LITTLE SILVER, N.J. — A Monmouth County Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals volunteer lived with more than 300 dead birds and the decomposing bodies of other animals that she took responsibility to rehabilitate, but instead began hoarding, authorities said Monday.
The dead birds were in cages "stacked from floor to ceiling, five feet high," said Victor "Buddy" Amato, chief law enforcement officer for the Monmouth County SPCA. "It's hard to describe. There were just boxes and crates stacked up. There were dead animals in the garage and the basement."
Gretchen Rell, 54, of Mitchell Place will be charged with animal cruelty as soon as investigators establish the total number of dead birds, according to Amato.
"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."
"Obviously, we're trying to figure it all out," Amato said.
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. It wouldn't be what you would expect with 300 dead animals," he said.
Amato said the smell in both the garage and basement was horrific.
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 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 said they 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 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. She is a nice person," Amato said. "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."