A warrant has been issued for Juan Perez, 58, of Hillcrest Avenue in North Bergen, who faces 68 counts of animal cruelty after authorities found dozens of cats and dogs living in unspeakable conditions, according to North Bergen Police Chief Robert Dowd.
Perez apparently left town a few days before officers searched his house, and his whereabouts are unknown at press time.
“The first thing I saw when I opened the bedroom door was a dead black cat,” said Animal Control Officer Aurelia Cruz last week. “Then I looked over and there was another black cat with its guts [having] exploded out of it. Once I put the light on, forget about it. There was a comforter on the floor and there were dead carcasses everywhere. One was just half a body. Another you could see maggots. We’re talking decaying.”
The inside of the house on Hillcrest Avenue has been described by authorities as “deplorable,” “disgusting,” and “horrendous.” Those entering the home had to wear face masks and dab menthol under their noses to mask the stench, and take periodic breaks for fresh air.
At the end of Jan. 13, officials had removed 49 dogs and five cats from the residence on Hillcrest Place in North Bergen, along with 11 dead cats and a dead dog, in what New Jersey Animal Control and Rescue’s (NJACR) Geoffrey Santini called “the worst animal hoarding case I’ve seen, absolutely, in 24 years.”
“There was food thrown on the floor that had feces and urine on it.” – Animal Control Officer Geoffrey Santini
That’s when officials went to the house.
That afternoon, a team of police, health inspectors, animal control officers, and volunteers from rescue groups converged there to remove the animals and transport them to nearby no-kill shelters for adoption.
“They were running in the house wild,” said Santini. “They lived like a pack of wolves. When we walked into the house, there were 15 to 20 dogs in a pack. They all ran together and scattered together, like when you see a pool of fish.”
The animals have since been treated for various issues, including fleas, ticks, and wounds they got from fighting amongst themselves. One dog underwent surgery for a hernia. All were filthy and needed cleaning.
Neighbors first began complaining some months ago about constant barking in the middle of the night, along with the smell. The North Bergen Health Department reached out to the town’s animal control firm, NJACR, about the situation, and Santini first visited the house to speak with the tenant in December 2015.
“We went and spoke to him and he said he had like 15 dogs,” said Santini. “He was told he could keep five.”
Perez wouldn’t let anyone into the house, claiming the dogs were aggressive, but agreed to contact shelters and rescue groups to take the other animals.
NJACR kept an eye on the house, but they couldn’t get an accurate count of the number of animals inside. “[Perez] wasn’t walking them, or if he was letting them out, he was doing it covertly,” said Santini.
On a subsequent visit, Perez opened a window and several frisky, apparently happy and healthy puppies poked their heads up.
“He looked like a normal, everyday person,” said Santini. “He wasn’t jittery. He did tell me his son was killed in Afghanistan, a Marine.” (The Reporter could not identify the veracity of this claim by press time.)
“Neighbors said he was always friendly they didn’t have anything against him,” said Police Chief Dowd. “He had no criminal history that we know of. We were trying to negotiate with him to give up the dogs. He does have a right to try to remediate and make changes. We’re not just going to go in there like storm troopers and take his dogs away.”
When Perez failed to show up on court at 11 a.m. on Jan. 13, the Hudson County Prosecutor’s Office approved a visit to his home to see if he was okay.
“They went up on a well-being check and found the door open and discovered the situation was much worse than we thought,” said Dowd.
Like lions in a den
A handwritten signs on the front door read, “DO NOT OPEN DOOR; BEWARE OF DOGS.”
“I went in with the police to protect the officers from the dogs because we didn’t know if they were aggressive,” said Santini. They went through the house to see if anything had happened to Perez.
Immediately after the eye-opening walk-through, Santini called the prosecutor’s office for permission to remove the dogs. Through the frigid afternoon, the animal control officers went in time and again, removing dogs and cats one at a time and documenting them before rescuers took them to shelters.
“There was heat on but because the doors were open and the windows open, the temperature had dropped to about 40 degrees,” said Santini. “There was food thrown on the floor that had feces and urine on it. Like feeding lions in a den. That’s not how you feed a domesticated dog or cat.”
“There was feces and urine everywhere,” said Cruz. “Every inch of the house from the basement to second floor. He had the dogs separated so all the males were on the first floor and basement.”
“The first floor had no furniture, just one kitchen table and no chairs,” said Santini.
That’s where the dead dog was found, in the middle of the dining room floor. It appeared to have died quite recently.
“On the second floor two bedrooms had full bedrooms sets destroyed. The master bedroom had a bed and the 11 dead cats. Another bedroom had a chair, no bed, a TV. There was no clean place for this man to be.”
The third bedroom had been turned into a nursery, with 26 puppies and four female adults who were currently nursing. It was filled with excrement.
The basement was jammed with 50 or 60 garbage bags packed full of newspapers, urine, and feces, according to Santini, with dogs climbing all over the bags. “We checked the bags and didn’t see any dead animals,” said Santini. “We even checked the side roof. There were 20 or 30 more bags of garbage thrown out there.”
“Even the bathroom upstairs was not usable because he had garbage bags in the bathtub,” said Cruz. “The place was infested. The kitchen was filled with cockroaches everywhere.”
Good intentions gone bad
The good news is that many of the animals were friendly and healthy overall. “There was no physical abuse toward the animals,” said Cruz, “no physical harm to the dogs. But he wasn’t socializing them either. They were locked in the house 24/7.”
“It was more neglect than any kind of abuse,” explained Animal Control Officer Vincent Ascolese. “But it’s a delicate line. If the animals aren’t taken care of, it’s considered abuse.”
Animal hoarding is not as uncommon as one might think. In December 2015 a 76-year-old man was found to be keeping 18 cats (and one dead cat) in woefully unsanitary conditions in West New York. Just days after the animals were removed from Hillcrest Avenue, a case was reported in Passaic of an animal hoarder with more than 200 birds, many of them exotic, crowded into a tiny space.
“Apparently, from what neighbors say, the guy had good intentions in the beginning,” said Chief Dowd. “It just got to a point where he couldn’t control it anymore.”
“They seemed to be well-fed,” said neighbor Carol Del Forno. “He went to Costco a couple of times a week and came home with big commercial packages of chopped meat and chicken and beef and eggs and milk and dog food and pee-pee pads, because they never did go out.”
Perez moved into the building between seven and eight years ago, according to another neighbor who preferred to remain anonymous. “About two years ago, he probably had about half a dozen dogs,” the neighbor said. “And then those dogs were all crossbred, interbred. I don’t think any dogs were brought in here.”
As the brood grew, Perez let them out in his back yard and didn’t clean up after them, according to the neighbor. When that caused complaints, Perez stopped letting the dogs out altogether.
“They haven’t been out of that house since October,” said the neighbor.
The smell continued to linger, and vermin began appearing in the yards and infesting local dogs. “I had a roach problem, I had a rat problem. I’ve had exterminators here every month the last six months. My house and all the other homes,” said the neighbor. “My dogs, I take them in the back yard. It cost me $1,300 in October because they got fleas and mites. Never had that problem [before].”
Meanwhile the barking at night only got worse.
The neighbors last saw Perez at a little before 5 a.m. on Friday, Jan. 8, five days before his scheduled court appearance, they said. Apparently he partially opened some windows before leaving, including the front bedroom, where the puppies lived.
“And then [the dogs] forced the window open and they were on the roof,” said Del Forno on Jan. 8. “There were like four of five of them. By this time we don’t even know if they have food because we haven’t seen hide nor hair of the guy.”
“I yelled at them to go back inside, and they went back inside,” said the other neighbor. “I got the ladder and went up there after I shushed them all inside, and I threw a bunch of bones in there and I closed the window. Then I opened up the front door and I threw a bunch of bones in there and then closed the door.”
Overwhelming public support
Among the shelters that participated in the rescue operation were Second Chance Pet Adoption League; Ramapo-Bergen Animal Refuge, Inc.; Mt. Pleasant Animal Shelter; and Husky House. The Secaucus Animal Shelter also offered services and support.
Bergen County Protect and Rescue in Cliffside Park took in all the puppies and some adult dogs. Animal Control Officer Ascolese, who was on scene in North Bergen to help remove the pets from the home, noted that this is the largest animal situation they’ve had to deal with outside of Superstorm Sandy.
Support and donations from the public have been overwhelming, partly due to extensive media coverage and a video by North Bergen Mayor Nicholas Sacco urging people to help the abandoned animals.
“We have more applications than we have dogs right now,” said Santini.
Response has been so great, in fact, that the bcrescues.org site crashed over the weekend, with about half a million hits.
As for the pets, “They’re all doing quite well,” said Ascolese. “They’re getting lots of love from all our volunteers.” During this “decompression” period the dogs are socializing and undergoing additional tests and blood work as needed.
“We’re going to start going through applications this week and doing interviews as soon as the vet gives us thumbs up,” said Ascolese. “We want to pick out the best applicants. They need to be placed in the best homes.”
As a takeaway from this situation, Ascolese encourages residents to have their dogs spayed so they don’t multiply.
“There are so many outlets in New Jersey for low cost spaying or neutering,” he said. In addition it is critical for everyone to keep an eye out for cases of animal mistreatment or abuse and report them to the authorities.
“Thank God a few of these neighbors found out there’s so many dogs in there,” agreed Cruz. “It’s important to pay attention and report anything you see, smell, or hear, and let people know what’s going on.”
She also urges everyone to support shelters, which survive largely on donations, and to adopt from shelters.
“A lot of puppies come from puppy mills,” she said about greedy breeding outfits. “But there are so many beautiful, amazing dogs in shelters that need a home.”
Art Schwartz may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.