Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Florida: How Okaloosa County officials turned a blind eye to the suffering of hoarded cats

FLORIDA -- Kimberly Mathis is grateful the Panhandle Animal Welfare Society removed about 100 cats from her next door neighbor’s house and yard.

Monday she was “relieved” to hear seven charges, five of them felonies, had been filed against Jerry McCallum and Felicia Guy for animal cruelty.

“I’m praying this nightmare is finally coming to an end,” she said.

She’s not happy that it took 18 months of complaints to get someone to act on a problem she said should have been apparent to anyone with a nose.

 “You tried to walk up to that house and you couldn’t do it because of the stench,” she said. “County code enforcement knew, the Sheriff’s Office knew and PAWS knew there was a problem here, and they didn’t do nothing about it.”

Off the radar
Records verify Mathis’s contention the home shared by McCallum and Guy at 1208 East Chestnut Avenue near Crestview has been oft visited by county officials over the years.

But it was not until late December, when McCallum’s probation officer entered the home, that PAWS received a call reporting conditions that stunned even veteran animal control officer Phillip Martin.

“It was horrible,” he said afterward.

Cats were everywhere, said PAWS Director Dee Thompson. Some were already dead and nearly all were so sick they had to be put down. The entire home was caked in animal waste.

Martin had to wear a respirator mask inside the home. He confirmed Mathis’ contention about the odor.

“Standing out on the street I could smell it,” he told a reporter.

 But it seems none of the many visits to the small mobile home at 1208 E. Chestnut Avenue were about the plight of the cats.

“As far as this guy, he was off my radar,” Thompson said.

 PAWS has been working with the State Attorney’s Office since the cats were discovered Jan. 5.
 Monday five felony charges of aggravated animal cruelty were filed against McCallum and Guy, according to Bill Bishop, the head of the Okaloosa office of the State Attorney’s Office.

“Five animals were found in such a condition it is our position their failure to act in caring for them resulted in excessive pain and suffering of the animals,” Bishop said.


Two misdemeanor charges of confinement of an animal without sufficient food, water or exercise, were also filed. McCallum also faces a violation of probation as a result of the other charges being filed, Bishop said.

‘We can’t go in without a warrant’
PAWS January visit to McCallum’s home was its sixth since 2009, Thompson said. Most of the call records concerned chickens or nuisance dogs.

Mathis said when she moved in next door to McCallum in 2013, dog waste was seeping under the fence from his yard into hers, and the fleas were so bad her family could hardly venture outside. Six dogs were removed with the cats.

Never, Thompson said, did PAWS have reason to enter the home McCallum and Guy shared.

“The people have never allowed us inside and without a written complaint signed by a judge we wouldn’t go in,” she said. “We can’t go in without a warrant.”

If you can smell ammonia from 10 feet away from the front door, there's your first sign. If she says she has animals but won't let you in, tell her she needs to bring them out, one at a time, for you to see them. Make her produce rabies vaccination proof for each animal - this is a state law. If they're not vaccinated, make her take them to a vet. Follow-up with the vet to find out if the animals were sickly, had matted fur, smelled like pee, had feces stuck to their fur, etc...

Code enforcement
 Mathis was well known to Okaloosa County Code Enforcement.

“I’ve called (officer) Ron Cliff so much I’ve got his number in my phone,” she said.

She said she began telephoning the county soon after she moved into the home next door to McCallum in May of 2013. The county’s first recorded contact was February of 2014.

Records show that McCallum was ordered to pay fines, clean up and remove vehicles from his property. In April of 2014 he was given 30 days to build a fence between his yard and Mathis’s.

But no action was ever taken against McCallum for operating a business illegally, despite frequent complaints about goings on at the home from Mathis.

“You can’t charge someone on suspicion,” said Elliot Kampert, the head of Okaloosa County’s Growth Management Department.

Mathis became increasingly frustrated with code enforcement, records show, and in September emailed County Commissioner Nathan Boyles.

“Please look into this situation as we feel there will be no other help given until somebody does step up,” Mathis wrote.

 It does not appear action was taken as a result of the email. Commissioner Wayne Harris lamented the ability of the code enforcement officers to do more in many cases.

“I don’t think we have a lot of teeth in code enforcement,” he said.

A history of contact
 The 1208 E. Chestnut Avenue address appears on 25 Okaloosa County Sheriff’s Office calls in service records since 2009.

 At least some of those resulted in visits.

A deputy discovered 14 abandoned vehicles on McCallum’s property in 2009. The report said “it seemed McCallum was operating a garage type business.”

Follow up visits conducted and most of the “miscellaneous litter and debris,” were removed, reports show.

McCallum was taken into custody for theft in June 2013. At that time according to Sheriff’s Office spokeswoman Michele Nicholson said, a deputy entered his home.

The arresting deputy told Nicholson last week he “does not recall ever seeing cats or smelling anything unusual.” --- is there a LIAR tag? BAD COP.

She said any suspicious animal activity would have been reported.

“Our officers are not going to ignore an obvious animal abuse situation,” she said.

Discovery of 92 cats
The charges brought against McCallum in 2013 resulted in a five year probation. Allen Brown was assigned as the probation officer and as such was required to make monthly home visits.

In November of 2014, Brown entered McCallum’s home and advised the homeowner he needed to clean the place, Thompson said.

The following month Brown returned to the home and after that visit reported conditions to PAWS.

Some of the cats were missing eyes, while others had holes in their mouths and tongues. All had been exposed to highly contagious diseases, PAWS said.

Thompson said there’s no way to determine how quickly the inside of their home had deteriorated to the state it was found in December.

“If you’ve got 92 cats in a home with no litter, it could happen pretty quick,” she said.

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