A northwestern Montana couple involved in the largest animal hoarding case in Idaho history were charged with animal cruelty Thursday after authorities found more than 100 cats living in their two small feces-filled trailers last month.
Edwin and Cheryl Criswell face felony aggravated animal cruelty after police seized the cats Dec. 22 in Marion, Mont. They were booked into Flathead County Jail on Friday. The maximum sentence is up to two years in jail and a $2,500 fine.
It’s not the first time the Criswells have faced animal cruelty charges.
In September 2006, they were convicted of misdemeanor animal cruelty in the largest animal hoarding case in Idaho history.
More than 430 cats were seized from their then-home in Blanchard, Idaho. More than half those cats were euthanized “due to severe illness, disease and suffering,” the Humane Society of the United States said in 2006. The Criswells were fined $1,000 and placed on unsupervised probation for two years. They were also forbidden from having more than 20 pets in their care.
Many called the Criswells animal hoarders, but they maintained they were animal lovers.
“All the animals here had the best care, the most love of any animal,” Cheryl Criswell told The Spokesman-Review in September 2006.
The couple moved to Bonners Ferry, Idaho, where they lived with 40 to 50 cats in three trailers on rented property. In early 2010, neighbors started to complain to police.
Deputies monitored the situation for several months but never seized the animals or filed charges because the animals had food and water, Richard Stephens, chief deputy for the Boundary County sheriff, told The Spokesman-Review in February.
In the most recent case, 116 cats – including two litters of kittens – were taken from the Criswells’ Montana home, according to court documents filed in Flathead County District Court on Jan. 4.
The cats were examined by a veterinarian, who found only nine in good health. The rest had numerous medical problems, including blindness, severe dental problems and upper respiratory infections, said Mimi Beadles, executive director of the Flathead Spay and Neuter Task Force, which has possession of the cats. Most of the cats have not been spayed or neutered.
Court records say the stench in the trailers was so strong officers had to wear self-contained breathing equipment to go inside. Snowplows and tow trucks were brought to the remote area to remove the snowed-in, cat-filled trailers.
Volunteers have poured in since the task force took possession of the cats. Beadles said it takes 60 to 65 volunteer hours a day just to keep the cats’ living quarters clean. They have been working every day, she said, including Christmas.
“We just have a whole army that comes in every day and cleans them,” she said. “They have done an outstanding job.”
Many of the volunteers have already offered to adopt cats.
In December, the Criswells asked the task force for help; their trailers had been snowed in and they could not access or afford food and water for the cats or themselves. The trailers had no heat, Beadles said, and were a chilly 37 degrees.
Beadles first met the Criswells last summer. When she saw them again in December, they had lost a lot of weight, she said.
“I think one more week in that trailer and they would have died,” she said. “They would have died before the cats did.”
She said the Criswells still think they “only had 75 cats,” and see nothing wrong with their living conditions.
“They are living in the same conditions as these cats,” Beadles said. “They don’t see the filth in there as an issue. They honestly believe they are taking care of these animals. They think (the cats) would die without them.”
She said she does not think any of the cats will have to be euthanized. Meanwhile, the animals have had no problem adjusting to their new, more spacious environment.
“They are the nicest cats despite the way they have had to live,” she said. “They can play, which they’re supposed to be doing.”