wrung every bit of kindness, and money, out of her would-be benefactor before accusing her too of being involved in a plot.
Clatsop County, Oregon
April 16, 1993 – Animal control officers had been called to a property in rural Oregon by a neighbor who reported many dogs barking from inside a school bus. Authorities found Kittles, who was using the alias Susan Dietrich, living in an old school bus with 116 dogs, four cats, and two chickens. Officers observed one dog having severe seizures while Kittles tried to hold and medicate the dog, and the other dogs on the bus were audibly fighting. According to the animal control officer’s report, Kittles yelled abusively to the animals to “Shut up or die,” “Do you want to die?” and “I’ll kill you.” She brought out another dog who was also having seizures. She explained the seizures by claiming that people who had conspired against her when she was living in Washington had poisoned her dogs. She also explained that she never let the dogs off the bus because she didn’t want them to get fleas.
Kittles was arrested on charges of animal neglect. After being placed in the back seat of a patrol car, she began kicking at the window, bending the window frame, and forcing a deputy to put her in leg irons and transport her to jail, where she was initially booked under her alias.
Officers boarded the filthy bus to find animals caked with urine and feces and suffering from starvation, dehydration, and parasites, including heartworm. Several animals were found dead. Many dogs were observed with old fight wounds as well as fresh fight wounds. Some had bleeding sores on their bodies or mouths. One was missing an eye. One had a bleeding, torn ear. Four cats were in a homemade wire cage. There was no food or water.
Officers impounded all of the animals. The dog who was having seizures was transported directly to a veterinarian where the dog later died. A necropsy revealed no food in the dog’s system nor any body fat whatsoever, indicating prolonged starvation.
At a court hearing, Kittles pleaded not guilty to the charges, claiming she was saving the dogs from euthanasia.
June 2, 1993 – Kittles convinced the judge to bar medical treatment for the animals, asserting that she had her own treatments for their conditions. The order resulted in the deaths of many dogs from heartworm and other diseases. She refused to surrender any of the animals for permanent adoption, nor would she allow them to be placed in foster homes during the pendency of the case.
July 14, 1994 – In an apparent attempt to avoid or subvert prosecution, Kittles moved across the Columbia River to Washington and refused to appear in court in Oregon when her trial was scheduled to start in August. Extradition proceedings took more than three months.
December 1994 – Kittles’ trial began, eventually lasting five weeks and costing the county $150,000. ALDF provided extensive, free legal research in support of the prosecution’s case, including providing legal memos on the “Admissibility of Prior Bad Acts Under Oregon Evidence Code” and “Admissibility of Expert Testimony.”
Prosecutor Joshua Marquis described the trial:
In a trial that should have taken two days, Kittles berated the judge, [the D.A.], the witnesses, the jurors, and the audience, and only later in the trial was finally sentenced to spend a total of 71 days in jail for contempt. Kittles used every artifice available to endlessly question witnesses about irrelevant material and when her turn came to give her side, she talked steadily for two and a half days.
By all accounts, Kittles’s trial was a masterpiece of manipulation:
- She forced the Court to go through extradition proceedings.
- She fired seven court-appointed attorneys, eventually representing herself.
- She filed hundreds of self-styled legal motions.
- She had four judges remove themselves from the case.
- She maintained control of the confiscated dogs by means of the Order she won to withhold medical treatment for the animals.
January 31, 1995 – After two hours of deliberation, the jury unanimously convicted her on 42 counts of Animal Neglect in the First Degree.
February 3, 1995 – Kittles was sentenced to: four months in jail in addition to 71 days for contempt; five years unsupervised probation; a psychiatric exam; avoid contact with animals and any person who helped or adopted her animals. During her incarceration in the county jail, one fellow inmate begged to be sent on to the state women’s prison rather than suffer another night in a cell with Vikki Kittles.
November 1995 – Kittles was released from jail. Although the terms of her probation required her to go to counseling, she refused, choosing instead to serve an extra two months in jail. The court subsequently dropped the counseling requirement. Another provision of her probation was that she not possess animals, but because her probation was designated “unsupervised,” she was not required to remain in the state, so officials had no way to monitor her activities.
Carbon County and Sweetwater County, Wyoming
August 1996 – Kittles arrived in Carbon County, Wyoming and moved into a trailer owned by a man named Ed Depenbrock, and she began using the alias Rene Depenbrock. From September to December, she adopted over 70 dogs from the Rawlins Animal Shelter, claiming she would find homes for them, but predictably, she simply took them to her trailer. During that time, police said they did not have probable cause to search the trailer – no more than two dogs were visible at any one time, and there was no evidence of neglect or abuse. They still did not take action when a strong stench became apparent.
March 5, 1997 – The owner of the property where the trailer was parked took civil action for nonpayment of rent. Ed Depenbrock had not been seen since the fall. Kittles was evicted from the property along with 80 dogs and 40 cats. Although she was still under court order from her Oregon conviction not to possess animals, Oregon authorities did not pursue extradition for the probation violation.
March 6, 1997 – Kittles took up residence in an empty house trailer in Sweetwater County without the owner’s permission. She was immediately ordered to vacate that property. 74 dogs whom she left behind were seized and later adopted out.
March 7, 1997 – The next day, a Carbon County deputy stopped her for driving with obstructed windows – five dogs, 40 cats and a rabbit were living in the car with her. She was arrested for two traffic violations: driving with obstructed windows and driving without a license. The animals were seized and taken to a veterinarian who found that all were malnourished, some had respiratory infections, and some had mites causing them to pull out their hair and skin, leaving open sores. Authorities destroyed all of the animals. A few days later, the Carbon County prosecutor issued a summons charging Kittles with misdemeanor animal cruelty. ALDF offered the prosecutor free legal services to help with the case, as had been done in Oregon, and sent him background information on Kittles.
September 5, 1997 – The Carbon County prosecutor dropped charges against Kittles, saying he would just as soon let her sound off somewhere else. She had spent court hearings ranting and raving and accusing everyone around her of conspiracies. The prosecutor said that given Kittles’ history, he feared a long, expensive trial and said, “I held out little hope, based on how she behaved, that the trial would have been short. It could have lasted for days. … I don’t want to burn up the jury pool on cases like that.”
November 21, 1997 – In Sweetwater County, Kittles’ court proceedings for felony property destruction and misdemeanor criminal trespass began. As in Oregon, the proceedings were characterized by Kittles’ manipulations, such as seeking the judge’s removal, requesting to postpone her trial and requesting to subpoena all media stories relating to her case. The judge ordered Kittles to submit to a mental evaluation at the State Hospital, but contrary to the prosecutor’s request to have her transported there by law enforcement, the judge allowed her to go to the hospital by herself, which she never did. The court proceedings lasted for eight months.
April 10, 2000 – The case languished for almost two years and was finally dismissed.
Laramie County, Wyoming
July 2001 – Kittles talked a woman into letting her park a camping trailer with 48 cats on the woman’s property for “a couple weeks.”
April 2002 – Kittles removed the trailer from the woman’s property.
May 26, 2002 – Laramie County sheriff’s deputies impounded the trailer and found it to have inadequate ventilation. There were Cheerios mixed with cat food in their dishes, and many caged cats had no access to water. The deputies took the 48 cats to the Cheyenne Animal Shelter where all of the cats were found to have ear mites, some had infected sores, one had a respiratory infection, one showed evidence of self-mutilation, and one was euthanized because of advanced ringworm.
June 16, 2002 – Although Kittles was living out of her car, she had accumulated six horses whom she kept on someone’s property, until the owner objected and tied them to a fence along a road. Deputies confiscated the horses. Veterinarians declared that the horses were in marginal health: their ribs were showing; one had an open wound on her head and was missing the bottom row of teeth; one had hair on his belly, a sign of malnutrition; one had deformed legs that could have been surgically corrected if the horse had received medical treatment for the condition before he was a year old. Kittles was ticketed for misdemeanor livestock at large. During the proceedings Kittles filed civil suits against various people connected with the seizure of the horses. She accused authorities of stealing or killing the foal of one of the horses, who a veterinarian determined had not been pregnant. Also, she brought a horse leg in a feed bag to an investigator, claiming that the leg had been tied to the fence near where the six horses had been tethered. She asserted that the leg had been left as a threat against her.
July 2002 – At a court hearing for the confinement of 48 cats in a trailer, Kittles filed a civil complaint against the shelter, accusing the staff of abusing the seized cats: amputating the legs of some of the cats, gouging out their eyes, and selling them for experimentation. The cost of boarding and providing veterinary care for the cats was estimated at $20,000. During their time in the shelter, some of the cats had kittens.
August 30, 2002 – Identifying herself as Rene Kittles, she called the ALDF office to demand help from a lawyer to contend with her complaints about the Laramie County authorities. Her ranting ranged from deriding ALDF to demanding help and ended with threats of retribution if an attorney would not assist her.
January 30, 2003 – In circuit court, Kittles represented herself in two trials. A jury found her guilty of misdemeanor breach of the peace. She was also convicted of other minor charges: eight counts of failure to vaccinate, one count of livestock at large, and one count of no auto insurance. The judge sentenced her to 15 days in jail, suspended, and a $230 fine.
August 2006 – A veterinarian reported that Kittles had brought a septic and maggot-infested dog to her for treatment, signed an estimate for $2,000 worth of care, but could not pay. The dog was confiscated by authorities and euthanized. Kittles was believed to have initiated legal action.
Afterword: Laws Inspired by the Kittles Case
In the aftermath of the costly 21-month case in Oregon, in which the animal victims in custody during the course of the lengthy court proceedings continued to suffer and die at the whim of their abuser, ALDF was determined to strengthen state animal protection laws. ALDF attorney member Pamela Frasch did extensive legal research and drafted the "Kittles Bill," which elevated aggravated animal abuse from a misdemeanor to a felony and allowed shelters to provide veterinary care to impounded animals and to move them from temporary shelters to foster homes.
Due to the concerted efforts of ALDF and animal advocates across the state to garner support for the bill, Oregon legislators passed the bill, it was signed by the Governor, and it became effective in September 1995.
Another Oregon bill that was passed in that same session allowed courts to order forfeiture of abused animals prior to the disposition of a criminal case.
Kittles’ case in Carbon County, Wyoming also led to legal changes, although at a local level. Rawlins city officials believed that they had lacked the tools to prevent Kittles’ adoption of animals from the shelter and that they had lacked probable cause to get a search warrant to search her residence. In 1997, the City Council revised the animal control ordinance to: require licensing of cats and dogs; require a kennel permit for more than four cats or four dogs; regulate the number of animals that may be adopted from the city shelter; define animal cruelty and animal nuisance; and give city officials authority to control potential public health threats.
Animal Protection Laws of the United States of America, Second Edition
By Stephan K. Otto, Director of Legislative Affairs, Animal Legal Defense Fund
OR. REV. STAT. §167.325 (2003). Animal neglect in the second degree
(1) A person commits the crime of animal neglect in the second degree if, except as otherwise authorized by law, the person intentionally, knowingly, recklessly or with criminal negligence fails to provide minimum care for an animal in such person’s custody or control.
(2) Animal neglect in the second degree is a Class B misdemeanor.
OR. REV. STAT. §167.330 (2003). Animal neglect in the first degree
(1) A person commits the crime of animal neglect in the first degree if, except as otherwise authorized by law, the person intentionally, knowingly, recklessly or with criminal negligence fails to provide minimum care for an animal in the person’s custody or control and the failure to provide care results in serious physical injury or death to the animal.
(2) Animal neglect in the first degree is a Class A misdemeanor.