Driving down a country road in Wright County, Humane Investigator Keith Streff spies a miniature horse in a dog cage. There is a small tarp over part of the cage.
“That’s Sue’s,” Keith muses. “I’m sure that’s part of her property.” He pulls into a yard with a dilapidated coop and a tiny, square stucco house. Keith has received a call from a concerned citizen worried about the condition of the animals and Sue*, the occupant of this house. When an elderly woman comes out of the house, a few cats and a dog scurry from the entryway.
In addition to one small Papillion, Sue keeps chickens, horses, and an untold number of cats on her property. “I broke my wrist and I’ve fallen behind,” Sue explains right away, before Keith can begin to talk.
The first stop is the chicken coop—a noisy room filled with dozens of chickens in small cages. In addition to the chickens, Sue keeps several doves and a peacock. As Keith inspects the chicken coop, he finds the decayed carcasses of two birds on the ground.
“I hadn’t seen that,” Sue says when Keith points out the dead birds. “I broke my wrist and I haven’t been able to keep up.”
Keith is kind but authoritative as he warns of the dangers of letting rotting birds stay in the same coop with healthy chickens. “Dysentery and other diseases are common when you let this happen.”
Keith walks through Sue’s yard and looks at the horses in the pasture. He talks with her about proper care as winter approaches. “You have to have shelter – real shelter, not a tarp on a cage,” he says firmly. The horses are covered in burrs, and have no visible shelter. Sue claims that she’s well aware of what to do, and now that her wrist is better she’ll be able to put her farm back in shape. Keith walks over to look at the horse seen from the road – a miniature in a cage. He quizzes Sue on the care and exercise for this horse, and again Sue explains that she just hasn’t kept up since her wrist was broken. She has an answer for each of Keith’s questions – there is shelter for the horses, she’ll get those burrs off, the miniature gets exercise.
It is frustrating that so much is marginal on Sue’s farm, but it falls short of what constitutes animal neglect or cruelty according to Minnesota’s animal welfare laws, says Keith. “Today I will issue a warning with the hopes that Sue will follow through and come into compliance.”
Keith coaxes her to see the inside of the house, and after some time Sue leads the way into her tiny stucco one-story. The house is filled with debris from Sue’s seventy-plus years. There are piles on every visible surface – countertops, tables and chairs. The piles include paper, kettles, pots, pans, cookbooks, shampoo, food, money, ceramic chickens, photo albums and toilet paper.
“My niece took all this stuff and just gave it back,” Sue explains. “I’m going to go through it all and get it organized.”
Keith checks the house for signs of cat feces. As he looks, he casually asks, “Sue, does your water work?” Sue says yes. He nods and adds, “Does your toilet flush?” He is standing in the bathroom, looking at a filthy toilet. Sue admits that her toilet doesn’t work and that she needs to pour water down each time she uses the bathroom.
Keith goes into the kitchen, where every inch of counter is piled high. He sighs. In his role as a humane investigator his focus is on the animals. “But I do want to make sure she has someone to call—her brother-in-law that lives nearby or how she can get help from the County.”
“There’s no reason to let it get this bad,” he says tightly, trying to find a tone between casual and angry. He leaves her with written information on the proper care of her animals, including the minimum shelter requirements for the winter. He offers to try to get her additional help, but she declines. Sue is determined to stay on her farm and care for her animals and expects to stay on her farm until she dies.
In the meantime, she reiterates her promise to bring the care of her chickens and horses up to standards. Keith will return before winter to check on her progress.
In turns out Sue’s house was not the worst of the day.
Twenty five miles away, Ellen* walks down the steps of her rundown trailer gingerly – there is not much tread left on the metal steps, and she must navigate the sturdy parts of the small stairway. Around the trailer there is garbage, three vehicles that don’t look like they would make it back up the dirt road, and a cat. Ellen knows immediately why Keith Streff has arrived on her doorstep, but she seems happy to see him nonetheless.
Keith looks around the property. Two large white Pyrenees are on long chains outside the trailer. Another is inside. They are each over 100 pounds. Ellen proudly shows off their rich coats, but Keith points out the dogs’ overgrown nails and matted coats. When Ellen expresses her doubts as to whether she can trim the nails without hurting the dogs, Keith talks quietly about trimming the nails a little at a time, or even filing them. He starts the visit by making sure Ellen knows he is there to help.
Keith asks Ellen about feeding the dogs. “I used my last food voucher,” Ellen admits. She insists that she has enough food for the animals, and she knows where to go for help if she needs it. She explains that she has lost her part-time job, and is having trouble finding another.
“The cost of gas is so high that I can’t afford to drive very far,” she tells Keith, who suggests that living this far out in the country is going to make it difficult under any circumstances. “How are you going to get through the winter?” Keith asks, genuinely concerned. “And are you sure you’ll be able to afford feed for the dogs?”
Next, Keith asks if he can see the inside of the house. After some time Ellen agrees to let him in.
Ellen’s house is filled with garbage, floor to ceiling. Old campaign posters, clocks, books, stuffed animals fill the trailer. A filthy coat of grime and dust covers nearly every inch of the rubbish. There doesn’t seem to be room for one more item in the trailer. A hallway path of only 18” wide allows access to a tiny area in which Ellen sleeps. Several multi-gallon jugs for water block the entrance to the bathroom.
In the sitting/bedroom, there is a woodstove. Keith asks if this is her only heat source in the winter, and Ellen nods. Keith tells her this is a fire hazard, and she should reconsider the wood stove.
“All this stuff is not going to be there,” Ellen claims, dismissing the garbage-filled trailer as if it were merely cluttered. “I’ll get to cleaning one of these days. This is only temporary.”
Ellen insists that she is careful with the wood stove. Keith asks how she will get by with no phone and no running water, no working toilet. Ellen points to the pile of large containers. “I fill those,” she says calmly. “I have water.”
“Ellen,” Keith says, trying to maintain her trust as he sets out his grave scenario, “I’m worried about you. The wood stove, no toilet. It’s a recipe for disaster. I don’t know how you’ll feed yourself let alone the dogs with no job. Maybe you should think about surrendering one or more of your dogs. That might help you out financially.”
Tears spring to Ellen’s eyes. “I’d rather put them down than give them up,” she insists, “I’d rather put myself to sleep than give them up.”
Keith sternly explains that the hundreds of dollars needed to care for the dogs could be a significant hardship, but Ellen is adamant that she can maintain all three dogs. He makes sure that Ellen knows where she can go for help, since she has no phone. She knows all of the welfare agencies in the area, and does use these resources from time to time.
Keith is frustrated. Based on the cruelty and neglect laws, he can’t seize the dogs, because they are not in immediate danger. But he knows that this winter, both the dogs and Ellen herself will face severe challenges. Once again, he knows he will be back to check on Ellen and her dogs. If he doesn’t, he is concerned that no one else will.
Keith has notified area social service agencies in the past about Sue and Ellen in an attempt to get them some help. In some of the rural areas, it becomes trickier, says Keith. “There is a reluctance to interfere in people’s lives so it’s challenging to resolve these problems to help the people and in turn their animals,” he states.