BENNINGTON -- A prosecutor said Monday that criminal animal cruelty charges will be filed today against two sisters who police said had more than 80 cats inside two vehicles and were in Vermont looking to avoid prosecution in New York.
Bennington County Deputy State's Attorney Robert Plunkett said he determined after reviewing a police affidavit that criminal charges should replace civil citations issued by police on Friday to Regina Millard, 54, and Bertha Ryan, 61, both of Troy, N.Y.
State law requires law enforcement personnel to issue a civil violation on a first offense animal cruelty charge, Plunkett said. It allows prosecutors to replace the civil complaint with criminal charges, however, he said.
"It could be multiple charges; we're looking into that now," Plunkett said. "We've indicated to the Judicial Bureau that we will withdraw the civil charges."
In an interview with the Albany Times Union published on Sunday, Ryan maintained that she and Millard were trying to help the numerous cats.
"I was trying to do a good thing for a good cause," she said. "They weren't being neglected. They were being fed, they had water and they had food."
Bennington Police Chief Paul Doucette said Monday that further investigation indicated Millard and Ryan were trying to avoid authorities in New York, though. "Some people think they were doing the right thing, and initially we thought they were trying to do the right thing, but now our investigation shows they were trying to avoid prosecution by New York authorities," Doucette said.
Troy police visited Millard's home Thursday, the day before they were cited in Bennington, and said the cats must be removed, according to the Albany Times Union. The newspaper also reported that Ryan was working with New York State Police to resolve odor complaints at a residence in Schaghticoke, N.Y.
Bennington Police began investigating Millard and Ryan, who are sisters, after a complaint was made from the Aldi grocery store Friday afternoon. Police said a caller reported people sleeping in the vehicles with the cats.
Bennington Police Cpl. Thalia Hudson said that when she arrived at the store Millard was cleaning a litter box located in the trunk of one vehicle by putting feline fecal matter on the blacktop. Ryan first claimed she and Millard had been driving for five hours and were going to a shelter in Plattsburgh. N.Y., then said they were on their way to a shelter in Greenfield Center, N.Y. Hudson said after further questioning Ryan said they were just seeking a "no kill" shelter for the animals.
Hudson said she estimated at the time that each car contained 25 to 30 cats of varying ages, and most appeared to be sick. Doucette said Monday that a total of 84 cats were removed from the two cars, including one found dead in a trunk and wrapped in a garbage bag.
Doucette said some cats had to be euthanized over the weekend because of their condition. Four kittens have been born since Friday, and others may still be born, he said.
Plates of food were in the cars as well as litter boxes with urine and fecal matter, Hudson said. The seats had been urinated on, but Ryan claimed the urine was from her and not the cats, according to Hudson.
Both vehicles were towed to a town highway garage downtown while police pursued a search warrant. Hudson said a judge could not be reached, but a veterinarian on scene said the cats needed to be removed immediately "based on exigent circumstances."
A Bennington Police officer used a protective suit and air pack, because of the odor, to remove each cat. Linda Morris, a veterinarian at West Mountain Animal Hospital, determined that each cat had fleas and ear mites, and most were emaciated, Hudson said. All had upper respiratory infections, including some that were wheezing and gasping when breathing, she said.
Hudson said some of the cats suffered from untreated feline glaucoma that caused a grayish glaze over their eyes. Many cats had ulcerated mouths so severe that parts of their mouth are missing. Some had feces matted to their fur, Hudson said.
The cats have been transported to Great Fields Kennel, West Mountain Animal Shelter and the Second Chance Animal Shelter.
Doucette said Millard and Ryan have agreed to relinquish ownership of some of the cats. Adoption and foster proceedings can be explored by calling Bennington's Animal Control Officer, he said.
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