The ALDF has been fighting animal cruelty since 1979. It stopped the killing of wild burros by the U.S. Navy and worked to shut down industrial pig farms that kept animals in deplorable conditions. It has helped draft anticruelty laws in a number of states. And in 2004, when it started receiving reports about the suffering dogs in Sanford, its chief outside litigation counsel, Bruce Wagman, got on the phone and spent three weeks interviewing locals in the small North Carolina town. He learned that Woodley had been accumulating dogs for at least 20 years, breeding and selling some of them. (Though she was married, her husband, Robert, didn't seem to share her predilection.) Many of the animals spent their lives trapped in the "ammonia bomb" of Woodley's closed garage. Later Wagman would discover that Woodley, like many hoarders, led something of a double life. "Out in the streets of Sanford, you would see her driving her white Lincoln, all gussied up," he says. But people who visited her house found a woman covered in dog waste—"in a horrible state."
By December 2004, Woodley had agreed to let a family friend remove 145 of her dogs. But there were still about 300 left. After talks with her lawyers broke down, ALDF sued both Barbara and Robert for animal cruelty and custody of the remaining dogs.
Soon after the lawsuit was filed, Judge Resson Faircloth III visited the Woodley property, saw all the dogs, and later in court declared, "There are too many of them for the small space they're in." That day he handed ALDF its first victory: Laureen Bartfield, the veterinarian, would be allowed on-site for 12 hours a day, six days a week, to treat the dogs. When one of ALDF's North Carolina lawyers asked permission to remove the sickest animals, Faircloth said, "If you've got somewhere to keep them."
Sadly, as it turned out, there were a lot of sick dogs. Dental disease ran so rampant that "their jawbones were actually rotting," Bartfield says. Twenty percent had significant eye problems. Milo, a pug, was permanently blinded by ammonia fumes and had a humped back. Bruce, an emaciated Boston terrier, had cataracts and a scalded underbelly. Over New Year's weekend, Bartfield assembled a team of colleagues who examined the animals and removed 106 of the worst cases.
Woodley's lawyers and a veterinarian she hired insisted that ALDF was exaggerating the problem. "They tried to paint her as some kind of modern-day Cruella de Vil," says attorney George Whitaker. "Mrs. Woodley had as kind a heart as you will ever find." Whitaker concedes that ammonia levels were high in the Woodley house, and that the ailing dogs "may not have been adequately treated." Still, he says, he would have entrusted his own pets to her care. After a few days, the Woodley lawyers convinced Judge Faircloth to stop ALDF from removing any more dogs.
It took another court order before Bartfield could enter the Woodleys' home itself. As she approached the back door, Bartfield says, "the stench was so overwhelming that the police officer said, 'I cannot go in there with you.'" Inside, Barbara Woodley was making lunch and her husband was watching TV, as if nothing were amiss. Bartfield pulled the cover off a shipping crate and found beetles feeding on six Boston terrier puppies. A miniature pinscher had a paralyzing neurological condition; she lay in a filthy wire cage and would later have to be euthanized. Driving home, Bartfield called Wagman, the ALDF attorney. "You cannot ask me to go back there anymore," she said through tears.
But she did, several times a week. Too many dogs needed her attention.