LARGO — The door opened, revealing a room lined with cages of rats. Several dozen rats.
"Is this all the rats?" a visitor asked Martha Boden, CEO of SPCA Tampa Bay. She smiled.
"No. This is only the beginning."
Boden continued the Monday afternoon tour of her facility, its resources strained by Sunday's arrival of nearly 300 animals from the home of an Oldsmar couple accused of animal cruelty and child abuse.
The dazzling (or terrifying, depending on one's opinion of lizards and rodents) array of animals presented SPCA staffers with challenges as they continued to catalog and care for an unexpected influx that, in one day, doubled the 10-acre shelter's population.
As Boden showed off the hedgehogs, snakes, lizards, gerbils, finches and dogs taken from 206 Lee St. Sunday, the animals' owners sat in Pinellas County Jail. Jeffrey O'Neil, 28, and Jennifer Kovacs, 26, were arrested after they reported their 16-month-old daughter missing around 6 a.m. Sunday.
A relative had taken the child to O'Neil's mother's house hours before, and left a note neither parent saw. O'Neil and Kovacs were both intoxicated when deputies arrived, according to the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office, which termed conditions in the home "deplorable." A judge set bond at $10,000 each for O'Neil and Kovacs, and neither was able to pay Monday, according to Kovacs' mother, Joyce, who also lived in the home.
The SPCA cleared up initial misreporting by authorities Monday about the types of snakes owned by Kovacs and O'Neil, who on Facebook listed himself as the owner of "J&J's Reptile/Rodent Shack & Rescue." There were no Burmese pythons, which can top 15 feet long. However, there were two Colombian red-tail boas, one of them 71/2 feet long.
Burmese pythons are among eight species the state of Florida considers "conditional snakes or lizards" — animals no one can own without licenses and microchips. There are not similar requirements for owning red-tail boas.
Most of the animals were recovering well Monday, despite having lived in conditions SPCA officers called "filthy," most of their cages smeared with feces and lacking proper water and food. A handful of rats and hamsters died or were euthanized, but some of the death was offset by birth: Finch eggs hatched Monday morning. It was hard to tell exactly how many because the mother refused to leave the nest, even at the prodding of SPCA staffers trying to count. The other finches in the cage picked at food, fluttered and sang.
"It's so heartbreaking, but it's also rewarding, because you don't have to do much to improve their lives vastly," Boden said. "But then exhaustion sets in, when you realize how much work it's going to be caring for all these animals."
Boden is asking pet stores for donated goods and other organizations for grant money. She hopes O'Neil and Kovacs sign custody of the animals over to the SPCA, so Boden can begin the long process of finding them homes.
If O'Neil and Kovacs try to keep the animals, though, a potentially expensive critter custody battle could ensue. The SPCA charges an average of $10 per animal per day for boarding, so the 299 animals taken are rolling up a bill of $2,990 per day, not including veterinary care. At that rate, O'Neil and Kovacs could face a bill close to $90,000 if it takes them a month to win custody. Neither is employed, according to Joyce Kovacs, Jennifer's mother.
The 63-year-old retiree adamantly maintained Monday that the conditions in her home were not as bad as authorities said. The animals smelled, but the home was safe for her grandchild, O'Neil and Jennifer Kovacs' baby girl, she said.
"Jennifer and Jeff had a love of animals," Joyce Kovacs said. "I didn't really get involved with what they were doing. It just got out of hand."
Joyce Kovacs stripped carpet from a few of her rooms Monday and swept up sawdust left behind by the cages. If Jennifer Kovacs remains in jail until trial, Joyce Kovacs wants custody of her granddaughter, who is with O'Neil's mother.
"I don't know if they'll let her be here because of what happened, but nothing's here anymore," Kovacs said. "The animals are all gone."
Times researcher Natalie Watson contributed to this report. Will Hobson can be reached at (727) 445-4167 or [email protected]