Authorities went to the home of a volunteer who reportedly was heading animal cruelty investigations at the Monmouth County Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and found more than 300 dead birds, as well as the decomposing bodies of other animals that she took responsibility to rehabilitate but instead began hoarding.
Gretchen Rell, 54, of Mitchell Place, Little Silver, N.J., will be charged with animal cruelty as soon as investigators establish the total number of dead birds, according to Victor "Buddy" Amato, chief law enforcement officer for the Monmouth County SPCA.
Amato said the smell in both the garage and basement was horrific.
"We have more than 300 animals and counting," Amato said. "Ninety-nine percent are dead birds. Most of them are seagulls, pigeons, robins, wrens and loons."
Rell lived in the home with her 95-year-old mother, Marie, and told her mother "never go into the basement," Amato said.
"To be honest, when you were upstairs, you could smell a slight odor," he said. "It wouldn't be what you would expect with 300 dead animals."
Monmouth County SPCA President and CEO Jerry Rosenthal said the organization must turn any birds over to a licensed rehabilitator within 48 hours of receiving them for care.
Rell has been volunteering for the MCSPCA working with birds for more than 15 years, he told NewJersey.com.
“Often [hoarding cases] start with people with good intentions who become overwhelmed and don’t know how to ask for help,” Rosenthal said. “Our role is to enforce animal cruelty laws here in Monmouth County, regardless of who it is.”
According to tax records, the Rell home is valued at $900,000. It sits among residences valued at more than $1 million. Rell also has a residence in Ocean Township, which Amato said was investigated Monday night.
Amato told The Asbury Park Press that another 60 animals were found at the Ocean Township home where Rell lived with her husband. He declined to name the street where the house was located.
On Monday evening, some neighbors described Rell as a "really nice lady." They said they originally feared something had happened to the elder Rell when emergency vehicles first appeared at their home. Neighbors were surprised instead to see crate after crate of dead birds being taken from the home, though they all knew Rell kept animals.
Neighbors also said kids brought injured birds to Rell on occasion. One neighbor witnessed Rell chase and capture a wounded seagull on the street. However, some neighbors said they were suspicious that something was awry, and at least one of them said there were complaints of smells from the Rell home.
Authorities also found sparrows and doves in the house, as well as some dead rabbits and other mammals, Amato said.
Rell, a longtime volunteer with the SPCA, worked with Don Bonica, who is licensed with the state's Department of Environmental Protection's Division of Fish and Wildlife. Bonica, the owner of Toms River Avian Care, said Rell brought birds to his facility, working as a "sub-permittee."
"She worked for six to 10 years and always has a been a pretty conscientious lady, up until now," Bonica said. "Her only purpose is to pick up a bird, as a sub-permitee, which allows her to have the bird in her possession, and to bring the bird to our center. She was never given a permit to possess birds."
Amato said 18 live animals were pulled out of the house and taken to the SPCA on Monday. The investigation began Sunday night, he said.
Amato said he plans to file animal cruelty charges because of improper living conditions for the animals and birds. It is not clear how the birds died, he said.
Amato said a family member contacted him after arriving at the home this weekend from out of state and found the birds.
On Monday night, the driveway was filled with feathers left from SPCA officials who took away the dead birds.
"Gretchen was well-intended," Amato said. "She is a nice person. But what happens is they get overwhelmed and don't know how to ask for help. They get carried away. It's hoarding, no matter what."