108 dogs, 6 cats, horse removed from Van Buren Co. home

Accused hoader: 'We take care of these animals before we take care of ourselves'

Inside the home in the 56000 block of 52nd Avenue in Lawrence Township. (Courtesy Van Buren County Sheriff’s Department)

LAWRENCE, Mich. (WOOD) — A woman accused of hoarding more than 100 dogs in her Van Buren County home said they were well taken care of and should not have been removed.

“You don’t find anything dead here, you don’t find anything starving, you don’t find anything sick and dying,” Melissa Copen said Wednesday. “We take care of these animals before we take care of ourselves.”

LEFT: Donald Frederick Smith RIGHT: Melissa Kay Copen
Left: Donald Frederick Smith Right: Melissa Kay Copen.

Copen, 45, and her husband, 40-year-old Donald Frederick Smith, were charged with animal cruelty earlier Wednesday after Van Buren County deputies and animal control officers seized 108 dogs, six cats and a horse from their rural home in the 56000 block of 52nd Avenue in Lawrence Township, west of Paw Paw.

Deputies said the conditions at the home were “horrible” and that some of the dogs were underweight and had mange, fleas, deformities and injuries.

Copen said she and her husband took in their first five dogs two years ago, all pregnant, starting their own rescue program. Since then, she said, the population has exploded.

A complaint to Van Buren Animal Control led deputies to investigate. Copen said she and her husband agreed to give up more than 20 dogs.

But police got a search warrant and took them all — including her comfort dog, Bambi, which she said helps with her anxiety.

“Here, it’s a rescue,” Copen said. “I got overwhelmed, a lot of us do, but we don’t have anybody we can trust that we can ask for help, and I thought I could trust them because they were animal control and the police, and I can’t.”

Van Buren County Sheriff’s Office Lt. David Walker said the conditions at her property were so bad that officers had to wear respiratory masks.

“Several hundred feet away from the home, the smell from the residence was just outrageous,” he said. “I mean, you’re talking the smell of animal feces, the smell of ammonia from animals urinating.”

Inside the home was just as bad, he said.

“There was probably not an inch or two of the floor, the stairway, furniture that did not have some type of animal waste on it,” Walker said. “There was a lack of food, a lack of water.”

It took officers eight hours to round up the animals.

“All of us got bit by fleas,” he said.

Walker said the couple told them they were running a rescue.

“They thought they were doing the right thing,” he said. “I think that they were providing just the opposite, with the overcrowding of the dogs, and the diseases and flea problems and the lack of food.”

Van Buren County Animal Control already has sent more than 20 dogs to rescue programs after the couple agreed to give them up. The rest are at the animal control center being evaluated. Depending on what happens in court, the center hopes to send the rest to rescue programs for adoption.

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