GARY | A perfectly manicured lawn and well-trimmed trees didn't prepare officers for the rancid conditions they found inside a home during a welfare check Thursday evening.
Thirteen cats and four dogs were removed Thursday from a home in the 2100 block of West 51st Place in Gary after an officer noticed the gut-wrenching conditions the residents of the home were living in, Lake County Sheriff's Department officials said.
A relative in Illinois had called the sheriff's office and initiated the routine welfare check, Sheriff John Buncich said.
But when a woman answered the door of the home covered in flea bites, a responding officer began to question the home's condition.
After gaining entry into the two-story house, the officer found black mold, a basement of standing water and a horde of animals living in the home's squalid conditions.
The woman was transported to the hospital. The male homeowner stood by as officials wearing respirators chased and caged the animals inside the house.
The homeowner advised police the water had been in the basement for more than eight years. Animal feces covered the floors, and part of the hot water heater had begun to corrode, officials said.
He wasn't allowed to re-enter the home while police and firefighters were tending to the herd of animals.
"It's uninhabitable," he said. "(Nobody is allowed back inside) for health reasons," he said.
Lake Ridge firefighters worked to clear the house of all the animals, but not everyone came out unscathed. One firefighter was bitten by a cat several times.
That cat was quarantined from the others and will be tested for disease as soon as possible, Buncich said.
The animals were taken to the Lake County Animal Shelter and will be treated there during the investigation.
NIPSCO was called in to cut off the electricity and gas, and as officials went in and out of the house, one cat writhed free from a firefighter and shot into the neighborhood like a bullet.
County health officials also were called to evaluate the home and deem it as unlivable. Police will continue a thorough investigation, Buncich said.
"It's hoarding," he said. "This is a case of animal hoarding, and we have a detective that handles hoarding, and we will be looking into this."
Buncich urges the public to call (219) 755-3400 or (800) 750-2746 to report animal crimes in Lake County.