HOWELL — The couple who pleaded guilty in Monmouth County's worst case of animal hoarding took a step closer to being able to own pets again.

Joseph and Charlene Handrik pleaded guilty to a criminal charge of animal cruelty and 24 animal cruelty civil offenses. They were fined $25,000.

"They're going to have a hard time paying this," Monmouth County SPCA Executive Director Ross Licitra said.

The 276 dogs were rescued from the Handrik home in June in what Licitra called at the time “an enormous mess."

He described the conditions in the home as “absolutely deplorable” and said the dogs had “free reign over the house.”

Licitra explained that the civil charges allows the Hendricks to avoid having a record with indictable criminal offenses. But Licitra said if the Hendricks were ever to find themselves in a similar situation it would be considered a second offense.

"We've always said from the very beginning the Hendricks weren't criminals. They were never bad people. It was a crime of omission not commission. It was something they started off doing because they love the animals and they wanted to have pets," but the situation grew out of control.

"Their actions created a cruel situation living in deplorable conditions. But like I told the judge, they were living in the same conditions as the dogs," Licitra said.

Licitra said the MSPCA insisted on the couple undergoing a psychological exam before they would be allowed to own a pet in the future. "Obviously there is something very psychologically wrong here of historic proportions. In all the research I've done this is the largest recorded dog hoarding case in New Jersey."

Licitra said the MSPCA promotes responsible pet ownership and is willing to give the Handricks another chance pending a psychiatrist's approval that they could handle one or two dogs or domestic animals that would have to be spayed or neutered. They would be subject to unannounced inspection visits by the SPCA.

"They fed those dogs every day. They went thorough 100 pounds of food a day and their house went into foreclosure which goes back to the psychological component of this. We all love our pets but we're not going to put our homes into foreclosure over this."

Their lawyer, Raymond Raya, says they were not mean-spirited. Raya says the husband got Charlene Handrik six dogs when she became disabled and the couple acquired more dogs that kept breeding.

Licitra said the Hendricks are planning on selling their home and thinks new owners would have to raze the house because of the "hazardous material" conditions inside.

Most of the dogs have been adopted, according to Licitra, except for a handful that are undergoing special training to help them become more socialized and make them more adoptable.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Contact reporter Dan Alexander at Dan.Alexander@townsquaremedia.com.

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