BLANCHARD, Idaho – Ed Criswell and Cheryl Perkins say they aren’t animal hoarders, they’re animal lovers.
Since authorities seized hundreds of cats from their Bonner County property last week, the two have been labeled “cat hoarders,” responsible for the “largest animal cruelty case in Idaho history.”
The co-owners of Voice of the Animals Camelot Sanctuary adamantly deny the animals were mistreated.
“Any animal here had the best care, the most love of any animal,” Perkins said Friday.
According to the Humane Society of the United States, more than 430 animals were seized from Voice of the Animals and half were euthanized “due to severe illness, disease and suffering.”
Criswell and Perkins said they only had 344 cats and about 20 kittens. As he stood inside the main trailer on the property, where he and Perkins lived with at least 150 cats, Criswell displayed a spiral notebook with a list of the cats.
He wrote down the names of 306 of the cats, in alphabetical order: Amy, Ashley, Apollo … Gremlin, Glitter … Learch … Jars … Minnow … Teacup … Wharf.
As he read off the names, Criswell talked about the cats, which he said were like his children.
There was One Button who had only one eye, and Tiger, who had nose cancer.
He suspects both were put down.
“All they see is an animal with half his face eaten off by cancer,” Criswell said. “He’s healthy. He’s happy.”
Authorities say living conditions at Voice of the Animals were unsanitary and unacceptable – for cats or humans.
Even though the hundreds of cats are no longer there, evidence of them remains. The ammonia-like smell of cat urine permeates the air. It’s a smell Criswell and Perkins are used to, but it burns the nostrils of visitors unaccustomed to the stench.
Rolls of flypaper hang from the ceilings in the main trailer and in the other trailers on the property that were used to house the cats. The flypaper is covered with hundreds of dead flies, and live ones swarm in the air.
“I’m not a clean person,” Criswell said. “Have you ever been to an old folks home? Doesn’t it have an aroma? People that work there get used to it.”
Criswell and Perkins said they became overwhelmed about two years ago when they lost funding for the sanctuary.
They had been getting money from Friends United Network, which Criswell described as “a humanitarian organization” but “a fraudulent one.”
Richard Byrne, who identified himself as the chief executive officer of Friends United Network, said he used to live with Perkins at the sanctuary and provided from $250,000 to $300,000 funding for the sanctuary during the three years he lived there.
He said the Idaho Attorney General’s Office told him he’s no longer allowed to do business in Idaho. According to the Better Business Bureau, Friends United Network is a pyramid scheme.
Perkins is listed as a member of the board of directors on the incorporation papers for Friends United Network. Byrne was listed, at one point, as the fundraising director for Voice of the Animals.
Byrne said Perkins called herself “pro-life.”
“She believed you ought to give cats a chance to get healthy,” he said. “She loves the animals, she loves the cats, she’ll die for the cats, and she’ll cry for every cat that dies.”
But Byrne said he and Perkins had a falling out. He said he wanted to get a veterinarian on staff at the sanctuary and to clean the place up, perhaps add a petting zoo.
“It’s a good description in the word hoarding,” he said. “She wouldn’t adopt any out.”
Byrne said he believed Perkins was responsible for the spreading of ear mites among the cats. He said she “would dig in the ear mites of the sick cats” and then handle the healthy cats without first washing her hands.
The Humane Society said many diseases and illnesses were spread from cat to cat because of unsanitary conditions and because the cats were “communally housed.”
Perkins said she disagrees that the cats were catching diseases from one another. She and Criswell said many of the cats had weakened immune systems because the well on the property was contaminated with lead and nitrates.
Once they realized the well was contaminated, Criswell said, he began hauling in water.
The cats got fresh water twice a day, and the litter boxes were cleaned daily, he said.
When cats needed veterinary care, Criswell said, they were taken to a vet for treatment or he treated them on his own. Supplies were purchased in bulk, he said, and they also used holistic health care and herbs to treat the cats.
“We were just doing everything we can for these animals,” he said.
Criswell and Perkins were cleaning up the property and packing their belongings Friday. A foreclosure sale is planned for Oct. 5, and they will have to move.
They said they plan to fight for the return of the surviving cats. They have 10 animals living with them again – animals that authorities weren’t able to catch when the others were seized.
Perkins said she’s upset that a dog she had for nearly 20 years was taken from her and euthanized. She said the dog had a tumor on its butt, but the animal had been loyal to her and did not deserve to be euthanized.
Though authorities say Criswell and Perkins willingly signed over the animals, Perkins said she was sick and in shock. She said she suffers from hypoglycemia and fibromyalgia and had an extreme reaction when police arrived at her home.
Criswell said he and Perkins were threatened with jail and a hefty fine if they didn’t cooperate.
Though each faces 20 misdemeanor charges of animal cruelty, Criswell said he’s not concerned.
“There’s no way they can prove we mistreated the animals here,” he said. “Just because they don’t like the way an animal looks doesn’t mean an animal doesn’t have the right to live.”
Inga Gibson, executive director of the Humane Society, is recommending that any sentence include barring Criswell and Perkins from being able to own animals again.
“She has no say in it,” Perkins said. “Whether I have five cats or 50, that’s our decision, not hers.”