A PSPCA raid two weeks ago uncovered more than just dogs. To capture the real story of 739 Earp St., we have to go back in time almost a decade. At its center, we find a story of systemic failure, feces and neighborhood feuds.
It’s about 5 p.m. and the front door to 739 Earp Street is propped open by milk crates. Dogs are barking and crying somewhere in in the dark, fetid house. Officers from the Pennsylvania Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, some in protective Tyvek suits and gas masks, move swiftly in and out of the building. Upon exiting, each officer instinctively leans over, hands on knees, and tries to hock up the deep, pungent odor of dog feces mixed with urine out of their throats.
“I think we’re up to 22,” announces one PSPCA officer, referring to the number of Chihuahuas already retrieved from the house.
Onlookers bundle in groups on the narrow South Philly street and sidewalk, staring in dismay, whispering and updating each other on the tally as each dog is removed. “We knew it was bad, we just didn’t think it was that bad,” says one neighbor.
Even the PPD, witness to all things gruesome, seems taken aback by the unfolding horror show. “It frustrates us,” says Officer Christine Rocks, who is guarding the scene with partner Thomas Kolenskiewicz. “I have three rescue pit bulls at home, so if I could take all of them, I would.”
The house, owned by Frank and Antoinette Rotonta, is occupied by Rich and Frances Rotonta. Frances sits teary-eyed with her husband and a handful of friends on a stoop across the street, watching as her trembling dogs exit the only home they’ve ever known. The PSPCA officers photograph each dog and gingerly place them into the red animal ambulance waiting on the curb. At this point, Rotonta has already signed forms to voluntarily surrender the dogs.
It’s hard for the officers to catch the dogs because they’re running loose through all three floors of the house. To speed things along—all in all, the raid took about eight hours—PSPCA officer Betty Sorrel asks Rotonta for her assistance rounding up the rest of the animals. “It just makes it easier and quicker; the dogs will go to Fran,” she says. After a short while, Sorrel comes out, tells the group of friends that Rotonta needs a rest, and asks them to get her a blanket.
News cameras on the scene film PSPCA Director of Law Enforcement George Bengal describing the two to three feet of feces that reportedly cover all the floors and junk in the house. He calls it the worst case of animal hoarding he’s ever seen. “It’s deplorable,” he says. “Feces everywhere, the ammonia is extremely high in the house, there’s no outside ventilation. It’s uninhabitable for humans.”
A worker from the Department of Licenses & Inspections takes a quick tour of the house and condemns it.
About 6:30 p.m., the first animal ambulance, packed full with 30 dogs, peels out to deliver the animals to PSPCA headquarters on Erie Avenue in North Philly. A plastic box filled with 10 tiny, wriggling puppies remains on the stoop. Puppy cries and barks continue to come from the house. By the time the PSPCA wraps up the raid just before midnight on July 14, 85 dogs, two cats and the remains of two dogs have been removed from the Rotontas’ house.
To capture the real story of 739 Earp Street, we have to go back in time almost a decade. At its center, it’s a story of systemic failure. After all, residents who lived under the foul cloud of the Stink—a horrible stench that radiated from the house for years—and within earshot of what sounded like “a gazillion puppies” had tried to get the city to do something about the house for years and years. Some residents fled, moved out of the ’hood altogether. Some who remained are considering it now, disheartened by the city's inefficiency.
Fear defines a lot of this story. Cresting on a wave of gentrification that rapidly juxtaposed second- and third-generation South Philly residents with newcomers in the last decade, residents of Passyunk Square say they were scared to speak out about the Stink and about what they see as a “culture gap” or the “inherent tension” between some residents on the blocks.
PW spoke with newcomers—all sources requested to remain anonymous—who believe old-school residents use physical intimidation to send the message that they better not try to shake things up for old-timers. They say efforts to battle the Stink are misinterpreted as personal attacks on the Rotontas or, for that matter, old-school residents in general. Now, many say they’re frightened of retaliation for the raid, though ironically, all evidence points to the probability that it wasn’t even complaints filed with the city’s beauracracy that finally made something happen.
Meanwhile, Fran Rotonta says that she believes she is the target of a harassment campaign. “So yeah I had the dogs,” she admits, but “they blew it out of proportion, believe me.” But her story is a far cry from what she told PW when first contacted the day before the raid. At the time, Rotonta was adamant that she owned just four dogs and two cats. “And I make the cats go in the kitty litter,” she added.
“It’s bullshit,” she said. “I can’t take it anymore.”
But the complaints were not about the dogs, because no one knew how many were inside the house. They were about the Stink—which by all accounts was impossible to blow out of proportion.
“If you opened your mouth you could taste it, like your face was shoved into a litter box,” said one neighbor who reluctantly kept his air conditioner on in an unsuccessful effort to block the odor from invading his home.
“I almost puked the other day just taking out my recycling,” he says.
Neighbors say the Stink was bad as far back as they remember, but it became “exponentially” worse in the last two years.
“Last summer was what kicked a lot of people into action, when Fran put some kind of exhaust in the bottom back window that would just constantly spew out the horrible stench,” a resident says.
After 85 Chihuahuas were rescued from a hoarder raid on Earp Street in South Philly Wednesday night, PSPCA vet nurse Jessie Leighton jumped in her car with 27 of the dogs and rushed them over the bridge to the South Jersey home of Anne Trinkle, founder and president of the Animal Alliance of New Jersey [...]
The total number of animals rescued last night are 85 dogs (all Chihuahuas and Chihuahua mixes), two cats and two deceased dogs. According to the PSPCA, animal cruelty charges pending include unsanitary conditions, lack of veterinary care with a potential misdemeanor charges pending cause of death for the dead dogs. All [...]
The stench surging out of the house was an ungodly combination of feces and urine, and the noises were the cries and howls of what PSPCA Director of Law Enforcement George Bengal estimates could be up to 100 animals living in squalor at 739 Earp St. in South Philadelphia tonight. The PSPCA began the raid around [...]
In exchange for the guilty plea, Rotonta received 10 years’ probation (reporting only the first year) and is not allowed to own animals or work for an organization that involves animals for 15 years. She must also submit to a mental-health evaluation and to random inspections by the PSPCA.
The 50 greatest Philly pop songs
PW's Summer Guide 2015