“Oh, my God,” Donnie Embrey said as sickly, starving goats hobbled toward their rescuers on hooves that curved upward from neglect.
The lice-infested goats were in a muddy field in Louisa County with no water or grass.
One kid lay dead and several other goats had to be euthanized in what Embrey—a retired firefighter and leader of the all-volunteer Louisa Community Animal Response Team, or CART—called the “biggest animal hoarding case in Virginia history.”
Embrey and other CART volunteers descended on the farm Nov. 29 to help seize more than 500 animals. Louisa animal control officers discovered the squalid conditions after responding to a call about goats on West Old Mountain Road, authorities said.
They found old sheds packed with cramped cages of chickens and guinea pigs and coops that smelled of feces and mold.
A few cats scurried by, but Embrey did not see much other movement. The confined animals were too tightly packed to allow it.
Some of the caged chickens crouched on top of more than a foot of rotten straw, feces and food.
The volunteers came across a peacock at the back of a wooden shed. They had to maneuver through a maze of junk just to get to it.
Embrey felt dirty, itchy and overwhelmed.
Court records show that 77-year-old Clara Mae Collier was found guilty this month of five misdemeanor counts of animal cruelty in the case. She was sentenced to unsupervised probation.
“It was the worst conditions I’ve ever seen,” Embrey said.
In the weeks that followed, a dozen CART volunteers spent hundreds of hours caring for the animals at a temporary shelter at the Louisa County Fairgrounds.
Dr. Melinda McCall, CART volunteer vet and owner of Louisa Veterinary Service, worked with another veterinarian to compile health records for each animal within the first 72 hours. It took them eight hours just to process the guinea pigs and birds.
The volunteers dewormed all the goats and trimmed their overgrown hooves. They also clipped the claws of each guinea pig and chicken.
They hung large tarps to block the cold wind. They set up more than 300 cages and crates. And they spent hours cleaning equipment in plastic kiddie pools with water heated to 160 degrees.
“When that many people come together and volunteer their time and efforts, big things can happen,” McCall said.
Chickens regained the sheen on their feathers, and their tail feathers regrew.
Pigeons and hens laid eggs in a sign of contentment.
A rooster’s previously frostbitten comb no longer flopped to one side of its head. And it crowed several times on a recent afternoon.
“They didn’t make much noise when they came here,” Embrey remarked. But now they’ve got attitude to spare.
“WATCH OUT AGGRO ROO,” read a message taped to one of the cages, shorthand for aggressive rooster.
“This guy’s the worst of the bunch—he’s completely crazy,” Embrey said with a note of affection in his voice.
Nearly 100 guinea pigs and 40 rabbits recovered in a building at the fairgrounds that normally hosts BINGO games. The scent of fresh wood chips permeated the space, a welcome change from the rotting odor at their previous home.
And just three days after the seizure, one of the 55 surviving goats gave birth to healthy twin kids. Embrey found out when he returned to the fairgrounds from a Christmas parade.
“Donnie, you’re a grandpa,” CART volunteer Martha Drum proclaimed.
“They were just little fur balls jumping around and playing,” McCall said. “It gave everybody something else to focus on.”
All of the animals have since found new homes or foster care.
Loudoun County Animal Services took most of the goats and adopted them out within a day.
Many of the guinea pigs went to Washington’s Metropolitan Guinea Pig Rescue. In a Facebook post, the nonprofit wrote that it took 41 guinea pigs—many with deformed ears and injuries from fighting—but ended up with two more after one gave birth. The organization hopes to start adopting out some of the males next month.
The chickens went to Carolina Waterfowl Rescue and Izzie’s Pond, both South Carolina nonprofits.
Some of the animals did stay in Louisa. A CART volunteer adopted a rabbit named Joey, and her two children feed the pet and clean his cage first thing every morning and again before they go to bed.
Volunteer Beckah Ritchie was also thinking about adopting a Rhode Island Red rooster. “I have a lonely chicken, so yeah, I want some chicken friends,” she said.
And the twin kids and their mother will spend the rest of their lives at Drum’s farm, just a 10-minute drive from the fairgrounds. They made the trip in the backseat of her truck.
The three goats have an insolated room to themselves with hay and two heating lamps, but will eventually join Drum’s other goats in a pasture.
The twins like to nibble on clothing and will jump into Drum’s arms like puppies. The volunteers named them Donnie and Rhonda, after the Embrey couple that helped spearhead the rescue.
And mom’s name is Louisa “in recognition of all the support these animals received from our community,” Drum said.
She plans to bring her new pets to the agricultural fair, fall festival and other community events.
“They’re all of our goats,” Drum said.