HAWS asking for public support to help seized chinchillas in Waukesha

Published on: 3/30/2015

Jennifer Smieja has seen some extreme animal hoarding examples, but what was found inside a Waukesha home earlier this week was something she had not seen in her 17 years at the Humane Animal Welfare Society of Waukesha County.

'Hoarding situations are not unheard of,' said Smieja, HAWS' development coordinator. 'But this was the largest by far.'

Smieja and her organization are now in possession of 331 chinchillas after they were seized on Sunday, March 29, by police from a rental home in the city of Waukesha due to the living conditions being 'uninhabitable.'

Help needed

HAWS is now asking the community for their assistance in caring for the animals.

Items needed for donation include timothy hay, chinchilla food (rabbit food pellets can also be used), chinchilla dust, small animal mineral blocks and chinchilla chewing blocks, crock-style food dishes (approximately 4 to 5 inches in diameter), small animal airline crates (wire dog/cat crates are not appropriate in this housing situation as the chinchillas can escape or get caught in the spacing) and monetary donations.

Due to the sheer volume, extra cages are needed, Smieja added.

'We don't want to have too many housed in the same cage for their own health and safety,' she said.

Donations can be made in person at the HAWS facility, 701 Northview Road, Waukesha. People can also call (262) 542-8851 or go online to hawpets.org and click on the 'donate' button.

In good condition

Smieja said the animals were in relatively good shape, friendly and tame, showing that they were generally cared for by the owners. HAWS, nonetheless, is giving all the animals health checks.

She said it's pretty rare for HAWS to have chinchillas, which are crepuscular rodents, slightly larger than ground squirrels. Chinchillas are listed as a critically endangered species by the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.

'We've maybe had like a dozen in the last 10 years,' Smieja said. 'They're fairly rare pets and not as popular as rabbits or guinea pigs. But we're enjoying them and learning a lot about them.'

The animals, however, are not up for adoption yet due to the ongoing investigation, Smieja added. In fact, HAWS doesn't have ownership over the animals yet.

'We are just housing and caring for them,' Smieja said. 'Right now, it's in the hands of law enforcement. They'll tell us how to proceed.'

According to Smieja, the owners would have to sign over ownership to relinquish their rights. She said a humane officer is in the process of working through the legal aspects of the case. Capt. Ron Oremus of the Waukesha Police Department said the owners, as of Monday, were refusing to surrender custody.

Police called to scene

Oremus said police and fire department authorities were called to the home at 2208 Melody Lane after receiving a call in the morning that referenced a well-being check for a female at the residence due to comments the female made on social media.

Oremus said while that information was unfounded, officers quickly redirected their investigation into the home's living condition issues after they discovered the hundreds of chinchillas on the property.

The chinchillas were housed in the living room and dining room and the 25 deceased chinchillas were found in the garage and inside a chest freezer in the basement. In one case, a dead chinchilla was placed in a Ziploc bag box sitting on top of frozen food.

Three children — ages 7, 9 and 17 — have since been removed from the home after the fire department deemed the air was unsafe to breathe and the home was uninhabitable.

Due to the ammonia levels found inside, the fire department then took steps to vent the home. Oremus said 'the smell of ammonia was overwhelming' in the house.

The Department of Health and Human Services responded to the scene, Oremus said. And HAWS was contacted to care for the chinchillas.

Possible charges

Oremus added child neglect charges will be referred for each of the parents and the police department is also exploring charges relating to the treatment of the animals.

Oremus said while charges will be filed with the district attorney's office, the police department has yet to determine what the charges will be.

The home is a rental property, and Waukesha Fire Marshal Brian Charlesworth said the property owner has been made aware of the situation. Charlesworth added that a contractor who deals with hazardous situations will have to go into the home before it is deemed livable.

The exact reason so many chinchillas were kept in the home isn't clear. Charlesworth said that while the investigation is ongoing and he was at the scene Sunday, the mother of the family stated something along the lines that the chinchillas were part of a 'business out of the home.'

Charlesworth, who has worked for the fire department for 15 years, echoed the sentiments of Smieja in that this case is new to him.

'This is the first time in my career that I've seen anything like this,' Charlesworth said.