Pet Detective

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

He gets ready. First he straps on a light-blue Kevlar vest ("seven extra pounds of heat that doesn't evaporate," he quips) and buttons his brown uniform shirt over it. Then he snaps on a belt with his holstered gun, grabs his cell phone and an attaché case filled with binoculars, maps, and notices he'll give to the pet owners he talks to. "Seventy-five to eighty percent of my cases I approach from an educational perspective," Streff says. "You educate where you need to educate, instruct where you need to instruct, and enforce where you need to enforce. You need to pick your battles."



The minivan slowly slides to a stop on a run-down block in south Minneapolis. From the car, Streff spies the address he's been looking for. Someone called him saying the people who live there were keeping a dog in a rabbit kennel. Streff pulls around the corner and into an alley. If he can, he prefers to approach a property from the alley, so he can see animals in the backyard.

He peeks over the fence at the cage. It's about twice the size of your average bathtub, with a small doghouse inside. Two dogs are crammed inside the enclosure, barking and jumping up against the chicken wire. In the corner sits a smaller cage. Inside it paces a tiny orange cat, wailing plaintively. In the yard next door, on the other side of a low fence, a white pit bull lounges Snoopy-style on top of a doghouse inside a wire kennel.

"That's a nice deal for the cat," Streff says mockingly. "Locked between a pit bull and two dogs, in a kennel itself. Makes for a good night's sleep."

He pauses for a moment at the back gate, nervously surveying the small yard and the duplex's two back doors. "I hate this part," he mutters. "Dangerous property, with all kinds of access points."

He draws a deep breath, pops open the gate, and marches toward the house. He raps his metal clipboard against the doorknob on the downstairs door. No answer. He knocks again. All the while the dogs howl, the cat whines.

Slowly, Streff mounts a rickety wood staircase to the second floor door. It sways precariously as he climbs. As he places a heavy boot on the deck leading to the door, wood chips cascade from the underside. Streff nods toward a satellite dish on the wall. "DirecTV and ten-dollar stairs," he says.

A pregnant woman opens the door, and soon another woman joins her. Streff tells them that he's a humane investigator, and that he's checking on their animals after receiving a call. "Do you see anything wrong with the kennel and the dogs and everything back here?" he asks.

"Not from my perspective," huffs the pregnant woman. "Is there a problem?"

"I can see a number of problems," Streff says, raising his voice a little. "No water, no food, no shelter for the cat. I'll bet they're not licensed or vaccinated. That dog is extremely lean. What is it? A whippet or a basenji?"

"Basenji," the woman replies. "What do you mean, 'lean'?"

"It's pretty small," Streff begins, but the woman quickly interrupts. "It's always been that size," she says, adding that the animals aren't her responsibility.

But Streff is adamant. "No, no, no, no," he tells her. "You live here? You need to take care of that."

The woman says her mother, who is at work, is the one who takes care of the dogs. The cat, she says, must belong to someone who's staying with them right now. Streff gives her a notice, explaining the regulations on proper care of animals in Minnesota. They need to get some bedding in the doghouse and clean up the kennel, he says. And they need to get the cat out of there. He asks the woman to have her mother call him. "Otherwise, I'm going to have to seize these animals," he warns. "I'm trying to work out a plan because I don't want to have to do that."

The two women at the door swear they'll take care of it. Streff is already planning to come back and check on the situation, to make sure the animals are all right. But for now, there's no extreme danger. The dogs are alert and seem relatively healthy, so he wouldn't have enough probable cause to do anything else today.

Streff is frustrated by the encounter. Not just because of the residents' lack of awareness, but because the people themselves seem to be falling through the cracks. "I would like not to believe that people are more worried about animals than people," he begins. "Wouldn't you think someone would be concerned about a single mother going up and down those stairs? But no, they call in the Benji and the stupid cat. Let the pregnant lady fall down the stairs!"



Zepo lets out a quiet, continuous hiss as Streff approaches the cage. He's just inside the porch door of a small, unremarkable home in a wealthy southwest suburb, packed up and ready to go. Zepo is an African serval, a kind of miniature cheetah, with a small, lean, spotted body, a fluffy striped tail, and large, perky ears. It's illegal to have this kind of exotic cat in this city, as well as in many urban areas.

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