They’ve seen it all: Meet the investigators who rescue maltreated animals across Minnesota

FINLAYSON, MINN. — Amanda Oquist pulled into a muddy driveway and surveyed the scene. As one of the state’s three full-time humane agents, Oquist investigates reports of animal abuse or neglect, which takes her to rural residences all over northern Minnesota. Many look a lot like this: dappled with vehicles and stray tires, garbage cans and building debris.

Oquist took inventory of the animals she could see from her vehicle: a couple of dairy cattle, a few ducks and geese, plus a goat in the shed. All appeared healthy and well fed. When she strode up to the home’s entrance and knocked, she could see lights on inside. But nobody came to the door.

“You can’t always make people be friendly,” she said.

While the job of a municipal “dogcatcher” is familiar to anyone who has watched cartoons, the humane agents’ work flies under the radar — even though they’ve been protecting animals in Minnesota since the late 1800s, when they rescued carriage horses from abusive drivers.

The Twin Cities-based Animal Humane Society, the largest animal welfare organization in the Midwest, employs Oquist and her colleagues to investigate nearly 2,000 reports of maltreatment each year. While most concerns turn out to be unfounded or quickly resolved, dozens are so serious that they lead to hundreds of animals being seized annually.

Each time an agent knocks on a door, they never quite know what they’ll find.

Whatever bizarre, awful, animal-related scenario you can imagine — dogfighting, cockfighting, cult rituals, bestiality, 47 cats found living in a sweltering car — these agents have seen it.

Keith Streff, AHS’ longest-serving investigator, described rare but especially cruel cases that involved a dog being used for target practice or a bird stuffed with firecrackers before being tossed into the air. He’s entered homes filled with nearly 1,000 rats, or hundreds of rabbits hopping through feet of feces. “I don’t know how many cats I’ve scraped out of microwaves and dogs set on fire I’ve seen,” he said.

Unlike animal control officers, who focus on stray, noisy or dangerous animals, humane agents have a broader mission: to assist law enforcement in upholding the state’s animal welfare statutes. That includes everything from the abandonment and cruel treatment of animals, to not providing them with appropriate food, water and shelter, to illegal possession of regulated species such as tigers and bears. The agents also help community members access animal care resources and provide training for many organizations, said Janelle Dixon, head of AHS.

The work of humane agents has gained more attention as “fur babies” have become as important as children. Streff has seen the cultural shift during his three-decade tenure. “Animals are part of our lives and our families, and we don’t want people torturing them or starving them for kicks and giggles,” he said. “And those that do, we want to hold them seriously responsible.”

Pine County Attorney Reese Frederickson, who co-authored the animal cruelty chapter of the Minnesota Judges Criminal Benchbook, calls humane agents “unsung heroes.” In the past, society viewed animal crimes as they did as domestic abuse, Frederickson noted: a private matter the government should look past. These days, that’s no longer the case. “Animal crimes are gathering a lot of traction,” he said.

Baptism by fire

Oquist lives just north of Hinckley, in Finlayson. Most of her six kids no longer live at home; Instead, she and her husband are surrounded by animals: dogs, chickens, guinea hens and barn cats, along with about a dozen horses.

A lifelong horse person, Oquist has been riding, showing and advertising her equine allegiance ever since, at age at 17, she bought herself a jacket with her horse’s name on it. (On the side, Oquist runs a custom embroidery business and sells her equine-themed attire at horse shows.)

Early in her dozen years as a Pine County sheriff’s deputy, Oquist was assigned her first animal welfare case, involving a herd of 45 emaciated horses and several dead ones. The humane agent for northern Minnesota at that time helped her seize the animals and transport them to a nearby rescue — a task the sheriff’s department couldn’t have handled on its own. “A lot of deputies maybe had a dog or a cat or fish, but they don’t have a clue when it comes to looking at farm animals,” she explained.

Like “Fargo” cop hero Marge Gunderson, Oquist’s friendly demeanor belies her steely resolve. When the area’s former humane agent retired, he encouraged Oquist to apply for the job, due to her knowledge and temperament. “He knew that I didn’t just fold up like a cheap suit,” Oquist said with a laugh.

Judgment calls

AHS receives reports of suspected maltreatment though a hot line (612-772-9999) and online ( Trivial reports, such as that of a school using sticky traps to catch mice, get skipped. The rest are assigned to an agent by geographic territory.

Some reports come from family and neighbors, whose motives range from concerned to retaliatory. Often, strangers will pass an unkempt property and assume the residents treat their animals as poorly.

When the agents find an owner at home, they outline the complaint and ask to see the animals. Most comply. For those who decline, the agent must document probable cause that a law has been broken and seek a warrant.

Determining what constitutes appropriate animal care is far more subjective than clocking speeders with a radar gun, which forces agents to rely on their judgment. They try to work with owners to help them keep their animals, but that’s not always possible.

Much animal mistreatment is rooted in ignorance. No, dogs can’t live on grass, Streff had to inform one novice owner. During the pandemic, exotic pets have become more popular, even among owners with no clue as to what, say, meerkat care entails.

Frequently, a death or health crisis in an owner’s family can trigger neglect. So can price spikes like those seen today — a round hay bale to feed a horse for a month now costs roughly $100. “I’ve seen a lot of dead horses this spring, probably more than I’ve ever seen,” Oquist said. One day she encountered six in total, on three different properties.

En route to her next case, Oquist took a call from a hay donation group. A man she recently investigated, living in a camper on a garbage-strewn property, simply couldn’t afford his horses. (“When he tells me he has to borrow money from his friend to get gas to go get hay … ” Oquist explained.) She’s hoping donated hay can sustain the animals while she convinces the man to surrender them.

Voluntary surrender is the best approach in many cases, Oquist said, and sometimes her only option. Take the elderly lady who lives in her laundry room while 70-some cats have the run of the house. There’s no local ordinance limiting the number of house cats. “It’s rural America,” Oquist said. “You can have a million, as long as they’re being cared for.”

Though hoarding cases are among the most difficult, Oquist’s colleague Ashley Pudas finds them most satisfying. Pudas, who became a humane agent after working as a veterinary technician and animal control officer, explained that it’s often best to cultivate trust and reduce a hoarder’s animal population slowly.

When animal seizures are necessary, law enforcement officers are accompanied by a humane agent and a team of veterinarians and animal handlers from AHS. Oquist has caught as many as 50 cats using a net on a pole, extracting them from behind washing machines and inside ductwork. (“Boy, can they hide!”)

AHS will take cats, dogs and other small animals to its facilities for adoption; the agents coordinate with other rescues to take large and unusual animals. Removing and caring for these animals can cost thousands of dollars, an expense that AHS covers to encourage law enforcement to take action.

Agents have visited homes so pungent they can smell them outside. In the name of animal welfare, they wade through piles of sodden garbage, swatting fleas and flies, unfazed by filth or death.

Streff, who grew up on a dairy farm and worked as a police officer, recalled one hoarder who was surrounded by dead and dying cats. Attempting to demonstrate her good husbandry, the woman picked up a sick kitten with goop all over its face, then licked its eyes clean, and sucked the mucus from its nose. “Without throwing up in your mouth, you’ve got to pretend like that’s the third or fourth time today you’ve seen that happen, and just go with the flow,” Streff said.

Oquist carries along a contamination suit, but rarely wears one. “I don’t get grossed out by a lot of things,” she said. “A lot of times I find them interesting, which is probably weird, as well.”

Oquist’s kryptonite, surprisingly, is urban living.

“When I go down to the Cities, I feel like an alien,” she said. “I’m used to dealing with rural folks up here because that’s where I live and that’s what I know. If I lived in Minneapolis, I’d probably tip over dead the first day.”

Trying to help

Oquist logs tens of thousands of miles a year, listening to audio books to pass the time. In this solitary role, she can end up in remote places, including an off-the-grid property she had to access by snowmobile to check on some chickens and pigs.

Though an animal owner once pulled a knife on her predecessor, Oquist says she’s rarely met with aggression and has never used her taser. But because animal abuse and human violence often go hand in hand, she will check in with local law enforcement when she sees something suspicious. (“Is he cooking meth in the back barn? Is there something I should be worried about? Or is he just kind of a big marshmallow?”)

The agents’ work gives them a window into the lives of those whose poverty and mental illness is often hidden from society. One man Oquist visited, who lived in a shack with no running water, struggled to feed his dogs. After he died at home, the dogs ate his corpse.

While Oquist gets frustrated when the public misunderstands her work, or prosecutors won’t pursue cases with compelling evidence, she focuses on the good parts of her job. It allows her to spend time with animals, cultivate positive human-animal relationships and, when that’s not possible, to protect animals from harm.

“I love going out and talking to people about their animals, even when it’s a bad situation,” Oquist said. “I’m trying to help everybody that I run across. And sometimes you can help them and it’s great. And sometimes you can’t.”