PAWS Magazine

Issue 43, Fall 1999

Who is Watching Timber?

"Perfect sitter" endangers animals during couple's vacation

by Richard Huffman / Editor

Cheryl and Eric Tseo knew something was wrong when they came home from their 10-day trip visiting out-of-state relatives. Their two dogs. Timber and Elvis, seemed wired and full of stressful energy. Bing, their cat, was showing unusual interest in going outside. Because Bing is Feline Leukemia positive, Cheryl had always been careful to never let him outside where he could risk infecting other cats or risk having his own weak immune system become exposed to infections.

But no sooner had the Tseos returned to their home in Seattle's Magnolia neighborhood, Bing was staring at the front door, as if he expected to go outside.

It did not take the Tseos long to realize that the pet sitter they had hired to stay in their house for a week and watch their companion animals had also carefully robbed them of many of personal possessions. Hundreds of dollars of Cheryl's clothes were missing, perfume had been taken, checkbooks had been stolen. But all of the stolen property paled beside the sickening realization that their companion animals had been endangered.

Cheryl and Eric had always been very careful when selecting people to care for their companions. It has always been important to the Tseos that they find someone who was willing and under- standing of the special needs of their animals. Timber, a Husky/Labrador mix adopted from the PAWS shelter three years ago, had a bout of pancreatitis, which means he requires a special diet; he absolutely cannot tolerate any food other than his veterinarian-prescribed kibble. Bing the cat is Feline Leukemia positive, meaning his immune system is weakened and he could potentially give the illness to other cats if they were exposed to him. And though Eric and Cheryl's other animal companions are healthy, they care as deeply for the welfare of Elvis, their greyhound; Lizzie, their anole lizard; and Hester, their tortoise (obtained through the PAWS Rescue program).

When they hired their pet sitter, Cheryl and Eric thought that they had done everything right. They began looking in June for a day-sitter to watch their animals while they were working. Cheryl works part-time at the PAWS Greenwood cat adoption center and noticed the sitters poster and card posted on the public bulletin board. "I called her and we seemed to hit it off," says Cheryl. "She came over and we talked some more. She seemed to know about dogs."

The sitter's price was right too. She charged $15 for a full hour walk. Frustrated because a previous sitter had charged almost double that rate and was taking the dogs for shorter than agreed- upon walks, the Tseos were excited to have their dogs get the much-needed exercise.

The Tseos asked for three references and were satisfied with the responses when they called to check on them. They were very happy with the sitter's performance through the fall. "We created a book that explained each of our animals' special conditions," says Cheryl. "And she would leave detailed notes about how each of her visits went."

So when they Tseos began planning their 10-day trip out of state, they called in their sitter (who will not be identified in this article because she has not yet been charged with a crime) and asked if she would consider staying in the house for the duration. She agreed, for a fee of $300.

The Tseos left a 40-page note detailing everything the sitter would need to know about the house and their animals and left, confident that their animal friends were in good hands. When they returned home, their dogs seemed especially wired; not happy like the couple would have normally have expected them to be. "Then we noticed that things had been rearranged," says Cheryl. "Candles were everywhere; incense was in the air.

"Then I noticed a bottle of perfume missing. Then two shirts, a skirt, shorts, lingerie, even some long Johns. Even a sweater that I had saved a whole month for."

Eric looked through their box of checkbooks. Everything seemed to be in order, until Eric looked closer and noticed that every third checkbook had been stolen.

The sitter left a note saying that she had gone to Las Vegas. The Tseos called the police. "The officer was very helpful," says Cheryl, "but he said that unfortunately this crime was a pretty low priority with them."

As the Tseos did a little of their own detective work they begin to realize the extent of how much their sitter had deceived them. When they called their neighbor, the neighbor said that two women had stayed at the house, not just the sitter. Though they had only given the sitter permission to use one of their cars for emergencies, the odometers on both of their cars proved that both cars had been driven extensively. The keys to Eric's car were not immediately visible, so the sitter had to spend to some time looking to find them. Perhaps creepiest of all for Cheryl was when she went to work at the PAWS Greenwood facility and noticed sand in her pants pockets. "She had worn my pants to the beach and hadn't even washed them," says Cheryl. "I had to wear them all day at work. Gross!"

But the Tseos were in for an even bigger scare when Timber and Bing began throwing up. Because of Timber's particular medical condition they rushed him to the emergency room that night. Fortunately, he proved to be healthy, but the Tseos were left shaken by the incident, nonetheless.

"I was just so angry that I couldn't sleep," says Cheryl. "This is my family and my family is sacred. And she just stomped all over sacred ground with me."

They tried to contact the sitter at her old address. "I called her roommates," says Cheryl, "and they said that she had moved out and then they gave OUR number as the forwarding phone number. It began to seem clear that she had been planning to rip us off for a while."

Left with no way of contacting the sitter, Cheryl poured all of her anger out in an e-mail message to the sitter. "You took advantage of us," wrote Cheryl. "We are very angry, hurt, and disappointed. We feel very violated by what you have done to us."

In her message, Cheryl asked the sitter a series of point-blank questions. Among them: "How did you treat our animals? Did you ever let Bing outside? Did you ever let our dogs off-leash? Did anyone other than you 'care' for our animals? Why did you steal? What did you steal? Did you think the things you did wouldn't hurt us?"

Cheryl also mentioned that she had informed the police of the sitter's activities. The sitter's e-mailed response confirmed many of an their worst fears. "You have a tendency to overreact and worry excessively about your pets," the sitter wrote. "I did let Bing [the Feline Leukemia positive cat] out every once in a while when I was in your home as I feel very strongly that a cat needs to get fresh air and sunlight like every other animal and live naturally. He appreciated having some short term freedom. Leukemia is not catching!"

Unfortunately the sitter was confusing the highly transmittable Feline Leukemia (FeLV) with the non- transmittable human Leukemia. According to the FeLV FAQ web site, "FeLV is considered to be the most common cause of serious illness and death in domestic cats. It causes a breakdown in your cat's immune system causing a cat to become suscep- tible to many diseases which it might otherwise be able to fight off."

So by letting Bing out "every once in a while" to "live naturally," the sitter was putting Bing at serious risk of acquiring illnesses prevalent among other cats of the neighborhood, as well as making them susceptible to Bing's Feline Leukemia.

Now Bing stares at the Tseo's door, expecting to be let outside, because he now considers the yard part of his territory. Cheryl and Eric have to watch themselves every time they leave to make sure Bing doesn't sneak out under their legs.

"On the whole it was a very personally violating experience," says Eric. Realizing that the police were going to be able to do little about their case, the Tseos decided that the one way to stifle some of their anger was to educate others about the dangers of selecting a bad pet sitter.

"What really grated me," says Cheryl, "was that all last summer I gave her great references. And because I work with animals, I think it had added weight."

So Cheryl decided to put out ads in the Magnolia News and the Stranger, warning people to check out their pet sitters before hiring them. "This happened to be my birthday, so I spent all of my birthday money on the ads," says Cheryl. "But it was worth it."

The people at the Magnolia News were intrigued enough with their tale to do a front page story on the Tseos for their next issue.

Cheryl and Eric say they will now be even more careful when hiring a sitter.

"This is our family," says Cheryl, "we owe it to them."

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