Sunday, September 17, 2000

Officials neglected cat house




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        FORT THOMAS — Something stinks here, and it's not just the cats.

        For years, neighbors had complained about the smell coming from a house on Scenic View Drive in Fort Thomas. Why did it take the authorities so long to look inside? When they finally did so last week, they nearly gagged. The home, filled with feces, dead cats and dozens of sick ones, was promptly condemned as a public health hazard.

        Sadly, an elderly woman had to suffer before anything was done. Officers didn't obtain a search warrant for the home until Bonnie Sarakatsannis, 69, was hospitalized with a broken hip and bedsores.

        They began investigating her son for neglect, using her condition to justify a search of the premises. She did not live at the home full time but recently had returned to it, police said.

        Much of the case remains unclear. We don't know how Mrs. Sarakatsannis' son was caring for her, for instance, or what provisions had been made for the cats.

        Regardless, a neighborhood's rescue shouldn't depend on injury to the homeowner.

        In such cases, property rights supposedly tie the government's hands. City officials say they can't enter homes without probable cause.

        They had it on Scenic View Drive. The key was the cats.

        Readers may remember a similar case in Newport three years ago. A man named Jack Berg was found barely conscious on the floor of his home, which was buried in feces, dead and living cats, dogs, bugs and cobwebs. People had complained for years. They knew something was wrong: Not just Mr. Berg and his home but even the letters he mailed had a terrible stench.

        In response to complaints, city inspectors went to the home frequently, but Mr. Berg never let them inside. When they cited him for the odor, he would make a show of cleaning, and they would be satisfied for awhile. Then the cycle would resume.

        People have the right to live in filth, city and state officials told me at the time. Unless they are deemed incompetent, they cannot be forced to accept help.

        A worried friend finally asked police to check on Mr. Berg. Officers heard him moaning, entered the home and found him lying on the living-room floor. He was whisked to a hospital, and the house was condemned. Mr. Berg died a few months later.

        In both cases, animals were running amok. This is where police and concerned citizens have a chance to pry open the door. If they can obtain evidence that animals are being mistreated — perhaps by observing sickly, malnourished cats coming in and out — they may be able to establish grounds for a search warrant.

        I'm no lawyer, but I know this much: Under Kentucky Revised Statute 525.130, it's a crime to withhold health care or food from animals. Through proper investigations of animal cruelty, police and humane societies have a chance to accomplish much more.

        Of course, animals have never been a pressing issue for government. This is understandable; authorities are busy enough just worrying about people.

        Nevertheless, the sad case in Fort Thomas suggests the need for a new strategy — one that recognizes the link between people and pets.

        Where animals are suffering, human tragedy is never far behind.

        Karen Samples is Kentucky columnist for the Enquirer. She can be reached at 578-5584 or ksamples@enquirer.com