Terri Neeriemer, manager of the Clay County Humane Shelter, pets Dusty at the shelter Tuesday. The Norwegian Elkhound was locked in a Clay County house for possibly two months with eight other dogs.
By LINDA MESSMER
Cruelty to an Animal charges were filed in Clay Superior Court on May 26 against Dennis B. Sickler, 63, and his wife, Nancy K. Sickler, 61. Nine dogs were found trapped in a house, with about 3 inches of feces throughout, that the Sicklers had been renting located on west SR 42 in Clay County. The house belongs to Mike and Carolyn Nussel of Vigo County.
According to a police report and interviews with Clay County Humane Shelter Manager Terri Neeriemer and Mike and Carolyn Nussel, the Sicklers and Nussels met through mutual friends at a local restaurant about four years ago. Two years later the Sicklers were down on their luck so the Nussels rented the house to them well below market rates to help them out.
The Sicklers were initially told they could not keep their "two or three" pet dogs in the house. Nussel, however, offered to provide the material if the Sicklers wanted to repair an old garage on the property to house the dogs.
Nancy Sickler constantly referred to her dogs as "her babies" and being animal lovers themselves, the Nussels tried to be lenient with the Sicklers regarding the animals.
The Sicklers usually paid their rent on time, but never let the Nussels in the house, always steering them to a back porch or the basement when they came to check on things. They never fixed up the garage, maintained the grounds or even cut the grass. When Nussel talked to them about it the Sicklers always said they would take care of it.
About December, Mike Nussel noticed a bad odor when he went to the house. He started questioning the Sicklers on the whereabouts of their dogs.
When Mike Nussel noticed the odor around the house getting worse he confronted the Sicklers about the dogs. He told them he was sure the dogs were in the house and if they didn't get them out and clean the place they could no long live there.
The Sicklers began distancing themselves from the Nussels and in the past month or so would not take or return calls from them and never seemed to be home when the Nussels came by.
With the foul odor increasing, when he had not seen anyone at the house in days and could hear dogs barking inside, Mike Nussel called the Clay County Humane Shelter, explained the situation and asked for their help with the animals.
An employee, Robin Eingleton, met the Nussels at the house. She and the Nussels were shocked with what they found. There were nine dogs throughout the house which was in deplorable condition. The frightened animals ran from their rescuer.
Eingleton was able to catch three dogs and took them to the shelter. The Clay County Sheriff's Department was notified and Sgt. Rob Gambill met with the Nussels, Eingleton and Neeriemer at the house to get the remaining animals.
The entire interior of the five-room, newly remodeled farm house, which had been in Nussel's family since the late 1980s, was found to be covered with dog feces and urine about three inches deep. Storm windows were locked and blankets had been nailed over all of the windows making the house extremely dark day and night. A stereo or radio was on playing full blast.
The dogs had been separated. Several were in the living room. Another was locked in a bathroom. One was found in a small bedroom with a chair jammed in front of the door.
They all appeared terrified. Some cowered. One was aggressive and tried to bite the helping hand when approached. One dog had gnawed a 5x5 inch hole in the lower right corner of the door trying to get out. Food had been made available to the animals, in a big bowl setting on feces in the living room, but no water source was seen.
In the living room there was a couch that was turned upside down. Some of the dogs were lying in the springs of the couch as that was the only place free of feces.
It's believed the animals may have been locked in the house for anywhere from two weeks to several months. All of the dogs had feces matted into their fur and all appeared extremely frightened.
The ammonia fumes were so bad the shelter employees could not stay in the house more than five to 10 minutes at a time. They couldn't breathe due to the smell. Sgt. Gambill had to wear a gas mask to help locate all of the dogs.
It's believed that the Sicklers are either living in their vehicles or in a house in Terre Haute on S. 13th Street. The couple has plates on a two-tone, tan with brown stripe, 1988 Ford van with license number 11A7415 and a burgundy 1983 Datsun station wagon with license number 84C7956.
After the dogs were tended to, Gambill later tracked the Sicklers down at the Pilot station in Vigo County. They were sleeping in a van with three dogs. At the time, Gambill had no warrant for their arrest but he talked to them and asked about the situation. They said they knew the dogs were left in a dangerous situation but they did not have a choice.
When asked why they let the house get in such a bad condition, they said they did it because they felt Mike and Carolyn were harassing them by asking them to get the dogs out of the house and following them. The Sicklers also complained that they had to pay their rent and also pay for their own electricity and trash pick-up and also mow the grass. They showed no emotion when asked if they realized they had ruined the home. According to Gambill, they simply said, "Yeah, I know".
The Nussels are contemplating how to go about salvaging their house. But they are more upset about the treatment of the dogs.
"I keep waking up every night thinking about it," Mike Nussel said. "I still can't believe it happened. I can't believe I tried to be good to, I thought I was doing a good deed and somebody would do something like that."
"I like to treat people the way I want to be treated," Carolyn Nussel said. "I don't understand how they could treat us that way. We tried to be nice to these people. I showed them respect. They showed no respect for animal life or human's personal property."
Carolyn went on to say that they would survive the property damage but what really hurt her was how the Sicklers, claiming to be such animal lovers, treated the helpless dogs.
One of the dogs, thought to be a full-blooded poodle, has been adopted. It's hoped the other eight can survive the emotional trauma they experienced and will be adopted also.
"Mopsy seems to be the most traumatized," Neeriemer said of a little Dachshund, Cocker Spaniel mix dog. "She's very frightened and will snap at people. But she's only aggressive if you try to touch her. We're working with her. It'll just take time."
The Sheriff's Department has been unable to locate the Sicklers since the warrant has been issued, but continue to work on the case. Anyone having information on the whereabouts of the Sicklers should call the Clay County Sheriff's Department.
Cruelty to an animal is a Class B felony punishable by up to six months in jail and up to a $1,000 fine.