Pet Detective

Sixty-eight frozen cats, two neglected dogs, and a vicious African serval. Making house calls with Keith Streff, animal cruelty investigator.

KEITH STREFF PULLS his maroon minivan up to the curb across the street from a split-level, Fifties-era home in north Minneapolis. A run-down RV takes up most of the driveway. Sprawled over the rest of the concrete pad is a massive dumpster, overflowing with rusting pipes and rotting boards. Eight of these bins have already been filled with trash removed from the house.

Three months ago Streff, an investigator with the Animal Humane Society, and a team of humane-society employees and Minneapolis police officers laid out 68 dead cats on the cement here. They arranged the bodies--discovered rigid and icy in freezers in the basement--in three precise rows, and then took photographs. Four other carcasses, decomposing and infested with maggots, remained where they had been found inside. Twenty-five other cats were captured, alive, on the property; others scattered and hid. The house was filled floor to ceiling with garbage, debris, food, and feces.

An old woman peers out through the RV's screen door, her bulging eyes locked on Streff, a compact figure in a brown-and-tan uniform. She seems to recognize him. Before he can speak, she starts spouting answers to the questions she expects him to ask, questions he has asked her many times before. They're almost done, she tells him; everything's all cleared out inside. The workmen have gutted the walls. They'll be coming back around 4:00 p.m. with the Sheetrock.

Streff asks whether there are there any more animals. They've caught a lot of cats, the woman explains with a nod toward one of several metal cages scattered around the yard. And even some raccoons.

It's not a direct answer, so Streff tries again. Are there cats still inside the house? Maybe one or two, she replies. And the baby. But she's a year old already, not really a baby anymore.

Streff peeks inside the dumpster. What about the basement? We're all done in there, the woman says. Would you like to see?

Streff retrieves a flashlight from his maroon minivan. Supported by a cane in each hand, the 75-year-old gingerly steps down from the RV's back door. They enter the garage, which is filled with machinery--decades-old washing machines, stoves, snow blowers, gardening implements. "All this is going to storage," she explains.

Streff pokes the beam of his flashlight into the piles. "Couldn't you have a garage sale?" he suggests. "Do you really need all this stuff?"

"I've never had a garage sale in my life," the woman snaps back. "I'd rather give it away than sell it. I'll never get rid of these washing machines, because they wash the clothes so well. And we need our snow blower and lawn mower."

As she leads the way toward the basement door, Streff quietly unsnaps the holster on his hip, just in case, to make it easy to grab his gun. (He has been ambushed only once, by a big black angry mutt, but it taught him to be extra cautious.) He shines the flashlight around the airless cellar, which is still musty with a faint odor of animals. "You got rid of those freezers, huh? The ones that had all the cats in them?"

"We got rid of the freezers," the woman says. "But they didn't have any cats in them, because you took them all away."

In April, Streff, whose job is to investigate possible cases of animal cruelty, got a court order to search the house and seize any animals

found there. Minneapolis inspectors found the home unlivable and condemned it. Streff forwarded his complaint to the City Attorney's Office, which prosecuted the homeowner with criminal cruelty to animals, a misdemeanor. She recently pleaded guilty.

Streff continues poking around the house. In the center of nearly every room is a bonfire-size pile: furniture, mattresses, broken-down ceiling fans, bags and boxes of old clothes, bedding, appliances, children's toys, dishes, even collections of empty 7Up and Tab bottles. Streff suggests again that perhaps it would be wise to sell some of the remaining items in a garage sale. But the woman won't hear of it. It's all going to storage.

"Well," he says, making his way over stripped-down floorboards and out on to the porch. "It looks pretty good now." Then he notices something under a shabby porch swing: a frying pan filled with dry cat food. "I've told you over and over to get this up," he scolds, the sound of authority rising in his voice.

"Oh no, that's just to catch them," she answers feebly.

"That's why there are the traps," Streff explains. "You're counteracting the effort. They'll just eat your food and then go about their business."

After checking on the woman's 81-year-old companion, who has been in and out of the hospital and is suffering in the heat, Streff climbs into the minivan he uses to drive around on pet patrol. "They sure mellowed out," he says. "They were in my face the first two weeks." He can't explain why the couple let the house fall into such a state of disrepair. He can't explain why they thought they were helping the cats, not turning them into wild beasts, festering with disease. He can't explain why the woman still believes that she never let the house get dirty. But he's seen it all a thousand times.

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