They showed up at the couple’s apartment, bearing heaps of goodwill and hope and a herd of guinea pigs.
Carolyn Ortega, director of the Albuquerque Animal Welfare Department, had arrived at the tiny apartment on Arizona SE to fix what the law could not and finesse an agreement between the city and the couple to assure the safety of the animals and the rights of the humans.
“We’re not here to be the bad guys,” she said.
But Brittany and Jeffrey Hawkins, the humans in this case, were having none of it – not at first, anyway.
On July 18, I wrote a column about those guinea pigs – 28 of them, actually – seized by the Animal Welfare Department in March from an apartment on Charleston NE where the Hawkinses had previously lived with their pack of piggy pets and countless cockroaches.
Jeffrey Hawkins, 28, was charged with 28 counts of cruelty to animals and two related charges. According to the criminal summons, about 18 of the guinea pigs were in cages and the rest were roaming free in the urine-scented, feces-sprinkled apartment along with the roaches.
In addition, the summons said, Jeffrey Hawkins had shown up several times since January 2019 at a city shelter with about 30 dead or dying guinea pigs.
It seemed a textbook case of animal hoarding. It was also a situation that, as far as anyone can remember, neither the city nor the courts had come across before.
But on June 23, the charges were dismissed when the court ruled Hawkins incompetent to stand trial – that because of his neurocognitive disorder and mental illness.
And that meant he and his wife were legally entitled to reclaim their guinea pigs – now 34 of them after the pregnant females gave birth.
The news sent shockwaves through the community of foster families who had been caring for the animals – along with other pet lovers – who were upset that the guinea pigs were likely being returned to the same unsafe and unsanitary conditions from which they had been rescued.
Complaints were lodged with Animal Welfare, Mayor Tim Keller’s office and advocacy group Animal Protection of New Mexico. Ortega, who inherited the case in May, consulted with the city attorney in search of a loophole to prevent the animals’ return.
But guinea pigs and similar rodents aren’t addressed in the city’s Humane and Ethical Animal Regulations and Treatment, or HEART, ordinance.
It seemed no one wanted the guinea pigs returned to the Hawkinses – except the Hawkinses.
“I miss my guinea pigs so much. I been crying every day for my guinea pigs,” Brittany Hawkins wrote in a July 22 Facebook post. “I will never give up on my guinea pigs no matter what they say or said.”
She and Jeffrey Hawkins declined to be interviewed.
“Just know that we never hurt our guinea pigs,” Jeffrey Hawkins texted.
Cindy Cribbs, who had found homes for 10 of the guinea pigs through her Haven for Hamsters Rescue and Sanctuary in Rio Rancho, decided that instead of going to war she would try to make peace with the Hawkinses, joining forces with Ortega to offer them help, training, supplies and oversight, and to convince them to reduce their herd to a more manageable number.
On July 31, both women, along with an Animal Welfare officer, showed up at the couple’s apartment with the 12 guinea pigs, separated among eight cages, that had been returned by the foster families.
The Hawkinses refused to let them in.
After 45 minutes of negotiating, Jeffrey Hawkins finally emerged to take possession of the guinea pigs. He signed a contract allowing the city to check on the animals every two weeks. But whether he understood what he signed or whether officers will be allowed in the apartment is anyone’s guess.
Alicia Sullivan of Sky Management, which maintains the Arizona SE properties, said the Hawkinses have also refused to let her inside the apartment. She said they are in violation of their lease agreement, which specifies that pets are not allowed. Besides the guinea pigs, she said the couple is believed to have a dog. Even before the city returned the guinea pigs, numerous complaints had been lodged against them.
Eviction proceedings have not been initiated – so far.
Cribbs said she is concerned about the couple’s welfare, especially if they are evicted in the midst of a pandemic. But she is also concerned about the welfare of the guinea pigs.
“I am a human who has agreed to always protect and care for these little ones to the best of my abilities, and sometimes that means harsh things happen,” she said. “People are faced with coming to terms with their problems and situations they themselves have caused.”
For now, neither she nor the city is pushing to have the other 22 guinea pigs returned to the Hawkinses.
In the meantime, Ortega said she is working on an update to the HEART ordinance that would include guinea pigs, gerbils, hamsters, mice and rabbits in the limits on the number of pets per household. She hopes to present the update to the City Council by October.
Such a change will help protect the small creatures. It’s harder to protect humans from the same.
UpFront is a front-page news and opinion column. Reach Joline at 730-2793, firstname.lastname@example.org, Facebook or @jolinegkg on Twitter.