It took a few weeks, but state Animal Control Officer Barbara Godejohn has got caring for more than a hundred finches down to a science.
It’s been her overwhelming task since July 26, when the Department of Agriculture took custody of 150 saffron finches confiscated during a raid of an alleged finch fighting ring in Shelton.
The birds are housed in an undisclosed animal shelter, filling more than a hundred cages stored in seven large stalls.
Three animal control officers rotate the task of cleaning cages and caring for the birds. Each stall is labeled with a day of the week – that stall’s cleaning day.
And each day of the week, the officer on duty checks more than a hundred little food dishes and more than a hundred little water containers.
On the weekends, when the stalls aren’t cleaned, it can take Godejohn more than an hour just to handle the food and water checks.
“Once you get it down to a routine, it’s not bad,” Godejohn said.
Caring for the birds hasn’t always been so routine.
Right after the July 26 raid, the state department of agriculture were left scrambling trying to figure out what to do with more than 100 finches. They had an advance plan — but authorities thought they were dealing with a more traditional cockfighting ring.
“We were expecting chickens and roosters and had even set up for them,” said Godejohn.
Roosters are bigger, and could have been safely housed in dog crates. But finches, small yellow birds the size of a closed fist, could have escaped through that kind of cage, Godejohn said.
“When we found out it was finches, we did not feel it would be secure where we had set up,” Godejohn said.
Within two weeks, the department had received donated bird cages from citizens and the pet store Petco. Until that point, many were still kept in tiny travel cases in which they were brought to the Ripton Road home that was raided.
The cases are about the size of a shoebox, and hold two birds in each. The birds were transported eight to a suitcase.
Godejohn said the birds were so spooked that many initially refused to leave the little cages, despite the cramped conditions.
The bird-fighting case has caught national attention due to its oddity and alleged cruelty.
In their search warrant for the home where the fights were allegedly taking place, police described a gruesome practice:
Witnesses told police that a large group of men gathered at the home for bird fights, arriving before dawn. Before the fights, the men would buy and sell the birds, and they would “party” at the house afterward, according to a search warrant.
According to that warrant, homeowner Jurames Goulart, who is one of 19 men charged with animal cruelty and gambling, kept and trained about 60 birds at the home. He would allegedly kill birds that became injured during the fights.
Witnesses told police the birds were trained to fight, and were given medications and antibiotics to keep them strong. Police described the birds as “killing machines for people’s entertainment.”
This week, the finches displayed few physical signs of the described violence.
Godejohn said most of the birds the department received weren’t badly injured. Finches are fragile and die quickly from injuries.
Still, some have missing feathers, mostly around the neck area. And in the first days of custody, many had apparent nutrition issues, Godejohn said.
Now they look healthy and normal.
But they’re not normal birds, observed state animal control officer Rich Gregan, who helps care for the birds.
“You think of dogs being vicious, not birds,” Gregan said. “But they were made this way.”
The finches are kept in separate cages. Gregan said the officers have no intention of changing that set-up, for fear the birds will attack and harm each other.
“We don’t want to (put them in cages together) because we know what happens when you do,” Gregan said.
The birds are kept under tight guard — a finch protection program of sorts — for fear the original owners will try to gain access to them.
The department of agriculture only disclosed the location of the finches to the Valley Independent Sentinel on the condition we wouldn’t reveal the location.
Photographs of birds and cages were taken against a plain wall to avoid releasing any slight clue as to where the birds are housed.
The department decided not to seek private adoptions of the birds, to avoid the possibility that they would somehow get back into the hands of the former owners.
“The key is these birds are being well taken care of, and we want to make sure they continue to be well taken care of,” said F. Philip Prelli, the commissioner for the state department of agriculture.
Instead of private adoptions, the department is looking for nature centers, zoos and bird rescue groups to take care of the birds. Prelli said he hopes to have the birds placed with new owners in the next couple of weeks.
The animal control officers said saving battered animals like these finches is rewarding. But the task becomes trying on the department.
While caring for the birds isn’t a huge expense — the cages and space are donated — Prelli said it is taking time away from animal control officers’ regular duties.
“(The cost is) more about the other things we have to put off. It takes a lot of manpower,” Prelli said. “You can do it for a short period of time, but the officers have other things they’re supposed to be doing.”