Friday, June 30, 2006

Remember the Movie Ben? Reality Is Strange But True


Every city has a cat lady. You don't know about her until you read in the paper headlines that say, "Police were called today to the home of Eunice Smith and found over 200 cats..." Well the same thing happened this week to some rat hugger in where else...California.

It all started four years ago when Roger Dier bought a baby rat to feed his pet Indian python. But when he saw the furry little critter squeaking for its life, the lifelong animal lover said he didn't have the heart to let it become just another snake snack.

"I couldn't stand it," he told The Press Democrat of Santa Rosa. "I took the rat out of the cage and got to know it."

After that, Dier was hooked on the rodents, which he described as gentle, lovable and an endless source of entertainment. He later bought four more at the pet store -- but didn't think to spay or neuter them.

Last week, animal control officers discovered more than 1,300 rats in Dier's small one-bedroom Petaluma home, after a neighbor complained about the foul smell. He was cited for misdemeanor animal cruelty.

Dier, 67, said depression, loneliness, denial and a recent bout of flu and bronchitis kept him from maintaining control of the fast-breeding population.

"I did not set out to do this," he told The Press Democrat. "I do acknowledge irresponsibility and there's a case for laziness, denial, incompetence and just plain foolishness."

But "it was not all my fault," he added. "It was this force of nature that overwhelmed me."

The infestation at his home wasn't Dier's first encounter with a rat pack.

In 1963, his Culver City apartment was used as a hideout by two of three men who were later convicted of kidnapping Frank Sinatra Jr., son of the legendary Rat Pack crooner. Dier said he later served two prison terms for an unrelated weapons charge and armed robbery.

"I was just a young kid. I was mixed up," he said.

Dier moved to Petaluma in 1978, working at an assembly plant and as a stained glass maker. He now lives off a small inheritance from his mother.

By all appearances, Dier looks like an everyday retiree, donning jeans and an Hawaiian shirt on a warm afternoon and driving a new Toyota Tacoma.

But his house, located in a quiet middle-class neighborhood, reeks of urine. The floor is covered with the chaff of feed mixed with rat droppings, and everything is gnawed on, including the sheetrock walls, according to The Press Democrat.

When animal control officers arrived, they found some rats stacked six deep in cages so overcrowded that many had missing eyes and limbs.

Dier admitted that he felt some relief when they were confiscated, noting the "crushing burden" of trying to care for them. He was up to buying 250 pounds of rat food a week.

Most of the rats have been euthanized, some because they were too sick or injured and others because they weren't socialized well enough to be adopted, said Nancee Tavares, manager of Petaluma Animal Services.

"We believe quality of life is important, and there was no quality of life for these rats," she said.

Rat lovers have expressed outrage at the euthanizations, but Tavares said the pace of adoptions have gone too slow to expect all the rats to find homes. As of Thursday, only 12 of the rodents had gotten new owners, while different shelters and animal rescue groups promised to take about 30 off the agency's hands.

"We've gotten a lot of people criticizing us, but not offering to take one or two," Tavares said.

Meanwhile, Dier, who was allowed to keep his seven cats, said he was grieving the loss -- and deaths -- of his furry friends.

"That's a darn pity," Dier said. "It's unfair to the animals. I'm not saying I wasn't unfair letting them be born into existence, but they didn't deserve to die."

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