All the Animals: A Chat with Mary Jo Johnson from the Medina County Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals

Mary Jo Johnson is the humane officer for the Medina County Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA). She's seen a lot during her time on the job. Lots of horror and lots of joy. We met up one morning recently at the SPCA, just outside Medina's town center. Typically, there were people and animals all over the place and the atmosphere was frantic.

Eric Sandy: Every time I'm here, it's absolutely crazy.

Mary Jo Johnson: It's never slow. I mean, as much as we think it is, it's not. But that's par for the course. For some reason this year, cats have exploded again. At our highest point, we had 202.

Well, last time we crossed paths, I think you had just busted an animal hoarder for, like, 120 dogs or something.

Yeah, it was 109 dogs. It was February 12, 2011. I will remember that day for the rest of my life. That was definitely a standout situation. For many reasons, you just don't expect that. Even as an officer, you read about it in newsletters from agencies across the country. When I investigated it, I figured, eh, maybe 20 dogs or so. When we broke down that door—because it was a forceful search warrant—the deputy sheriff with me looked over and said, "You are so understaffed." Dogs were on the refrigerator, they were on the countertops. They were everywhere. I was like, OK, Plan B. And Plan B worked for a while, then it didn't work. We went to Plan C. We were at the site for about eight hours. (A volunteer interjects to talk about some of the tasks for the day.)

What were you thinking in the moment?

I just tried to take it all in. The first thing I realized was there were dogs standing on about 22 or 24 inches of feces and garbage. You had to actually duck to make your way into the kitchen. You don't really think about all those things until you're done. Your adrenaline is just running. The smell was so overwhelming, so we tried to open windows. We couldn't open the door, because there was trash and debris everywhere.

In the midst of a frenzy like that, how do you build out a strategy for the day?

We went into disaster mode. We sent people out to buy crates from every store in Medina. They were everywhere. That was the beginning. We worked until about 3:30 the next morning. We started back up again at about 7, but once we got the chaos organized it was okay. That was my biggest case.

Animal hoarding isn't discussed too much; it's not very well understood by the public.

I've had an animal hoarder that was a school teacher. One was working for the city sanitation department. Some are just lonely old women. I call them broken souls, because they break down and then things just start to go out of control. That first pile of feces on the floor, they have to say that's okay. You don't get 24 inches of feces in one day. It just continues. Then they lose sight of what's even in their own home. It's very sad. Something bad happened that made them shut down themselves. And then they believe the animals are their only friends, their family. They think they're doing the best thing for them. I'm still learning how to deal with those people.

That's gotta be tough.

I think the economy has a lot to do with it. And just the country in general. People aren't neighborly anymore. There used to be a time when you could borrow a cup of sugar from your neighbor. Now you don't even know who your neighbor is. It's like, "Something's going on over there, but I don't want to get involved."

Given all that, what brings you to this kind of work?

I think it's in my genes. Animal rescue is something that's in you. I think what happens is you truly have to be in it. When I go out there, I'm risking my life. My rescue team is risking their lives. You can die from a cat bite. You can get mauled by a dog. You can get hurt rescuing a horse. Or that person can be very angry and have a gun. The people truly in this are true animal lovers. They know the risk, but they're still willing to do it. If you could pick up an animal and look into their eyes, you can see the pain, the suffering and sadness. And when you hold them and you take them away from that hell they're living in, they say "thank you." And you'll do it a hundred times over, no matter the risk. I think the worst injury I ever got was a black eye and a scratch down my face. We were in a cat-hoarder house, and the cat ran up a curtain, came out the top and leapt down at me, "Hiss!" I came outside and there was blood all over my face. The officers were like, "Ah! You need an ambulance!" And it's like, "No, I need a towel," and right back in you go. But you know whatever hell they're living in, you're going to be able to save them. Some of these animals have never even had a blanket or a toy. And the fact is that animals don't get hurt between 9 and 5. It's 24/7.

You're on-call all day, right?

Yeah. And we've had some pretty interesting cases recently. We did a search warrant on an animal hoarder, and she had some crazy animals. There was a kudamundi, several skunks, squirrels, turtles, iguanas. Really, we get called for everything. One time a pig fell off a slaughter truck. The officers were joking with us, and said, "You're not gonna catch this pig." I said, "Watch and learn." We got our truck and trailer, we fanned out and herded him in. We closed the door and just looked over at the deputy. (Johnson raises her eyebrows with pride.)

People think cats and dogs, mostly, but you seem to run into a lot of different species in this sort of rural area.

I often say to myself as I pull into a driveway, that I have to have an open mind, an investigative eye and a caring heart. You just don't know what's going to be there. And you have to do your best to make sure you cover everything. Neglect comes in so many forms.