Pet Detective

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

Streff got some complaints about an exotic cat in the area and tracked down the owner. Through a series of conversations, Streff convinced the man to voluntarily give up the animal, which had become a little much for him to handle, to the humane society. This is one of those cases that straddle the gray area between education and enforcement; Streff doesn't plan to have the man charged. "He's just a little guy," Streff tells the man, in reference to Zepo. "You can't have him in the city of Edina, so in the best interest of the cat and the interest of your criminality, we'd best sign a custodial agreement."

As he fills out the forms, Streff asks the owner a few questions about Zepo, but it's clear that the man doesn't know much about the history of the cat, which he found through newspaper classifieds. He bought the serval about five months ago from a man who had gotten it from a game farm somewhere. He wasn't sure if it had been vaccinated or neutered. All he knew was that the cat was born in November 1999.

"What prompted you into getting it?" Streff asks.

"I'd wanted one for a couple of years, and I finally saw one in the paper," the man explains.

Streff doesn't even blink. "Why a serval?" he continues. "Why not a bobcat or a lynx?"

"I heard they're more docile," the man says, adding that the animal turned out to be quite temperamental. When Zepo leapt up and ate the owner's lovebird in its cage, he realized he couldn't take care of the cat. "If he's hungry, he'll bite at your feet," he says. "He bit my girlfriend a couple of months ago. But she hasn't gotten sick."

The owner signs the release form and Streff prepares to take the cat away. It's an all too rare example of the times when Streff actually gets to save an animal; the humane society will turn the serval over to an exotic-cat refuge in Isanti County. "I would suggest you research your city's ordinances if you ever consider getting another exotic pet," he tells the man. "You can be issued a citation for an exotic animal that is considered contraband."

On August 1 Minnesota became the 38th state to make animal cruelty a felony. The new law creates stricter consequences for intentional acts of torture of and cruelty to animals. Causing "substantial" bodily harm to a pet or companion animal is now a gross misdemeanor, punishable by up to a year in jail and a $3,000 fine. Causing "great" bodily harm or death is a felony, punishable by up to two years in jail and a $5,000 fine. Both acts are considered felonies if they are done in order to threaten or terrorize a person; in those cases the penalties are much higher.

"Minnesota had some of the weakest animal-cruelty laws in the country," explains Sen. Don Betzold (DFL-Fridley), who authored the bill and doggedly introduced it every year for four years, until--despite fierce opposition from the agriculture, medical research, hunting, and fishing industries--it finally passed. "There were some very egregious things that happened in the state. If a prosecutor took on the case, the best they could get was a misdemeanor. There aren't a lot of cases that happen, but enough of them are repulsive, and something's got to be done."

Many people believe the law doesn't go far enough. Even Streff, who repeatedly testified on behalf of the bill, would have liked it to include at least some agricultural offenses, though he recognizes the difficulty of passing that in a farming state. But, Streff figures, you take what you can get.

The new, stricter laws prohibiting animal cruelty can be strong tools for cracking down on abusers, but there still aren't nearly enough people like Streff enforcing the laws. "What's changing is the penalty," explains Gary Patronek, the director of the Center for Animals and Public Policy at Tufts University in Massachusetts. "What isn't keeping pace is a comparable level of enforcement. We really need to do a lot more work in being able to respond to these things."

In many areas, police officers and prosecutors are just limping along, with neither the expertise nor the resources to pursue these cases. Patronek understands that law enforcement agencies have to juggle animal cruelty with murders, rapes, robberies, and other crimes against people. But he stresses that the link between animals and humans should not be ignored. Animal abuse often indicates other problems, such as elder neglect, child neglect, or domestic violence.

"There may well be another person at risk," he explains. "Animals can be sentinels, because they share our lives so intimately. If animals are being neglected or treated cruelly, it probably makes sense to look at the other people in the family."

And then there is the distinct problem of animal hoarding. No one really knows why some people become animal hoarders. Patronek is currently working with a consortium of experts to better understand the syndrome. Unlike those who intentionally hurt or kill animals, hoarders believe they are helping their pets, Patronek says. "It's night and day," he says. "Hoarders are oblivious to the harm they're causing."

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