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.

"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?"

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.

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."

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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