Calling it "Operation Noah's Ark" may be a bit of a stretch, but the number of animals living in Gary Gruber's house still amounted to what Gary Rogers, spokesman for the Nassau County Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, called one of the biggest animal seizings in the United States. On Tuesday, more than 400 animals were taken from the 2,000-square-foot dwelling in Bellmore, Long Island – including over 250 birds and more than 150 turtles along with other small mammals like chinchillas, rabbits, prairie dogs, sugar gliders, and a skunk – after a surprise visit from the animal protection organization. "I've been doing this for 34 years and I've never removed 400 animals from a house before," Rogers says.
During the raid, workers were required to wear hazmat suits due to the pungent odors caused in part by “feces-encrusted cages.” “The smell was overwhelming. We had to open all the windows,” Rogers said. He cites lack of food and unsanitary conditions like poor air ventilation as the primary reasons for the animals removal, saying that it was necessary for preserving the animals' wellbeing.
Ten months ago, after a similar inspection, Gruber was forced to hire cleanup crews for his hundreds of animals and a four-foot alligator was taken away. Nathan DeCorpo, Gruber's attorney, says there's a permit pending that would allow the reptile to return – but it's unlikely that will be approved. DeCorpo has been working with his client for the past two years, and says that complaints have increased because many houses in the neighborhood were rebuilt post-Sandy, raising property values, and residents have become fastidious about maintaining the upkeep of the area by putting pressure on local authorities to clamp down on any disturbances. But the chances of living peacefully next to 250 birds seems slim, no matter what the property value – the original complaint was in regards to noise coming from Gruber's house, which one neighbor described like "living next to the Amazon jungle."
In the United States, there's an estimated 900 to 2,000 new cases of animal hoarding per year, affecting around 250,000 animals. Already this week, Yvonne McBride from Bixby Oklahoma was arrested for housing about 70 animals in her home—primarily dogs and a few cats—with the intention of running a rescue facility, but failing to place the animals in new homes. And in Taylor, Michigan, a home was found filled with garbage and around 100 cats. Last week, 98 dogs and three cats were rescued from another Michigan home, and earlier this month 276 small dogs were taken from a home in New Jersey.
While animal cruelty is considered a felony in 43 states, hoarding, which often causes unintentional neglect rather than willful abuse, can slip through as a misdemeanor. DeCorpo said that his client hopes that many of the animals will be returned and allowed to rejoin the six cats and dogs permitted to stay on site. "More than one of the vets at the scene said the overall health of the birds was good," says DeCorpo, adding that the problem was with the air quality. But unfortunately for the neighbors, the birds may return. "He's speaking with companies about enhancing ventilation" he says.
"It's peculiar to you and me, but this is what he likes to do and spend his time and money on," says DeCorpo. "There's no malice here. He wasn't trying to hurt the animals, it just became too much."
"He wasn't trying to hurt them" is a central theme in animal hoarding, as owners' denial of their inability to properly care for the animals is common. Experts estimate that for an animal to receive the bare minimum of necessary care, it takes about 10 to 15 minutes per day. At this rate, it would take Gruber more than 67 hours to tend to each animal once.
A search warrant issued by the Nassau District Attorney led to Tuesday's unannounced rescue mission, even though according to DeCorpo, Gruber had been compliant with previous home visits in April and May, both of which resulted in no charges. "They could have taken [the animals] back in April. They could have taken them back in May, but they said everything was fine," he says. "They probably wanted to catch a man with his pants down," by coming on a day when the heat would amplify any previously undetected problems with ventilation and odor.
DeCorpo hopes that this case will be wrapped up within the next few weeks and doesn't anticipate anything beyond a misdemeanor charge.