Pet Peeve

Here's some of what you learn during your first half-dozen years as an animal-cruelty investigator:

That if enough animals are kept for an extended time in a house, the sheer amount of urine and feces can collapse a floor;

That the smell of concentrated ammonia contained in animal urine, confined to an enclosed space, has been shown to cause dementia;

That when starving cats begin eating each other, they will pick away at a carcass until just the intact head and paws remain, causing the victim to look like a cartoon stick figure with a real face and feet. Dogs do it, too, although they're less fastidious;

That when it comes to animal hoarding -- the collecting of large numbers of pets -- the Fechner-Weber Principle applies. This states that a man dropped in a tank of boiling water will scream with pain, but if he is submerged in room-temperature water that is then raised one degree an hour, he will quietly boil to death without noticing.


Last June, Barbara Novoryta, the chief animal-cruelty investigator for the Denver Dumb Friends League, drove to Trinidad to investigate a suspected animal-abuse case.

In the menagerie of state animal-protection services -- humane societies, local animal-control officers, the Bureau of Animal Protection, health inspectors -- the Denver Dumb Friends League plays an in-between role. The agency is a private, non-profit corporation. But Novoryta and her fellow investigators are commissioned by the state as law-enforcement officers, with authority to conduct searches and confiscate property. They try to confine their work to the counties of the Denver metropolitan area. Occasionally, though, they are called to assist in the far reaches of the state.

Novoryta, who is in her seventh year on the job, is the perfect combination of caring pet lover and tough cop. A former firefighter, she is still, at 41, very fit. She has long red hair and carefully groomed, squared-off fingernails. She calls herself "Barbie." Her office walls are plastered with playfully posed pictures of dogs and cats that were confiscated in cruelty investigations and are now enjoying happy lives in new homes. "It's a very emotional job, but I love it," she says. "There's a lot of sorrow in it, but there's also a lot of reward."

The Trinidad case had broken in early June, when the Bureau of Animal Protection, a part of the state Department of Agriculture, had received word of what appeared to be a large case of dog hoarding and neglect, and perhaps worse. Although all part of the same law, the terms can be confusing. "Cruelty to animals" can range from neglect -- failing to properly care for your pets -- to what is called "aggravated cruelty": torture, mutilation and killing.

Carol Ann Martin, an employee at Trinidad State Junior College, had reported the Trinidad case first. While at work, Martin had overheard Tammy Schaible, a new women's volleyball coach, lamenting the fact that her parents had lost their home north of Denver and needed a place to stay. Martin was sympathetic. Do they have a mobile home or trailer? she had wanted to know. If so, she had one hundred acres they could park on for the time being.

Tammy brightened. However, she cautioned Martin that her parents had a few dogs. Actually, about twenty or thirty. That made Martin suspicious, but she agreed anyway, because she did some horse rescue work herself and was not unappreciative of those who worked with animals. A few days later, Fred and Brenda Schaible landed on her property.

It was a mess from the beginning. "They just sort of dumped the dogs," recalls Keith Synnestvedt, Martin's husband. The dogs had arrived packed into a Ford Explorer and a sixteen-foot U-Haul van, which also contained a washer, dryer, refrigerator and freezer. They all appeared to be schnauzers, or schnauzer mixes. There were far, far more than the promised twenty or thirty. The Schaibles, meanwhile, seemed to be around only occasionally.

Eight of the dogs quickly drowned in one of Martin's stock tanks. Others began wandering onto neighbors' property. "They were just a yipping, yapping mess," Synnestvedt says. "They had matted feces in their hair from just being piled on top of each other." At wit's end, Martin called the state animal-protection bureau.

After arriving in Trinidad, Novoryta, accompanied by three other Dumb Friends League employees, met up with four members of the agricultural department, including the Colorado state veterinarian, John Maulsby, who'd obtained a search warrant. As the inspectors entered through the gates of Martin's property on June 18, they were greeted by about fifty dogs.

"It was difficult to avoid running over them," Scot Dutcher, a state inspector, wrote in his report of that day. "When we got up to the main property, I saw several dead dogs and many, many other live dogs running around in all directions and barking.... I sat awestruck in the truck for a moment trying to comprehend the great number of dogs and how we were going to deal with them.

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Eric Dexheimer
Contact: Eric Dexheimer