A day after a private animal control specialist removed six kittens, three of them trapped inside a washing machine, from a house filled with carcasses, feces and fleas, area law enforcement and animal control workers argued over jurisdiction, pointed fingers and debated whether the local animal control officer — who had known about the house for nearly three weeks — did his job.
Dozens of cats and kittens remained Thursday at the house on West Burrough Road near the Lisbon Falls-Bowdoin line. The local animal control officer, Jeffrey Cooper, said he had set traps and was working to get the cats out.
"We're going to take care of the animals," Cooper said.
The house belongs to an elderly man who is seriously ill. He was removed from the house in late April and is now in hospice. The cats were his, and officials at the Coastal Humane Society in Brunswick believe he in no way meant for them to be neglected.
"From what I've heard, the gentleman was a really kind-hearted soul and he dearly loved his cats," said Executive Director Karen Stimpson. "There was a point at which, I think, he wasn't able to take care of them anymore."
At some point after the man was removed from the house, his daughter gave animal workers permission to go inside.
Cooper, who serves Bowdoin, Durham, Lisbon and Sabattus, said he first entered the house on April 30, after the Sagadahoc County Sheriff's Office called him to report the cat situation. He said he went to the house and learned neighbors were taking care of the cats. He said they agreed to keep feeding the cats until he could make arrangements to have the animals removed.
A neighbor who was feeding the cats at the request of the homeowner told the Sun Journal that an animal control person asked the neighbor Wednesday to stop feeding the cats because he'd set traps and wanted them to go for the bait.
Nothing else was done to remove the cats between April 30 and May 10. Cooper said legally he couldn't do anything.
"I had to get authority from the homeowner of the property to move the animals," he said.
On Tuesday, May 10, he began trapping cats. He caught five kittens that day and said he intended to go back and get the rest over time. He took the kittens to the Coastal Humane Society.
He said someone at the animal shelter told him not to bring any more because it was already overwhelmed.
"They shut him down on taking any more animals," said Lisbon Police Chief David Brooks, who oversees Cooper.
The Coastal Humane Society's executive director said the shelter wasn't overwhelmed — it actually has fewer cats and kittens than it normally does this time of year. And even if it were full, she said, the shelter wouldn't have refused to take more.
"If I remember correctly, I think Darlene, our floor manager, had asked Jeff if it was possible to bring them in a few at a time and give us a chance to get set up and set up surgery schedules and all that, so we aren't deluged," Stimpson said. "But, no, we always take anything that comes to our door. I'm not sure where that (refusal comment) came from. But, boy if I found out, I'd be mad."
The Coastal Humane Society got the impression the house was home to a feral cat colony. It sent its volunteer feral cat coordinator over to see how many cats were there and how the shelter might help. At some point that volunteer called Richard Burton Jr., an animal control specialist who runs Animal Damage Control, a private, Lewiston-based company that specializes in the removal of nuisance wildlife. Burton said he often volunteers his services to local animal welfare groups.
He thought he'd find a few stray cats at the house when he arrived Wednesday. Instead he said he found "a horror show."
The house was filled with dozens of cats and kittens, some in the walls and ceilings, three in a closed washing machine. Dead cats were scattered across the property, including two next to the front steps, dead for what Burton estimated was about a week, and another in a shed, dead for about a month. The house was strewn with trash and waste, including a tub filled with cat waste and a pair of buckets filled with human feces next to a mattress that had been clawed through and burrowed into by cats. The house was infested with ticks, fleas and bedbugs.
It could not be determined how long the elderly man had lived in those conditions. Attempts to locate his family were unsuccessful Thursday.
Burton said he saw no food, water or animal traps in the house, though he believed someone had to have been in the house recently because three-week-old kittens couldn't have shut themselves in the washing machine.
"Somebody had to have put them there," he said.
Burton's tale of the house made front-page news in the Sun Journal on Thursday, angering Brooks, the Lisbon police chief, who said Cooper was doing his job and Burton shouldn't have interfered.
"(Cooper) was on top of it, immediately, as soon as he was given the information," Brooks said.
He said Burton had no right to be on the property. The Sagadahoc County Sheriff's Office investigated Thursday but did not charge Burton with any crime.
"Everything that I’ve heard and seen leads me to believe that he was over there on behalf of the Coastal Humane Society, looking at what was going on with these animals, and probably wasn’t aware of the (legal) issues," Sagadahoc Chief Deputy Brett Strout said.
Burton said the Lisbon chief's animal control officer wasn't doing his job with the cats.
"There was no active trapping program," Burton said. "He wasn't supplying them with food or water."
Some people interviewed for this story said the Maine Animal Welfare Program was involved with the cats' removal. Others said they weren't. Animal Welfare Program officials did not return calls Thursday.
Cooper said he was working to catch and remove the cats.
So far, 11 kittens — some from Cooper and some from Burton — are being cared for by the Coastal Humane Society. The shelter said it's ready and willing to take in more. It has received offers of help from other shelters.
The kittens have mostly minor health issues. The shelter expects to put them up for adoption in the next week or so. It plans to waive their adoption fees and fees for any other cats pulled from the house.
The Coastal Humane Society will post upcoming information on its website: www.coastalhumanesociety.org.
It is also accepting donations and offers of foster homes for the cats. For more information, call 725-5051.
Judith Meyer, Managing Editor/days, contributed to this report.