The couple involved three years ago in Idaho’s worst cat-hoarding case have moved to Bonners Ferry and are attracting complaints from neighbors about their cats.
Neighbors have spoken to Boundary County sheriff’s deputies about Ed and Cheryl Criswell, who live in three travel trailers on rented property in Bonners Ferry. They share their home with 40 to 50 cats, deputies said. Neighbors told the deputies the unneutered animals come onto their property, spray their belongings and fight with their cats. They also fear some of the cats are sick and will infect their pets.
“It’s the cats. They can’t take care of them. It affects everybody,” said Matt Riley, who lives across the street. “We have to keep our cats inside. Usually, they’re outside all the time.”
Ed Criswell said he and his wife have 20 personal pets and have rescued about 20 additional animals. He said they stopped operating the nonprofit rescue organization they started, Voice of the Animals, but they need financial help to spay, neuter and adopt out the rescue animals. Currently, they’re living on his wife’s Social Security check, he said.
Records with the Idaho secretary of state’s office show that the Voice of the Animals nonprofit corporation was administratively dissolved Aug. 7, 2008, but was reinstated on July 20, 2009. It is listed as a nonprofit in good standing.
“We’re just going to have our personal pets and, occasionally, if something is in a bad way, we have to take care of it,” Criswell said. “We are not intending to acquire any additional animals. We’ve been trying to stay quiet. There’s always somebody around that doesn’t approve.”
In September 2006, more than 400 cats were removed from the Criswells’ then-home in Blanchard; more than half were euthanized due to illness. Animal welfare groups and veterinarians from across the state worked with Bonner County authorities on the animal seizure.
The Criswells were fined $1,000 and placed on unsupervised probation for two years, ending in January 2009. They also were forbidden from having more than 20 domesticated animals in their care. Veterinarians who handled the seizure said the symptoms visible at the home were typical of hoarding, which is a mental illness.
Animal hoarders often cover their activities through the perception that they’re an animal rescue operation, said Dr. Jeff Rosenthal, executive director of the Boise-based Idaho Humane Society, who directed veterinary care during the 2006 seizure. “Unfortunately, they kind of hoodwink the public as well,” Rosenthal said. “Animal shelters should not be trailers … hidden from public view. They should be very transparent and open.”
Rich Stephens, chief deputy for the Boundary County sheriff, said deputies have been monitoring the situation for several months, but the Criswells are not breaking the law. When deputies have visited the property – where three travel trailers are set up in a triangle with tarps over the top – the animals had food and water, he said. Boundary County doesn’t limit the number of animals a person can have, although Commissioner Ron Smith said he’s concerned about the situation.
“If people want to live that way with a lot of animals, a person might say that’s their business,” Smith said. “But if they’re going to have sick animals there, and they’re going to infect other animals or humans, I have a problem with that. We’re certainly going to stay on top of it.”
Rosenthal said that if the situation is similar to last time, he’d be concerned that the Criswells are violating laws against cruelty and neglect of animals due to unsanitary conditions. “If (authorities) allow this to get out of control, it will completely overwhelm local resources to deal with it,” the veterinarian said.
Criswell said he and his wife “know what we’re doing. We’re professionals. The only reason I have any animals running around is occasionally they slip out the door.”
He and his wife use one of the trailers as a bedroom, one as a living room and one as a kitchen, which is also where unneutered males are kept. Any sick animals are confined and receiving treatment, he said.
“We’ll take all the help we can get. I’m not hiding anything,” he said. “My doors are open. My whole life is open.”
However, when a news reporter and photographer knocked on the door Thursday, Cheryl Criswell quickly became angry and ordered the visitors off the property.