Through a broken blind, a bizarre scene of animal sacrifice was visible yesterday inside the otherwise completely closed front porch of a Feltonville house.
There were bones and feathers arranged in a ritualistic pile. There were bloody knives and a machete, figurines of African or Caribbean design, candles and incense.
On Sunday, Pennsylvania SPCA officers used a warrant to search the property after receiving a tip that two emaciated dogs were being kept at the house, in the 4800 block of North Front Street.
They found the dogs, but only after confronting an elaborate altar and the bones of possibly several hundred animals that had been killed, apparently as part of Santeria - a combination of African religions and Catholicism that originated among slaves in the Caribbean.
There were lit candles and tribal drum music playing from a portable stereo, indicating that somebody was there not long before the humane officers appeared, said George Bengal, director of law enforcement for the PSPCA.
The officers found what was believed to be a human skull, but it turned out to be fake. But they did find what appear to be the remains of small monkeys.
"The house was covered in bones," Bengal said.
No human remains were found, he said.
Police spokesman Lt. Frank Vanore said the department is not actively involved in the case. The PSPCA is the lead agency on the investigation, Vanore said.
Whoever was responsible for taking care of the emaciated dogs faces summary-offense charges of lack of veterinary care and unsanitary confinement, Bengal said. Each citation - two for each dog - carries a $750 fine.
His officers took the remains of what appeared to be several cats and dogs, he said. If they are confirmed domestic pet remains, the perpetrator could face misdemeanor animal-cruelty charges and potential jail time, Bengal said. But that would require determining how the animals died, which may not be possible.
The killing of animals such as chickens or goats, when performed as part of a religious ritual, cannot be prosecuted, Bengal said.
Bengal said the man who lived at the house and probably performed many of the killings is believed to now be in Mexico. However, his wife may still be in the city and she is being sought for questioning, Bengal said.
A woman who lives next door said she knew almost nothing of the man. "He's just in and out doing his thing," said Lisa Chap, 32, who lives on the opposite side of the twin house.
She recalled sometimes hearing music and a dog barking, and, if she was near the front door when it was open, noticing a strong chemical smell like from a cleaning solvent.
Bill Ellis, professor emeritus of English literature at Pennsylvania State University at Hazleton, said that in Santeria, devotionals to a deity often include the ritual sacrifice of a goat or a chicken, "but not in a wasteful way" because these are later cooked and eaten.
"So, whenever you see a wanton act of animal cruelty, it probably doesn't lie in religion at all," Ellis said, "but with people with very serious psychological problems."