Officer George Bengal, director of law enforcement at the Pennsylvania SPCA, came out of a Feltonville house yesterday carrying box after box of dead animal parts and skins.
After hours of digging through the dirt in an enclosed back area of the house and searching through the clutter of the house, PSPCA investigators found the remains of about 400 to 500 animals strewn throughout the house or buried in the ground in the back enclosed area, Bengal later said.
The remains included "possibly" the carcasses of two monkeys, he said. The bones of one were found on an altar in a room off the kitchen.
PSPCA law-enforcement officers also found about 100 or more knives, mostly machetes, he said.
Animals "definitely" were used in some kind of religious ritual, Bengal said yesterday evening, after the officers finished digging and collecting boxes of evidence.
Authorities are now trying to find the people who lived in the rented house on Front Street near Rockland.
Bengal said that the man who rented the house is believed to have been out of the country for months, possibly in Mexico, but that has yet to be confirmed.
Investigators are also trying to track down the man's live-in partner and another woman who lived in the house, Bengal said.
All three are considered suspects and could face summary offenses, or possibly misdemeanor charges of animal cruelty, he said.
Earlier in the day, Bengal came out of the house with a cardboard box filled with turtle shells and the skulls and antlers of white-tailed deer, placing the box in the back of his pickup truck.
He went back in and returned with a blue plastic bin, filled with more turtle shells. There was also a dead cobra, coiled with its head held high.
On another trip, he brought out a box with a leopard skin and a deer skin.
"We have uncovered some wildlife remains inside of the property," Bengal told reporters outside the house. "We're still digging."
He said he believed that some of the remains were those of beavers, deer and groundhogs, but said that the carcasses were so badly decomposed that he would not be certain of their species until the remains were examined by a forensic veterinarian. But he later confirmed that the skulls and antlers belonged to white-tailed deer and that the snake was a cobra.
There is no law against sacrificing animals for religious purposes as long as it is done humanely, Bengal has said.
Asked yesterday about the possibility of charges if the animals were sacrificed for religious purposes, Bengal told reporters: "It is a very fine line."
But, he said, it appeared that some animals may have been tortured.
He said that some turtles found in the house "looked like they were starved to death. In that kind of a situation, religious ritual wouldn't apply, at least not in my eyes. If they're going to starve an animal to death, to me, that's a cruelty issue."
From the outside sidewalk, the two-story house looked unkempt, with trash and leaves strewn in front. A peek into the enclosed porch revealed a cluttered area filled with tables, candles, wooden figurines of "gods," bird feathers stuck to flowerpot trellises, and a machete.
Officer Jerry Czech, of the Pennsylvania Game Commission, also stopped at the house yesterday.
"There's all kinds of stuff in there," he said after he came outside. "Dead animals, dead critters, wax, feces, candles. It's a nightmare."
If the residents of the house had a permit or license to capture the wildlife, that would be OK, Czech said. But, if they didn't, they could face state and possibly federal charges, he said.
PSPCA investigators first went to the house on Sunday with a search warrant following a report of a dog living in unsanitary conditions.
On that day, they found a dog at the side of the house, looking "totally emaciated" and "near death," Bengal said yesterday. Inside, they found another dog tied in the basement, also close to death, he said. "The whole basement was just covered in feces. It was just unsanitary, no food, no water," he said.
The two medium-sized, mixed-breed dogs are now at the PSPCA, Bengal said, adding that the residents are expected to face summary charges of animal cruelty in relation to their condition.
On Sunday, officers also found an AK-47 assault rifle in a rafter area in the open ceiling area of the first floor. It was not clear if the rifle had been used to kill any animals.
One neighbor, Jesus Torres, 22, who lives around the corner on Rockland Street, said yesterday that he knew the man who lived in the house from seeing him around the neighborhood. But he said that he did not know his name.
Torres said that the man was from Cuba and had gone to Mexico on vacation some months ago. He said that the man practiced Santeria, "the same belief I have."
He said that he heard from the neighborhood that the man contracted swine flu in Mexico and "got stuck" there, not able to return.
Torres said that in Santeria, an Afro-Caribbean religion, roosters and chickens are sacrificed to offer their blood to a god.
But, he contended that some animals found in the house, such as the possible monkeys, were pets.
"You leave animals stuck in the house, they're going to starve to death," he said.