“It smelled like ammonia, old poop and tom cat,” Gastineau Humane Society veterinary technician Rebecca Frank said from the witness stand in Judge Philip Pallenberg’s Juneau Superior Courtroom on Friday. “Tom cat is a smell you never forget. It was horrible.”
Frank was testifying in the trial of a Juneau woman accused of animal neglect by the city when 17 cats were discovered living with her in a van December 17, 2010, at Auke Bay Harbor.
Christen Blake’s charge of cruelty to animals, a class B misdemeanor offense, was hoped to be given to the jury on Friday for deliberation but testimonies and Blake’s repetitive questioning, including her own turn in the witness box, stretched into the dinner hours.
“I had to open the windows in the clinic because the smell was so bad,” Frank said to City Attorney August Petropulos, describing the scene at the GHS when Blake’s van was unloaded of 17 cats and 15 kennels. “You never transport two cats in one kennel. Let alone keep them there for any period of time.”
Frank said the cats couldn’t escape their own excrement or groom themselves, many had had ocular discharge, missing ear tips and fur matted with feces. Most were put into isolation or quarantine rooms, and all were vaccinated for feline distemper and rabies, and deworming medications were attempted.
Frank stifled back tears when Petropulos showed her photos of the kennels.
“A cat has to have the freedom to be free from its feces, to breathe fresh air,” Frank said. “This isn’t it.”
Frank said that feral cats would prefer to live anywhere else rather than Blake’s kennels.
Blake questioned Frank about the number of cats the shelter would put in one room at a time (8), the size of that room (10 feet by 10 feet), and then compared that to her van.
Blake asked if it was fair to say the GHS staff entered her van before the cats daily grooming. Frank said it was, but also stated that “Fur is a hair product. When you dye your hair it takes months to come out.”
At one point a photo of cat “Nina” was presented and Blake said the dirt on her face was actually freckles.
“We can end this right now,” Blake said to Pallenberg. “We have a cat with freckles we can bring in. What do you want to do?”
Pallenberg told Blake to continue her questioning.
Blake asked if cats were feral because of family abuse and what makes a domestic cat feral, to which Frank said, “Many things, it can be frightened by a car or a fire.”
“Do you think we have more cases of people being physically abusive to animals than we have fires in town?” Blake asked.
Blake also asked Frank to describe the van. Frank said it was so stacked with garbage bags that they couldn’t see anything.
“Is it fair to say that I used garbage bags to protect the environment of my car?” Blake asked. Blake also asked if Frank had told anyone the GHS was a non-kill shelter and was she not telling the truth. Blake asked Frank to elaborate on why she said Blake didn’t take care of her cats.
“All of the cats had filthy coats, they were matted, the odor was obnoxious, they had no bedding and it was cold out, there was no heat in the van,” Frank said. “Should I continue?”
“You don’t know what you are talking about,” Blake said, to which Petropulos objected and Pallenberg sustained.
“Is it safe to say you don’t like me,” Blake asked.
Frank replied, “I don’t know you, I can’t make that judgment.”
“Yet you can make a judgment on my cats in one day?” Blake said.
Bridge Veterinary Service doctor of veterinary medicine Rachel Dziuba testified as an expert witness. Dziuba has performed more than 3,000 surgeries on GHS, has experience with equine and marine animals as well as shelter animals, and is routinely one of the first called to aid live and stranded mammals.
Dziuba stated that the cats, as a general group of 17 animals, had poor hair coats, ocular and nasal discharge and stained feet.
“Each cat may not have had all of those things, but each cat did have one of those things showing that they were kept in an unsanitary environment,” Dziuba said.
Blake asked if Dziuba thought she injured her cats.
“It was an inappropriate enclosure for the cats,” Dziuba said. “The smell of ammonia was too strong and there was not adequate ventilation.”
Blake asked about open admission shelters in the United States, shelters that take in all animals and are not kill shelters. Dziuba said a shelter couldn’t be an open admission, no-kill shelter and accept animals under life threatening conditions and be reputable. She also said there are limited laws on regulation.
Blake asked if there were no laws regulating people, then how can Dziuba say what she did was wrong.
“Just because other people do it doesn’t mean it is okay,” Dziuba said.
Blake asked about Dziuba’s dental treatment of cats, how the economy has affected her job, does she advertise, and did she feel it was unfair to make a complaint about her cats teeth.
“The complaint was for neglect,” Dziuba said. “Teeth were part of the diagnostic part of the whole picture.”
Blake asked what was to become of her cats.
“Is it true you plan on euthanizing the cats found in my van?” Blake asked.
“No I do not plan to euthanize your cats,” Dziuba said.
Blake said her cats were suffering from separation anxiety and asked how Dziuba would feel if someone did something similar to her.
“I would be just as upset as the person was reunited with ‘Jax’ must have felt,” Dziuba said, referring to one of the cats that was returned from the van to its rightful owner.
Blake asked if it was fair to say she was being caused a lot of pain.
“My intent is to protect the cats, that is my job,” Dziuba said. “What you are calling charity is a situation in which animals are being neglected, and you are failing to see that. I am confident that the 16 cats are comfortable. You made that choice for them, you trapped them and kept them in that situation.”
Blake’s last question to Dziuba was “Have you ever been sued?”
“No,” Dziuba answered.
Petropulos did not cross-examine.
Blake’s next witness, GHS director Chava Lee, was asked if anybody ever indicated that they wanted to sue her.
“You have,” Lee answered.
Blake testified on her on behalf to 24 years in Juneau and working with feral cats, negative experiences with the JPD, that the man and the harbor were not telling the truth, and that she was in the process, the night of Dec. 17 of going home to feed her cats, and they were taken two hours before they were going to be fed.
Blake said she loved all her cats and that she sacrificed for them for 14 years.
“As far as being happy with the situation, no, I am not,” Blake said. “At the same time, I did the best I could in the circumstances.
“I think I did a pretty good job, I would like someone to try and do what I have done,” Blake said. “You can clean those kennels but you can’t love those cats like I did…”
The jury will hear closing arguments today.
• Contact reporter Klas Stolpe at 523-2263 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.