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"Did you see that garbage?" he says incredulously. "They're going to store all that stuff and die broke and under stress. They won't get help, they won't seek medical care. But you can't force it on them. You can't take the stuff and haul it to a garage sale, you can only politely suggest it. As much as we'd like to do that with individual cases, it kind of gets out of hand. It's a free country. I guess it's another one of society's ills." As a result of the chain of events, he adds bitterly, the woman now has a criminal record: "And I was a part of that. It bothers me."
Keith Streff is one of only two full-time humane investigators in Minnesota. Employed by the nonprofit Animal Humane Society, Streff is empowered by the state to enforce Minnesota's animal welfare statutes. He investigates complaints of animal abuse and neglect, educating pet owners, seizing endangered animals, and helping to prosecute those who break the law. He focuses on Hennepin and Anoka counties, though he will also investigate cases all over the state if called upon by local police or sheriffs.
It is a strange job, an amalgam of animal husbandry and law enforcement, and Streff's degrees are, accordingly, in animal biology and criminal justice. In his capacity as humane investigator, he is not a cop. He can't arrest people or write tickets. But he can investigate complaints, get search and seizure warrants, and forward cases to prosecutors for charging. He is also a licensed police officer, moonlighting on weekends in suburban and rural jurisdictions.
In the 14 years since he started working for the humane society, he has accumulated a litany of disgusting, cafeteria-clearing stories about people and their pets. He rattles off images of inbred poodles with no hind legs crawling over urine-soaked carpet, men who beat and sodomize their dogs, trash houses packed with hundreds of dead and dying rabbits. He has witnessed the unimaginable, and he has grown accustomed to it.
Once when he was investigating a trash house, he munched on a corn dog while surveying animal carcasses. Some of the other investigators vomited in the corner, he recalls with a chuckle.
Most people, if they've even heard of it, think the job of a humane investigator is to save animals. They think of cute critters--the kittens and puppies that adorn the humane society's literature. And while Streff admits that part of his duty is, as the society says, to be a voice for those who cannot speak, his job is actually about people--and what their animals say about them.
"I'm not there to rescue the animal," Streff says, with characteristic bluntness. "It's the moron or the asshole that owns it that I'm dealing with. It's the animal that he may come in contact with next that I'm really saving. I personally pretend not to give a crap because it bugs me. But also because the animal's fate has already been decided by the guy who owns him. I'd love to do more, but it's not reality."
Growing up on a dairy farm taught Streff to respect animals, but he steadfastly believes their berth in the world pecking order is lower than that of humans. Despite what one might assume given his job title, he's disdainful of animal-rights activists, whom he refers to as "humaniacs." "There's a place for animals, there's a place for humans," he opines. "Humans are far more important in our society."
In the mornings, Streff works in his office. It's eerily quiet upstairs here, far from the yapping dogs, chirping birds, and scurrying chinchillas downstairs being donated, examined, adopted, and sometimes euthanized. He digs around for information about cases he's investigating. If there's an emergency, like a dogfight in progress, he'll jump up and leave. But usually, throughout the morning, he takes calls and writes up complaints. Some 3,000 complaints are made to his office each year; he investigates about 1,800.
A man calls, alleging that his dog got sick in a kennel and had to be put down. A woman claims that a vicious dog bit her granddaughter. Streff keeps meticulous files, filled with news clippings, information about his cases, the industry, and relevant obituaries. Organized on his desk are several neat stacks of paperwork. Each manila folder contains affidavits, notes, warrants, and photos. These are the serious cases; he either already has or is about to send them along to the prosecutor's office.
In the afternoons, Streff goes out into the field. He organizes the complaints he plans to investigate each day and places them on a metal clipboard. The allegations he hears don't just concern household pets; he spends a lot of time traveling to farmsteads located in the far reaches of the metro area. And with such a vast geographic area to cover all by himself, Streff must prioritize his cases. A complaint about a traveling circus, for instance, might go to the bottom of the pile, simply because there will already be many people around to notice if the elephants are being mistreated. "But if a dog is anchored to a tree and dying of heat prostration," he asks, "who's there to notice it if I don't respond to it?"
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