Pet Detective

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

Though the Hoarding of Animals Research Consortium is only in the early stages of its research, Patronek says, already its interviews with "people who own more than a typical number of animals" have revealed some common threads. One seems to be a chaotic childhood or childhood trauma, where pets were the only stable fixtures. Another appears to be the ability to form relationships with animals more easily than with people. Yet another cause could be neurological problems including dementia or obsessive-compulsive disorder, which can lead to other hoarding patterns such as living in squalor. "It's a behavior more than a condition in and of itself," he says.

In the case of animal hoarders, prosecution might not be the answer, Patronek suggests. "While cruelty has occurred to the animals, the intent was not there," he offers. "Is criminalization the answer? You're just taking away the crutch. It's not going to prevent that person from harming animals in the future. That person will have a cat on the way out of the courtroom unless you address the other roots of the problem."

 

 

The house is much the same as the last time Streff saw it. It's in a tony neighborhood near Lake Minnetonka, where million-dollar homes sit on pristinely manicured lawns. This house, however, is nearly hidden from the road, tucked behind overgrown trees and shrubs. Remnants of white paint cling like scabs to the wood siding. Sheets of plastic are stretched across the decaying window frames. Empty Friskies cans are scattered around the lawn. The air is rank.

Streff has dealt with the owner before. "This guy's a treasure," he quips. Years ago Streff busted him for having a trash house filled with cats. According to neighbors, he's back at it now.

"Do you see this blowfly activity?" Streff says, pointing around the edges of what looks like the front door, now blocked by a single piece of plywood. "There's maggots in the house." He presses against the thin wood and sniffs along the edge. "That's a nasty, maggoty, dead-animal smell."

Last time he visited, Streff says, there were probably 50 cats here. He shines his flashlight through the plastic cover on the front window. In an instant, seven or eight curious cats pop up and peek outside. He counts at least a dozen cats in just the small front room; the floor inside is covered with brown pellets, a mixture of cat food and feces that appears to be ten inches deep.

Streff walks along a path through the junglelike brush until he finds the back door. He knocks, but no one answers. A shovel is leaned up against the door, bracing the handle. Streff leaves his card there. That's all he can do now; anything else would likely be considered an illegal search. Probably the owner will call him in the next day or two, and things will get under way.

In the meantime, Streff plans to call the local police and find out if they've been having problems with the owner, if they think it's time for a new intervention. If that's the case, he'll get an affidavit from the person who complained and use it to get a search warrant. "It didn't develop overnight and I'm not going to solve it overnight," he says, "so we may as well do it by the book."

The situations that make the news are the obvious ones--the garbage houses with hundreds of animals, the intentional abuse or killing of pets. But most of the cases Streff looks into aren't so clear-cut. Too often, when he follows up on a complaint, his gut--educated by 14 years in the field--tells him something's amiss. But he won't find enough probable cause to do anything the first time he visits a home or farm. Typically he'll just keep investigating, visiting someone over and over again, painfully aware that an animal may die before he can piece together hard evidence of criminal wrongdoing.

And then, he complains, animal-rights advocates and other critics will demand to know why he didn't step in and save the animal when he could have. "They have no clue how the criminal-justice system works," he says. "I have to wait and build my case until I can show in court that I told you what to do, gave you every opportunity, and you didn't do it."

As he backs away from the house, he shakes his head thoughtfully. "He's gonna croak in there one day and the place is going to burn up," he says. "But maybe if I can get some cats out it'll help that cause at least."

Streff has poked around so many houses like this, seen so many cats locked up in dirty rooms, that he knows the sad, unfortunate truth. These cats are probably as good as dead already. Disease is probably rampant: ringworm, hepatitis, feline leukemia, distemper. "If you're pooping and peeing and eating in the same environment, that's where the bacterial issues incubate," he says with a sigh.

"I've been around the block enough to know what I'm going to find in there," Streff says as he pulls the minivan away from the house, glancing at the lot in the rearview mirror. "But I could be wrong. I hope I am."

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