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Elgin’s St. Francis, or irresponsible owner?

ElgAnimal Control Officers James Rog (left) Matt Ciesielczyk load three captured cats Sept. 26 William Tinkler's home. The cats found

Elgin Animal Control Officers James Rog (left) and Matt Ciesielczyk load three captured cats Sept. 26 at William Tinkler's home. The cats found alive were to be evaluated by a veterinarian, officials said. | Janelle Walker~For Sun-Times Media

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Updated: February 8, 2013 6:10AM

This is another in a series of stories on people and events that shaped our communities in 2012.

ELGIN — Is William Tinkler an innocent cat lover who just couldn’t bear ­— or maybe couldn’t afford — to properly dispose of the dead animals who piled up in and around his historical home on Elgin’s near-east side? Or should he be punished because his actions contribute to his beloved four-footed creatures falling victim to a contagious disease and create a nuisance in the neighborhood?

That question might be resolved as the 60-year-old unemployed Vietnam War veteran goes back to court Thursday morning in Elgin City Hall and court officials report on an analysis of his mental condition that was ordered by Judge Kathryn Karayannis in November.

What turned out to be a year of animal-hoarding cases in northern Illinois began Sept. 26 when city code administration officials ordered a crew to cut the unmowed lawn at Tinkler’s home, in a 19th century house in the 200 block of Villa Street. It is Elgin’s oldest neighborhood, only about two blocks from where James Gifford built the city’s first log cabin in 1835.

The mowers noticed a foul smell coming from a white work van parked in the driveway. They peered into its windows and saw what looked like piles of dead animals.

They summoned police animal control officers, who found four live cats inside the home plus an estimated 43 rotting dead animals — 27 cats plus various birds, squirrels and opossums, a muskrat, and possibly a ferret and a dog — in the van. The house, city inspectors said, was filled with animal waste and garbage, as well as having such code violation problems as a rotting roof and that unmowed lawn.

The home at first was declared unfit for occupancy. But Tinkler reportedly cleaned it up, and the city red tag was removed.

Charges filed

Tinkler was charged with four counts of cruelty to animals, four counts of violating an animal owner’s duties and one count of violating the Dead Animal Disposal Act — all misdemeanors punishable by up to a year in jail, fines or probation.

He was released on $150 bond. The live cats were taken to an animal shelter, where they since have been adopted by people who read about the case. The judge ordered Tinkler to allow animal traps to be set inside and around his house so that any other animals thinking of his place as home also could be captured and taken to the shelter.

Tinkler’s neighbors described him as a man who would shout at other humans but seemed to have a natural love of and talent for working with cats. They said stray cats flocked to his yard, where he would feed and pet them and often take them in. One neighbor recalled seeing him standing in that backyard with his arms outstretched while several cats crawled all over his arms and chest.

Another neighbor said many of the cats seemed to have some kind of lung disease. The dead animals were not necropsied, but prosecutors have not claimed that Tinkler killed them or that they died from anything except natural causes.

The judge ordered Tinkler’s mental fitness for trial tested on the request of defense lawyer Michael Reidy. Reidy said his client may be suffering from post-traumatic stress. He also has a hip problem. When he appeared in court in November, he seemed unable to walk or stand up without leaning on a wall or a friend.

Reidy said the traps captured two raccoons — one outdoors and one that somehow had gotten inside the house. Two other traps reportedly were knocked over or damaged, which led a prosecutor to allege in court that Tinkler had interfered with the trapping and therefore his bail should be revoked. That complaint also is expected to be settled on Thursday.

Reidy said Tinkler has lost his father, who died at age 80-plus in Maryland on Oct. 28, and that the rented Villa Street home — which is owned by a close female friend of Tinkler — has been foreclosed by its mortgage-holder.

“In just a few months, he is losing his pets, his father and soon his home,” Reidy said.

“There is no evidence that he ever hurt any animals,” Reidy said. “He just loves animals, and he wanted to take care of all the strays in the neighborhood. He was like St. Francis of Assisi. The four cats found alive were healthy except for some minor upper respiratory infections.”

Tinkler’s is one of three high-profile animal-hoarding cases that came to light in the far-west Chicago area this fall. In October, a filthy house in Aurora was found to contain scores of live birds. And in November, a home in Woodstock was found to contain an estimated 91 animals, most of them birds. The owners of both those homes also had the animals taken away and face criminal charges.

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