PALM HARBOR — It's a simple one-story house with slate blue siding, a neat driveway and a hose curled on the lawn. The mail rests on a wrought-iron shelf on the front stoop.
But look closer. Something is amiss.
Newspapers cover the windows. Black drapes, held up by masking tape, prevent anyone from seeing inside. More than 20 flies beat against one windowpane.
After a neighbor reported a strong odor Sunday, Pinellas sheriff's deputies went in. They discovered 13 chihuahuas, but found no people living there.
Wearing gas masks and protective gloves and boots, the deputies seized the dogs and turned them over to the Suncoast Animal League.
The animals had some food, deputies said, but no access to the outdoors, fresh air or air-conditioning.
"I've been doing this for 20-something years and this is one of the worst that I've seen," said Rick Chaboudy, director of the rescue group.
Trash piles reached higher than Chaboudy's head, he said, and the smell, a combination of garbage and dog feces, "literally gagged you."
Annette Dettloff, a board member at Suncoast Animal League, came to the scene and took pictures. Her first glimpse halted her.
"That's where the shock hits you," she said. "How could this possibly exist within this house?"
The Suncoast staff took the small dogs to its shelter, a short drive away. They were dirty and scared, staffers said. Some had open sores. One may be pregnant. All stunk.
Resident Victoria Strickland drove up to the house while deputies were there. She told deputies the dogs are her pets and that she had taken good care of them. But deputies gave her a notice to appear in court for animal abandonment.
Chaboudy said he overheard her tell deputies she recently had been living away from the house.
Strickland signed papers Thursday giving custody of the 13 chihuahuas to the rescue group. The dogs should be available for adoption next week. Suncoast Animal Rescue is at 1030 Pennsylvania Ave.