Defendant details grim cat-rescue saga

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Cheryl Lee Criswell wipes her eyes as attorneys give their opening statements Sept. 6, 2011. She and her husband, Edwin, are appealing their conviction of aggravated cruelty to animals.

Edwin Criswell took the stand Wednesday to begin telling the story behind his and his wife Cheryl’s involvement with cat rescues.

The Criswells are on trail for aggravated animal cruelty, based on the seizure of 116 cats west of Kalispell last December.

Edwin Criswell first took a job working with Cheryl at her Camelot Sanctuary in Blanchard, Idaho, in September 2001. His pay consisted of room, board and necessities such as food.

Originally tasked with cleaning the 110 litter boxes, within three weeks he was given the title of director and asked to solicit donations.

The sanctuary — funded by Cheryl’s parents and another business partner and located on her father’s land — consisted of seven mobile homes, two of which housed its employees.

The sanctuary housed roughly 125 cats when he arrived, but they soon rescued 150 cats from Spokane, all of which had a feline herpes virus. At that point, the sanctuary went through 2,500 pounds of cat food each month.

When asked by defense attorney Nicholas Aemisegger if they ever had all the money they needed to effectively run the sanctuary, Edwin said “no.”

“It would have taken millions and millions of dollars to take care of that kind of animals,” he said.

The sanctuary’s problems continued to compound, with the well pump going out along with decreasing donations. When repaired, their water tested at six times the acceptable level of lead and three times the acceptable level of nitrates.

Criswell also said diseases among the cats were always a problem because they took in the worst of the worst. Police stopped at the sanctuary 27 times due to complaints, although Criswell said none were valid.

Then, when Cheryl’s father died, they had no way to pay their bills and went into foreclosure on the land.

The only response they received when they began seeking help was the Humane Society of the United States. Edwin said the society first offered help but returned with law enforcement to shut them down because they had more than they could handle.

The Criswells were taken to court, where they were eventually allowed to keep only 20 of their cats because, according to Edwin Criswell, they didn’t want the couple starting another sanctuary.

More than 400 cats were seized from the Criswells in Bonner County, Idaho, in 2006, leading to misdemeanor convictions and suspended jail sentences.

“Everything we had was gone, our whole life,” he said. “We were never allowed to come back with any of the animals.”

After being homeless for four years, moving from campground to campground in Idaho, the couple had accumulated 75 cats as well as “a lot of birds,” Edwin said. They chose to move to Montana because Cheryl had a sister in Kalispell. Edwin also has family in town but said they don’t talk.

While living off the $674 per month Cheryl receives in disability payments and the $300 to $400 per month Edwin made doing yard work and chopping and selling wood, they put up flyers asking for help and for people to adopt or temporarily house some of the cats. They got few responses.

The trial will reconvene at 8:30 a.m. today, when Edwin will resume his testimony. His wife also is expected to testify.

They also put ads in the Mountain Trader, from which they received only two requests, one of which was for a type of cat they didn’t have. They wouldn’t allow the other individual to adopt a cat because “we couldn’t verify their ability to take care of it,” Edwin said.

The trial will reconvene at 8:30 a.m. today, when Edwin will resume his testimony. His wife also is expected to testify.

In Montana, a felony aggravated animal cruelty conviction carries a maximum penalty of two years with the Montana State Department of Corrections and a fine of $2,500.

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