In a shallow pit on a wooded Elkridge lot, swarms of maggots devour dozens of carcasses of dogs, cats and deer. The powerful stench of rotten flesh hangs in the air.
Flies circle above a German shepherd decomposing in a begging position. The blackened skull of what looks like a cat peaks out of a small white trash bag. The body of a deer rests face down atop about 50 other animals in the uncovered pit.
The animals' bodies were dumped in the uncovered grave -- and perhaps in at least six other nearby covered pits -- in a wooded area several hundred yards from the 7700 block of Mayfield Ave., off Route 108.
The grisly animal dump is also several hundred yards from a large county public works facility that includes a police-car repair shop. Tax assessment maps indicate the lot is county-owned, and vehicles entering the area by a dirt road must pass through a metal gate kept locked by the county.
But James M. Irvin, county public works director, maintained last night that the land may be privately owned.
Surveyors, working nearby, discovered the animal graveyard Friday after following a putrid odor that wafted through the woods.
The pits are about 4 feet wide and range in length from about 6 feet to as long as 20 feet. Small plants grow from the soil atop most of them. But the odor is overwhelming. It can be smelled by motorists on nearby streets.
"I've never smelled anything like it," said Paul Sparrow of the strong stench that invades his back yard several hundred feet away from the pits. "I've been smelling it the last couple of weeks. It really smells bad."
Howard County police and animal control officers started a preliminary investigation Friday, after they received the report from the surveyors about the dumping site. They plan to launch a full investigation today.
"There is some evidence that may lead to whoever is disposing of the animals," said Sgt. Steven Keller, a spokesman for the Howard County Police Department. "It is clear they were to have been disposed of properly."
Sergeant Keller said the animals probably were taken from an animal clinic or hospital and dumped illegally, but how they died is unknown.
If the animals were discarded without a permit, whoever dumped them could face charges of fraud and health violations. The county Health Department was at scene Friday night and declared that the pits did not pose an immediate health hazard, Sergeant Keller said.
For years, dead animals were brought from all over the Baltimore area to the Carroll Braun Rendering Plant on Meadowridge Road, a few hundred yards away from the recently discovered dumping site.
That plant -- where fats and tissues from dead animals were separated for such products as chicken feed -- came under pressure from state environmental officials in 1989 and later closed.
Near the open pit and at least six other covered pits line a footpath through the woods. Dog and other animals' bones, torn plastic trash bags and vodka and beer bottles lay on top or by those pits.
"Whoever did that has some nerve trying to hide it back here," said Baltimore resident Nathaniel White. He says he has traveled past the dumping site two or three times a week since 1971 to feed the 40 pigs he keeps on a nearby property.
A dirt and building materials hauler, David Hammond, parks the trucks for his company's hauling company directly in front of the dumping site.
He said doesn't know who dumped the animals, but he and his workers have smelled a powerful odor for the last couple weeks as they've driven nearby.
"We said, 'What the heck is that?' " he said. "Somebody's dog most have been hit up in here."