ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Little things sometimes cause big problems.
Officers with the city Animal Welfare Department suspected that many little things were crawling around an apartment on Charleston NE, their presence heralded by the overpowering smell of animal feces and urine and a neighbor’s warning of a severe cockroach problem.
Inside, 28 guinea pigs scurried about, about 18 of them in cages, the rest roaming free along with the roaches.
Outside, the couple who lived in the apartment refused to allow the officers inside that March 3 day.
A warrant executed eight days later led to the seizure of the furry, fecal-crusted but otherwise healthy creatures and a criminal summons for Jeffrey Hawkins, 28, on 28 counts of cruelty to animals and a count apiece of uncleanliness of the premises and exposure to an animal that may cause harm – all petty
misdemeanors that if convicted exposed Hawkins to up to 2,700 days in jail and a $15,000 fine.
That was his big problem.
The Animal Welfare Department’s big problem was what to do with so many guinea pigs. By the time the 28 guinea pigs made it to the shelter, two babies had been born – and many of the other females were pregnant.
The department sent out a call March 19 for volunteers willing to serve as foster parents for the fur balls.
Among those who answered was Cindy Cribbs of Haven for Hamsters Rescue and Sanctuary in Rio Rancho. Cribbs took 10 piggies, as she calls them, securing homes for some of them among her helpful followers. Volunteers took the other 20.
That, everybody expected, would surely be the end of the big problems.
New shelter director Carolyn Ortega, who inherited the problem in May, said she believed the city had a strong case against Hawkins. Besides the condition the 28 guinea pigs had been found in, records show that Hawkins had shown up several times at the shelter with a total of about 30 additional dead or dying guinea pigs since January 2019.
But on June 23, all charges against Hawkins were dismissed when the court ruled him incompetent to stand trial.
Even though there was no reason to believe that Hawkins’ competency or living arrangements had changed, the shelter had no choice but to return the guinea pigs – including all the babies born in foster care.
“It’s a very tough call,” Ortega said. “At this point, the law is forcing us to give them all back.”
The news came as a shock to some foster families, who say they hadn’t heard a word from the city until this week when they were ordered to return the piggies.
“I expressed my absolute horror at this situation,” Cribbs said. “How can they possibly consider returning them knowing that they will end up pregnant, sick and dead again?”
For Cribbs, this was war. And she was prepared to do what she could to protect the piggies.
What she didn’t know, what Ortega didn’t know, was that Hawkins had never asked for and never expected the return of his guinea pigs, public defender Maxwell Kauffman said.
Not that he wouldn’t like them back.
“This is not a bad person or a menace to society,” Kauffman said. “People who suffer mental health issues and disabilities derive great benefit from pets in their lives. He loves them.”
But love isn’t enough. And maybe, Cribbs thought, if she couldn’t win this war she could form an alliance with Hawkins to help him learn how to better care for his piggies.
So this week, for the first time, Ortega, Cribbs, Kauffman and Hawkins’ caseworker began talking with each other about how best to turn this big problem into a big success by offering Hawkins assistance, training and monitoring to give his guinea pigs a safe and loving home.
If he’s agreeable, the city has also offered to neuter the male guinea pigs.
Cribbs is also hopeful that he will agree to keep a more manageable number of guinea pigs and allow some of his piggies to be adopted by their foster families.
Big problems sometimes are not so big with a little communication.
UpFront is a front-page news and opinion column. Reach Joline at 730-2793, firstname.lastname@example.org, Facebook or @jolinegkg on Twitter.