LYNNFIELD — From the outside, it is a fairly nondescript single-family house, two stories of fading red siding on a busy street, with a lawn that could use a little love.
But inside, police responding to a medical emergency found a horrifying secret, one of the largest cases of animal hoarding to hit the area in recent memory.
Animal welfare officials removed 199 animals from the small house, including 77 cats, 81 birds, and 27 dogs. Four of the dogs were puppies born just weeks before.
The discovery was made Feb. 26, when emergency crews responded to a call at the house on Salem Street and found that a woman had died. Gaye Miville’s death was not considered suspicious, said Lynnfield’s town administrator, Bill Gustus.
Inside the home she had shared with her husband, Leonard Miville, were animals in crates and cages stacked to the ceiling, feces thick on the floors, and an odor so strong that it made breathing extremely difficult, authorities said.
The animals — which included five skinks (lizards), two snakes, and dozens of cockatiels, parakeets and lovebirds — were voluntarily surrendered to animal welfare officials from the Animal Rescue League of Boston and the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. A handful of animals had to be euthanized for medical issues, but most have been dispersed to local shelters for care, rehabilitation, and adoption.
Gustus said the home had been the subject of odor complaints that go back several years, but each time the town sent a health agent to the property, the occupants refused to allow them inside and insisted they had just three dogs, three cats, and one bird. The town had the option to ask the courts for an administrative warrant to get access to the property, but Gustus said the condition of the exterior of the property gave no indication that the conditions inside were a hazard to the health and safety of the residents.
Leonard Miville has not been charged with animal cruelty or neglect, but he has been removed from the property and ordered to bring in cleaning professionals before a March 20 hearing when the town will decide whether to condemn the property, authorities said. The home is listed in the name of Gaye Miville, said Gustus. The ages of the Mivilles were unavailable from officials and efforts to contact Leonard Miville were unsuccessful.
The massive hoarding case was disclosed Monday at a press conference at the Animal Rescue League in Boston, where officials said they could not remember assisting in a case involving so many animals.
Dr. Martha Smith-
Blackmore, vice president of animal welfare at the Animal Rescue League, said animal hoarding is a complex mental disorder in which people often view themselves as helpers and healers, but lose sight of the fact that the animals are living in unsafe conditions.
“The animal hoarder’s view of reality is usually very mismatched to what the animals are enduring,” she said. “They deceive themselves into believing they’re doing a wonderful thing, but what they’re really doing is maintaining a house of horror.”
Smith-Blackmore said that animal welfare crews who arrived on the scene complained of pungent and acrid air from the feces on the floor and inside the cages, which were stacked everywhere. Breathing in the air’s ammonia and endotoxins can contribute to the hoarding problem, because it inhibits a person’s ability to think clearly.
“When you go into one of these places, it’s filth, it’s noise, it’s motion,” she said. “The birds are flapping. The dogs are barking. It’s sensory overload.”
As Smith-Blackmore spoke in an auditorium at the Animal Rescue League, three cockapoo puppies rescued from the home chased a ball around the auditorium and did their best to flirt with reporters.
“The first day, they were nervous,” Smith-Blackmore said of the dogs, Shadow, Bella, and Buddy. “The second day, they were outside, picking up toys and enjoying life.”
The dogs are working with a behaviorist and soon will be available for adoption. Sixty of the animals were taken to the Animal Rescue League. The rest are being cared for at the MSPCA’s facility in Jamaica Plain, the Pat Brody Shelter for Cats in Lunenburg, and Jabberwock Reptiles in Winchester.
Joyce Lucier, who lives two doors from the Miville home, said she never noticed anything unusual about the place except that she never saw anybody coming in or out.
“I walk my dogs by there twice a day, and there were never any cars in the driveway, any action whatsoever,” she said. “I didn’t even know they had animals.”
Other than the strong odor, which a reporter could smell 6 inches from the blacked-out windows, the only remarkable thing about the property is a homemade sign on the garage in the back, addressed to a person who had broken into the garage in the past.
“I have a shotgun,” the sign warned. “Try it again.”