HOUSTON (CN) - A Texas woman was reckless when she hired only a single employee to care for over 200 cats at her cat sanctuary, a state appeals panel ruled.
A trial jury convicted Wyndell Dixon on four charges of animal cruelty after animal control officers discovered 27 dead cats and "filth everywhere" following complaints about Dixon's cat sanctuary - Whiskerville - in Texas City.
Dixon claimed during her trial that she had not visited the sanctuary for months when the alleged cruelty had occurred, and that her single employee, Kimberly Paskert, lied to her about the conditions at the shelter.
She argued that because she trusted Paskert, who had worked at the sanctuary for over six years, she cannot be held responsible for conditions there.
The cats at Dixon's facility were not up for adoption, since most were older cats, nor were they euthanized. They were meant to live out the remainder of their days until they passed from old age, wrote Chief Justice Sherry Radack for the three-judge appellate panel.
Paskert, 48, testified that she was "overwhelmed" by her daily tasks, which included cleaning up messes the cat made, emptying out four big litter pans and carrying 40-pound bags of cat food. A former Whiskerville employee, Dixon's daughter, described the work as "back breaking." Paskert had arthritis in her hands and worked at the sanctuary 10 to 12 hours a day, in addition to another job cleaning houses. Dixon paid Paskert $30 a day when she started.
In early January, 2012, animal control and peace officers responded to a complaint about Whiskerville. When they peered through the sanctuary's windows, court documents say, they saw dead cats, feces and urine on the walls, and large water and food bowls that were empty and overturned.
The cats that were still alive were clawing at the windows and "screaming like they wanted to get out," Corporal Derrick Grandstaff, animal control supervisor for the Texas City Police, testified.
He said the stench inside was so powerful that officers standing outside could smell it. One officer, the first to enter the building, came back out and vomited from the smell. Officials had to wait for respirators to re-enter the building.
Inside, feces and urine covered every surface, even the windows. Live cats ran about, terrified, and when an officer set down a fresh bowl of water the cats "fought and climbed over each other, desperate," court documents say.
There was a dead cat in every room. Though some of the live cats were emaciated, others were obese and there was evidence the live cats had cannibalized the dead according to Kim Schoolcraft, animal services manager for the Galveston County Health District.
Paskert claimed she had arranged to have a volunteer, Karen Tibbets, take care of the cats so she could have a week off for Christmas. She had not told Dixon about the arrangement and told her "the kitties were fine." Police could not find Tibbets and concluded she didn't exist.
Before the appeals court, Dixon argued that because she believed Paskert, there was no evidence to show she recklessly endangered the cats. Recklessness, under Texas law, exists if there is evidence to show a person consciously disregarded a dangerous situation.
Paskert testified at trial that she had asked Dixon, several times, to hire help, but that Dixon had put her off by saying she was "working on it." Schoolcraft testified that at her facility, which cared for 275 animals, she had between 10 and 12 employees.
Donna Jones, a former Whiskerville employee, came to the shelter a few months before the cats were seized. There she found Paskert, upset and crying. Paskert told Jones she was tired, her hands hurt from all the cleaning and she needed help to care for the cats.
The appeals panel upheld Dixon's conviction.
Read the Top 8
Sign up for the Top 8, a roundup of the day's top stories delivered directly to your inbox Monday through Friday.