By Bill McKelway
Published: October 9, 2009
A judge yesterday described conditions in a home overrun with dozens of cats as the most grotesque he has seen in 25 years of judicial service.
Staring silently at a sheaf of pictures of the dwelling's interior, Chesterfield General District Judge Robert D. Laney blanched and told the home's occasional occupant that the pictures were worse than those he has viewed of German prison camps, homicide victims and lifeless teenage drivers.
Moments later, Laney sentenced Patti Wheeler, 52, also known as "Cookie," to a year in jail on multiple counts of animal cruelty. And he certified a felony charge of destruction of private property -- the house, now condemned -- to a grand jury.
On May 14 last year, animal control officers found 56 cats living in filth so pervasive that there was no place in the three-bedroom home not covered in feces, skeletal remains, or dried blood and hair. The house is in the 4500 block of Treely Road.
More than 30 of the cats had to be euthanized, including two whose eyeballs had abscessed so severely that the organs collapsed. Another had a bladder the size of a softball.
C.T. Coats, an animal control officer, testified that the house reeked of ammonia from urine, children's swimming pools were filled with animal excrement, and the remains of dead animals littered the home. One carcass was found in a cutlery drawer.
Coats said he and his fellow officers found a mother cat suckling her kitten atop a skeleton. There were also four dogs, two of which were euthanized.
"The [jail] time is for the suffering you subjected on these animals," the judge told Wheeler, who will appeal the cruelty convictions to circuit court and have the property charge heard there.
"I don't see how you could turn a blind eye to what I have just seen in these pictures," the judge said.
Defense attorney John Rockecharlie pleaded that Wheeler is a compassionate woman who became overwhelmed by the animals she took in, so much so that she retreated to her car to sleep at night in a sleeping bag. She left the home to the cats, entering only to feed them.
The cats established a feral colony in the house, forming a hierarchy that created dominant animals and those subjected to abuse, Rockecharlie said.
A veterinarian testified that while Wheeler fed the cats each day, many were so sick that they could not smell and therefore didn't eat.
"Cats need to be able to smell to be able to eat," Kathy Bauer said.
Rockecharlie said Wheeler's plight matched an ancient maxim: "The road to hell is paved with good intentions."
But Assistant Commonwealth's Attorney Robert J. Fierro Jr. saw it differently. What Wheeler did "may have been paved with good intent," he said, "but it was the animals who were in hell."
Laney also barred Wheeler, who is a receptionist at a veterinary office, from owning a companion animal for the rest of her life.
Convictions on three counts of improperly disposing of a dead animal will cost Wheeler $750 in fines. Failure to obtain a kennel license for the four dogs will cost her $50.
After court, Bauer said that resolving issues in which someone becomes overwhelmed by rescued animals is simple.
"Take the animals to a shelter," she said.
Headdesk #1: At myself and my former neighbors. This house is two streets down from my parents' house, and just passing by it, you had to know something was up. People apparently had been complaining about the smell for years, and it didn't escape my notice that the carport of that house was full of furniture, and that there were never any interior lights on, ever. I began taking a different road in and out of the neighborhood most of the time because it bummed me out. But I chalked it up to a garden-variety hoarder, not an animal horder. :[
Headdesk #2: At the commenters at the source bitching about the judge's Holocaust comments. I realized that this was the judge I had for traffic court last year, and I half shat myself watching the other cases go up before me, because this dude? Did. Not. Play. And especially so on cases where you had presented a danger to other people.
I can't say I have a problem with his comments, though if I had my way the sentence would be even longer. I mean, I understand the impulse to save teh kitties (and the neighborhood used to have a lot of strays -- I wonder if this isn't where a lot of them ended up), but you would think someone who works in a veterinary office would be able to recognize an animal's suffering. I really hope it's upheld -- one year is no amount of time, really.