At a pet store located next to a flea market in Burnside, Kentucky, on Wednesday morning, members of our rescue team encountered nightmarish conditions for dozens of animals.

The details of the scene were heartbreaking to hear. The air inside the store was musty and difficult to breathe. A sulcata tortoise repeatedly wandered toward the door, the only source of fresh air. Cages and tanks were stacked from floor to ceiling. Hamsters with no access to food and only filthy, murky water gnawed frantically on the wire siding of their makeshift enclosure. The water in the fish tanks was cloudy, and most of the animals had no apparent access to food or clean water. Guinea pigs and several turtles were forced to share an enclosure that was covered in spider webs. Rabbits sniffed the air as they stood on the edge of their barren cages with wire flooring, seeming curious—and maybe hopeful—about their rescuers.

At the pet store rescuers found animals, with no access to food, gnawing on their wire enclosures.
Meredith Lee/The HSUS

Local authorities served a search and seizure warrant at the store, and the Burnside Police Department arrested the store operator on 19 counts of animal cruelty.

The animals—including rabbits, chinchillas, guinea pigs, hamsters, gerbils, snakes, lizards, turtles and fish—were surrendered to the police. They received initial veterinary exams on the scene, which revealed a number of health problems: many animals were underweight, and some animals suffered from respiratory conditions, infections in their eyes and ears and lethargy. Some animals also showed evidence of old wounds, including in some cases missing digits and tails. One of the veterinarians on the scene remarked that some of the rabbits and guinea pigs were the thinnest she’s ever seen. Thankfully, these animals will continue to get much-needed specialized care from a network of animal care organizations.

Many of the rescued animals were reptiles who are sometimes marketed by the pet industry as low-maintenance. That’s far from the truth for these animals who need specialized care.
Meredith Lee/The HSUS

Our rescue team got involved in this rescue at the request of the Burnside Police Department after the city’s code enforcers raised concerns about the welfare of animals on the property. For large-scale cases of alleged severe neglect like this one, it truly takes a village to deliver animals to safety.

Sadly, like dogs in the puppy mill industry, small animals such as rabbits, snakes and turtles are also often mistreated and forced into deplorable conditions when they're bred for pet stores to sell. Reptiles are often marketed as low-maintenance pets, but the truth is that they need special care and a lot of room to grow. They need the right lighting, temperature and water filtration system.

An estimated nine million reptiles are kept as pets in the U.S. These fascinating animals need advocates who treat them as wildlife, not specimens in cages.
Meredith Lee/The HSUS

We’re grateful to the other organizations that stepped up to receive the animals from this case and give them the specialized care they need to survive and thrive. Other people who provided on-site assistance to make this rescue possible include staff from the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources Special Investigation Unit, the Somerset-Pulaski County Humane Society, the Pulaski County Attorney’s Office and Pulaski County Animal Control.

This case also reveals the need for people to become aware of the threats facing reptiles who are kept as pets. With an estimated nine million reptiles kept as pets in the U.S., these fascinating animals need advocates. Like all wildlife, they are happiest in their natural habitat, but—thanks to the hard work of all those on the scene this week—these rescued animals will have the next best thing.