A Jackson county couple is accused of keeping at least 100 dead cats in a freezer that didn't work. Now, they say they're being targeted because of their religion.
Gabriella Bernabei says she kept the cats in the freezer because she hadn't found the right time to bury the cats. She says she's Wiccan and in her religion you honor the animal by returning it to Mother Earth. She believes it's her Wiccan beliefs that got her in trouble with the law. But, the sheriff says she and her boyfriend were mistreating their cats.
It was in an un-working freezer in the back of a garage that the Jackson County Sheriff's Department says it found 100 dead cats accumulated over a year and half. The woman who put them there says that number is closer to 50 and says the freezer was working. Bernabei says she brought some of the cats with her from Illinois when her family moved to Jackson County. She says others weren't necessarily theirs, but every animal deserves a burial and she was just waiting for the right moment to return them to the earth.
"That's what you do with a dead animal waiting for a burial. (It was) just proper storage until then. That was responsible," says Bernabei.
Bernabei and her boyfriend Robert Grassi are accused of mistreating animals and not meeting cat sanitation standards.
"The unkempt house and the combination of the fecal matter from the animals with other contributing factors did not make the conditions of the home livable," says Jackson County Sheriff Duane Waldera.
A couple weeks ago, social services removed the couple’s three children and placarded the home.
"It’s unfortunate that children have to live in a situation like that. But, that's why we have so many agencies—the sheriff's office as well as health and human services. It's too bad that it has to come to that but that's what we're here for—to protect the children," Waldera says.
Seventeen cats were taken to the Jackson County Animal Shelter.
"We don’t want anybody to let an animal be in harm's way and these were obviously cats that had been in harm's way for a length of time," says Barb Pfaff, Jackson County’s animal control officer.
Pfaff is also in charge of the Jackson County Animal Shelter. She says they're treating the cats for worms and upper respiratory infections. She says some were extremely thin and some couldn't be saved. But, Bernabei says her cats were happy.
"They're part of our family. They’re my furry children. We had a connection with them. They have a connection with us and I believe that's the best treatment of all,” Bernabei says.
Bernabei says they're also fighting to get their children back. But, she didn't want to talk about the situation without talking with her attorney first. She admits parts of her home were in need of cleaning and says they're taking care of it.
Bernabei and Grassi were not arrested in the case. The sheriff says the department forwarded its report to the district attorney for review and possible charges. He says they’re waiting on some test results to determine how the cats died.
PRESS RELEASE FROM JACKSON COUNTY SHERIFF'S DEPARTMENT:
On Thursday, June 03, 2010 the Sheriff’s Office assisted Jackson County Department of Social Services and the Jackson County Public Health Department at N10377 Samuelson Lane in the Township of Northfield with a home visit and inspection. During the inspection we noticed numerous cats that appeared to be sick and without cleaned litter boxes. On June 3rd, the health officers placarded the residence due to its unsafe health conditions.
Based upon information gathered during the inspection on June 3rd, investigators were able to obtain a search warrant for N10377 Samuelson Lane. During the search, the carcasses of about 100 dead cats were located in a non-functioning freezer located in the garage. Another 17 live cats and kittens were seized by the animal control officer, Barb Pfaff that appeared to be neglected. The dead animals were seized as evidence and the live ones were turned over to the animal shelter.
Gabriella Bernabei and Robert J.A. Grassi were referred to the Jackson County District Attorney’s Office for mistreating animals (951.02) and not meeting the cat’s sanitation standards (951.14(4).