By Tori Richards
SANTA ANA, California (Reuters) - Hundreds of snakes and rodents were found on Wednesday in the home of a Southern California elementary school teacher after neighbors complained of a stench from the house, police said.
The teacher, William Buchman, 53, was arrested on suspicion of felony animal cruelty, said Santa Ana police Corporal Anthony Bertagna, who added that the snakes were all believed to be pythons and many were dead.
Police said Buchman, who teaches sixth grade at a Newport Beach elementary school, had told them his intent was to breed the snakes but that his collection grew out of hand and he was unable to care properly for the reptiles.
Police called it a case of animal hoarding.
"It's definitely a house of horrors in there," Corporal Sondra Berg, a supervisor for the police animal services branch, told Reuters at the scene. "Snakes suffer, too. It makes me sick all the way around."
Buchman lived at the house alone since his mother died in 2011, after which "he went downhill and stopped socializing," Berg said. "Unfortunately for him, he started hoarding junk and the snakes, and just kept on and on."
Video footage provided by police showed animal control officers dressed in white hazardous-materials suits and respirators raiding the home at about 7 a.m. to find rooms lined with shelves stacked floor to ceiling with plastic bins containing the snakes.
Police said they expected to find as many as 500 snakes, alive and dead, once they had finished combing through the interior of the home in a middle-class section of Santa Ana, an Orange County city about 30 miles southeast of Los Angeles.
The largest live python recovered by midday was about 6 feet long. None of the snakes was loose in the house, which was infested with rats and mice, some of which apparently had been brought in as food for the snakes, police said. A freezer packed with dead mice also was discovered.
The exterior of the house was well maintained, and the lawn was manicured, offering little evidence of anything unusual inside. The strong stench of decay, detectable from the street, was the giveaway.
Neighbors said they had seen Buchman outside his house holding a python but had no idea he kept hundreds in his house.
One neighbor, Karen Long, told Reuters she noticed when strong winds blew several months ago that "it smelled like something was dead," and she called police asking them to check on Buchman, whom she had not seen in some time.
Berg said she visited the home and met with Buchman nine months ago, but the snakes she saw then appeared well tended. After further odor complaints, police got a warrant allowing them to raid the home.
The surviving snakes were being turned over to the Southern California Herpetology Association and Rescue, whose president, Jason Haywood, said his organization would seek to place the reptiles with nature centers, museums and schools.
(Reporting by Tori Richards; writing by Steve Gorman; Editing by Cynthia Johnston, Leslie Adler and Cynthia Osterman)