Couple with 120 cats facing cruelty charges

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A Marion couple are expected to be charged with animal cruelty in Flathead County District Court after 120 cats were removed from squalid conditions in December.

Edwin and Cheryl Criswell relinquished control of the animals Dec. 17 after someone reported they were living in two camper trailers with the cats on Pleasant Valley Road near Marion, according to court documents.

The cats now are being housed and cared for by the Flathead Spay and Neuter Task Force while the couple are living at a nearby ranch.

The Flathead County Attorney’s Office filed initial paperwork Tuesday that indicates the couple will be charged with aggravated animal cruelty, a crime that carries a maximum penalty of two years with the Montana State Department of Corrections and a fine of $2,500.

The Criswells told an animal control officer on Dec. 17 that they previously had been convicted of animal cruelty in Idaho.

The Bonner County Sheriff’s Office seized 400 sick and emaciated cats from them in September 2006, according to reports. The couple later were placed on unsupervised probation and ordered to pay $1,000 in fines.

On Dec. 22, a road grader was used to plow through snow on a rural roadway and remove the trailers from the property. Two days later, on Christmas Eve, a veterinarian observed 97 cats and reported that all but nine were suffering from a variety of medical problems, according to court documents.

The inside of the trailer was “coated with feces and officers had to use self-contained breathing equipment to enter,” according to court documents.

Flathead Spay and Neuter Task Force Executive Director Mimi Beadles said Wednesday that the cats are recovering as plans to move them to a mobile unit advance.

She said a total of 120 cats are being kept in 55 cages and kennels and are expected to remain at the facility until the criminal charges are resolved in District Court.

The animals are suffering from ailments ranging from dehydration to respiratory infections. So far, clinic staffers have spayed or neutered 47 of the cats, with plans to surgically alter all of them by Jan. 17.

“By and large, most [of the cats] are putting on weight right now,” Beadles said. “There are only nine cats that have nothing wrong with them.”

Beadles said she has been in off-and-on communication with the couple since July when they contacted the Task Force and said they were running a cat rescue operation and had 70 cats.

“So of course, all sort of red flags go up,” she said.

She said their actions are more correctly described as hoarding. There have been four similar cases in the past eight years, she said.

The Criswells were allowed to keep 20 cats after entering a no-contest plea to animal cruelty in Idaho. Beadles said those animals likely bred to create some of the 120 currently being cared for by the Task Force.

“These people didn’t rescue these cats,” she said. “They made them.”

Flathead County Sheriff Chuck Curry said Wednesday that a warrant has not been officially issued to arrest the Criswells, but he expects it in the coming days.

The Flathead Spay and Neuter Task Force, a nonprofit organization, currently is paying for the medical care and surgeries of the animals while receiving some assistance from the Sheriff’s Office.

Beadles said those who want to make a donation or volunteer time and services can call Flathead Animal Control at 752-1310.

Reporter Eric Schwartz may be reached at 758-4441 or by e-mail at eschwartz@dailyinterlake.com.

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