Elderly sisters stray: Arrested with 45 cats in camper

The Enterprise — Melissa Hale-Spencer

Clutching a tissue that she used to wipe her tears, Frances Stannard, who is 73, sits on a picnic-table bench in New Scotland as she tells her story. Behind her is her sister, Shirley Stannard, who is 65, reading a news account to glean information on how their cats are being treated. The homeless sisters were arrested Monday, and the 45 cats that had lived with them in their 16-and-a-half-foot camper were taken to the Mohawk Hudson Humane Society in Menands.

— From the Albany County Sheriff’s Office

Confiscated cats: These are some of the 45 felines that were taken from Shirley and Frances Stannard when they were arrested on Monday.

— From the Albany County Sheriff’s Office

Crates await: “The Albany County Animal Response Team partnered with the Mohawk Hudson Humane Society and both responded to the scene,” said the sheriff’s office in a release. The scene was the Hannaford parking lot in Voorheesville where the Stannard sisters had parked their car and camper while they shopped. The crates, stacked outside their camper, were filled with cats and taken to the humane society in Menands.

NEW SCOTLAND — Two days after the Stannard sisters were arrested for failure to provide sustenance to animals, and had 45 cats taken away, an orange tabby circled them as they sat at a picnic table at the town park on Swift Road.

Frances Stannard, who is 73, noted one of the cat’s eyes looked injured; she wanted to help it, but didn’t.

“He’s friendly, you want to help him,” said Shirley Stannard, who is 65.

“You don’t dare,” said Frances as tears filled her eyes.

Nearby was the Stannards’ car, hitched to a 16-and-a-half-foot camping trailer. Since July, they have been living in the trailer, spending their days in local parks and their nights in the lot of a big-box store that allows truckers and others to stay overnight.

They had planned to move south but were waiting to complete government paperwork to get benefits to which they are entitled.

“They’re self-determining adults,” said Susan Kidder, who works for the town of New Scotland as its senior liaison. “We’ve been trying to get them some benefits...They needed help with paperwork...We were a week away from getting squared away. They were headed south for the winter. It breaks my heart.”

The Stannards weren’t able to use a computer and only one can drive, Kidder said.

“They were doing nothing illegal,” said Kidder of the sisters living in a camper over the summer. Kidder had worked with the Stannards in her office at Town Hall. She thought they had 14 cats, the original number of long-time pets they had before they began adding strays.

“That’s an illness,” she said of hoarding. (See below.)

Asked if they would be able to get any mental-health help, Kidder said, “There is nothing like that. You’re not going to change someone who was born and dyed in the wool...It sounds wonderful to say, ‘You have a problem; get help.’ That’s fantasy land.”

After the arrest, Kidder said, “They were in tears. They said, ‘We need our pets back.’ I said, ‘You don’t have enough money to take care of yourselves.’ They feel they do. They feel very lucky ...The saddest part is, now they have to wait for an Oct. 23 court date.”

On Tuesday, the Stannards gave Kidder their cat food, litter, and several crates to donate to a rescue organization. “They thought they were loving them and that was enough,” she said.

“They’re country girls, as they put it; they’re fiercely independent,” said Kidder. “Their cats were the loves of their lives...They were trying to save all the animals in the world.”

The beginning

The Stannards grew up on a farm in Delmar and have always loved animals.

“We’ve always had cats. Our mother had cats,” said Frances. They provided comfort and joy in a life that could be hard.

“Our father had a few milking cows, a few pigs, and chickens,” she went on.

“It was a self-sustaining farm,” said Shirley.

Their mother’s first husband died, leaving her with four children; she met their father in 1931 and they married and had six children. As the older siblings in the large family married and moved out, Shirley, the youngest, and Frances, the second youngest, were left with their father. Their mother had died at the age of 50 in 1956.

Frances moved in with an older man; she lived with him, as his partner, for over 30 years until his death in 1999. She cleaned other people’s houses to earn money.

Shirley continued to live with their father and worked at a bank. She later did housekeeping, too. “I had a very independent lifestyle,” she said. “Sixteen years ago, we both needed to find a new place to live.”

Shirley moved into what was then known as Kissel’s trailer park, off of Route 85 in New Scotland. Each of the sisters had older mobile homes in the trailer park and paid monthly lot rents.

About nine-and-a-half years ago, they moved into the same trailer together.

The trailer park, now called Blackbird Estates, came under new management. “They were phasing out the older homes after Mrs. Kissel died and bringing in new manufactured homes,” said Shirley. She was referring to Irene Kisselberg, who died in 2003; she had owned the park and adjoining garage with her husband, Lauren Kisselberg who died before her.

“Eventually, mobile homes deteriorate,” Shirley went on. “We couldn’t afford the new housing, even the single-wides.”

She estimated that the prices ranged from $50,000 to $75,000 for the new homes, whereas the old trailers could be had for as low as $1,000.

“It was just time to move out,” Frances said of their decision to leave. “My trailer was not fixable anymore. We had to pay for the removal.” Shirley recalled the removal cost was $1,500.

“We had until the end of July to get out,” said Frances.

“We had everything paid up,” said Shirley; the lot rent was $375 monthly, the sisters said.

The Enterprise — Melissa Hale-Spencer
Dream deferred: Shirley Stannard, right, had dreamed of buying land in the South where she could live with her older sister, Frances Stannard, left, and their cats. Since July, the sisters have been living in their Jayco camper while they waited for government paperwork to be completed. With a court date now set for Oct. 23, they believe it will be too cold to follow through with their plans.

 

The dream

“It had always been my dream to hit the road,” said Shirley. “I had an independent life. I wanted to go some place less expensive to live.” She looked at states like West Virginia, Tennessee, Kentucky, the Carolinas, “where you can live on less,” she said.

The Jayco camper they got has a kitchen, with a microwave, a bathroom and beds. It has “three-way power,” said Shirley, naming battery for lights, propane for heat, and the option of electric plug-in “for everything.”

“I was going to leave and get a piece of property...You can still buy an acre of ground for less than a thousand dollars in a rural area. A mountaintop was my dream,” said Shirley.

“It would have been perfect for the cats,” said Frances.

“But we couldn’t get there,” said Shirley.

Paperwork delayed their departure. Shirley turned 65 on July 5, making her eligible for Medicare, she said, and was covered for Part A but had to pay for Part B. “I didn’t have the money,” she said, and was to be reimbursed.

Frances’s financial situation was more complicated. “Since we didn’t marry, I couldn’t get his Social Security,” she said of the man she had lived with for over three decades. “There is no common-law marriage in New York,” she said. “I didn’t make enough with housecleaning to file. I just had enough money to pay my bills....I had to go to SSI,” she said of Supplemental Security Income, a federal program that provides stipends to low-income people who are over 65 or disabled, “and the complications set in.”

“Our original plan,” said Shirley, “was we figured everything would be taken care of in a couple of weeks. But then it was one thing after another.”

They looked into staying at campgrounds but fees averaged $20 a night. “That’s $600 a month,” said Shirley. So they started their peripatetic lifestyle, spending their days in various local parks and their nights in the big-box store lot.

The cats

The Stannards have cared for cats for as long as they can remember.

“We grew up in a time when it was OK to have multiple animals,” said Shirley.

When Shirley moved into the trailer park in 1999, she had eight cats. “That was fine with Mrs. Kissel. She encouraged the tenants to take in strays, as long as the animals were cared for,” Shirley said.

“When I moved in, I had four,” recalled Frances of her move in June 1999. “I acquired two more along the way so I had six.”

But, more recently, the sisters started adding to their combined 14 cats. “We just kept gathering cats,” said Frances.

“It recently snowballed because there were so many strays,” said Shirley. She surmised that people often dump unwanted cats at mobile-home parks.

“They’d show up and be hungry,” said Shirley. “I’ve never been a person who could turn away an animal in need. That’s one of my downfalls....When you care, you try to do what you can. Sometimes you make wrong decisions.”

The arrest

On Sept. 23, the Albany County Sheriff’s Office was contacted by a staff member at the Delmar Animal Hospital who was concerned about the number of cats the hospital had euthanized for the Stannards over the past few months, according to a release from the sheriff’s office.

“It was Zipper,” said Shirley, naming the first in the recent spate of ill cats the Stannards have had to deal with. Zipper, a 13-year-old female, had been one of Shirley’s original pet cats; she had a cancerous growth. “It was getting towards the end of life and I took Zipper to the Delmar Animal Hospital. They euthanized her.” Shirley said it cost over $100.

“Then Freddy — he was 14 — died unexpectedly in his sleep.” He, too, was taken to the animal hospital to be cremated. “I was devastated,” Shirley said of Freddy’s death. “Then one of the strays died in his sleep.”

He, too, was cremated.

“You don’t have your own yard to bury in,” said Shirley. “I didn’t feel I had anything to hide...The next one — so quickly, it threw us in a tizzy — “

“He was 17,” Frances finished the sentence for her sister. “Chucky. He ate and drank that day. He loved it up here. He loved to be outside....We fed all the cats every day and took them out. They were never without food or water.”

Chucky died over Labor Day weekend, the Stannards said. “There was no place we could take him,” said Frances, because of the holiday.

“He died in his sleep. We took him to be cremated that Tuesday,” said Shirley. “Another stray died in its sleep. That was the clincher.”

“Maybe they thought we were killing them off,” said Frances. “We wouldn’t do that..”

When the Stannards went to get gas in Slingerlands, someone told them the sheriff’s office was looking for them because they had too many cats.

“I called the sheriff’s right away,” said Shirley. “I could have disappeared that day, just left town. I wasn’t trying to run away. I know there were mistakes made.”

On Monday, Sept. 29, as the Stannards were parked in the Hannaford lot in Voorheesville to bank and shop, they gave sheriff’s deputies permission to look through their camper.

“Investigation revealed there were 45 cats living in deplorable conditions in the trailer and did not appear to be in good health.,” said the release from the sheriff’s office. “Numerous cats were in obvious distress, including several that were missing eyes and others that appeared to be suffering from diseases. At least one of the cats was pregnant.”

“They took pictures and asked us all kinds of questions,” said Frances. “We told them the truth.”

About “the strong odor of cat urine and feces” the police noted, she said, “We were just going to the Laundromat that day to get everything done.”

“The officers were very nice,” said Shirley.

At first, the sisters thought they would be able to keep their original pets, the old cats.

“They took every single one,” said Frances.

All 45 cats were removed by the Mohawk Hudson Humane Society in Menands for evaluation.

“Talk about devastation,” said Shirley.

The aftermath

“Sometimes you do the wrong things when you’re under a lot of emotional pressure. I do care what people think,” said Shirley.

The Stannards don’t have a television but they have heard reports of their arrest on the radio. They were bothered by some reports that they are a couple rather than sisters but more so by the charge — one count of failure to provide sustenance of animals, which is under the state’s Agricultural and Markets Law.

“We always, always gave them food and water,” said Shirley.

As they listened to reports, they tried to learn what they could about the condition of the cats.

“The important thing is, if they’re getting what they need and not tossed to one side,” said Shirley. “It’s hard enough losing them.”

They worried that humane society staff and others might not understand that, except for their original 14 cats which the sisters had owned and cared for for years, the other cats came to them with many problems — some near starvation, others crippled or blinded.

“We didn’t cause those problems,” said Shirley. “We tried to help them.”

The Mohawk Hudson Humane Society did not return calls from The Enterprise seeking comment.

Asked why they didn’t take the stray cats to a shelter for help, Shirley said they had tried calling rescue groups, which said they could take no more cats. “They were filled up,” said Frances. The Stannards worried that large shelters would kill the cats, they said.

After Monday’s arrest, Frances said, “I haven’t slept good since. I try to eat, but can’t.”

She stands about 4 feet, 10 inches tall and, in the best of times, weighs no more than 100 pounds.

“We loved our animals; we’d had them for years,” said Shirley.

The Stannards will now wait to appear in New Scotland Town Court on Oct. 23. “We don’t know what will happen in court,” said Shirley.

Asked if they still plan to move south, she said, “Things have been so terrible lately, it’s hard to make a long-term decision. Some of the desire and good feeling about taking off has kind of died.”

“I just miss our cats,” said Frances. “I see them everywhere.”

She cried when she said how nice the arresting officers had been. “They apologized,” she said. “Sorry isn’t always enough.”

 


 

How to help hoarders

 

“Hoarders often profess great love for animals,” writes Gary J. Patronek, a veterinarian with a Ph.D. in epidemiology who founded the Hoarding of Animals Research Consortium in 1997 to study the problem of animal hording from the perspective of different disciplines. That paradox makes hoarding cases tough to resolve.

Cats and dogs are the most often hoarded species, but wildlife, dangerous exotic animals, and farm animals have been collected, too. HARC has defined an animal hoarder as someone who has:

— Accumulated a large number of animals, which has overwhelmed that person’s ability to provide even minimal standards of nutrition, sanitation, and veterinary care;

— Failed to acknowledge the deteriorating condition of the animals and the household environment; and

— Failed to recognize the negative effect of the collection on his or her own health and well-being, and on that of household members.

The behavior crosses all demographic and socioeconomic lines. A hoarder, Patronek writes, may claim to be a pet rescuer yet, despite good intentions, hoarders are by definition oblivious to the extreme suffering, obvious to the casual observer, of their animals.

Animal hoarding is not recognized as indicative of any specific psychological disorder, he goes on. Perhaps the most prominent psychological feature of these individuals is that pets become central to the hoarder’s core identity. Preliminary HARC interviews also suggest that hoarders grew up in chaotic households, with inconsistent parenting, in which animals may have ben the only stable feature.

Some community attempt to either prevent or remedy hoarding situations by passing ordinances that limit the number of pets a person can own. There is no data to indicate whether these measures are effective, but, Patronek writes, what is known is that they are wildly unpopular, difficult to enforce, and likely to be opposed by a board coalition of pet fanciers, breeders, rescue groups, and animal protection organizations.

The HARC, which maintains a website with reference material, has these case management recommendations:

— Many people have difficulty feeling sympathy or even respect towards hoarders. By maintaining an awareness of their own emotional responses, the individuals attempting to intervene are likely to find it easier to retain perspective:

— Do not assume a mental health problem is present. It may be usefl to refer the hoarder to a clinician with extensive experience in assessing and diagnosing people with a wide range of mental health problems;

— Encouraging the hoarder to seek medical attention might be appropriate. In view of hoarders’ financial problems, the hoarder might need social service help to obtain adequate medical services;

— Much of the hoarder’s identity may be tied to his or her possessions; therefore, giving up anything can be associated with tremendous fear, apprehension, and even grief-like reaction. If possible, avoid any discussion of reduction in number of animals initially, as this will likely evoke strong resistance from the hoarder and be a barrier to future communication. Slow reductions in the number of animals may be much more palatable and lead to greater cooperation;

— Hoarders often firmly believe they are providing quality care and have special empathy with the animals. It may be helpful to acknowledge their attempts to provide care, however unsuccessful, and their special connection with animals, so as to gain their confidence and trust. Their caregiving may be a conduit to communication;

— Expect denial of the problem on the part of the hoarder. There is probably little point in arguing about what may appear to be a serious lapse in care, or insensitivity to obvious suffering. Hoarders are often not lying; they lack the insight to appreciate the true conditions present;

— Hoarders often view the world as a very hostile place for both animals and people. This, coupled with the role the animals play in their lives, will make them doubly suspicious about the motive of those seeking to help. Carefully consider your approach. Avoid badges or other official paraphernalia, if possible. It may be helpful to identify a friend, neighbor, family member, or possibly a veterinarian to intercede, or act as an intermediary;

—  Instead of arguing about the household conditions, consider analyzing function — what the individual cannot do because of the hoarding. For example, are they having trouble cooking, or affording pet food, or sleeping? Working on these issues could e a conduit to trust and better communication that will let you indirectly work on the animal-hoarding problem;

— Hoarders may have problems concentrating and staying on track with any management plan. Be prepared for a long-term process and frequent monitoring of the situation; and

— Treat each hoarding case as unique. Avoid a one-size-fits-all protocol that can jeopardize the sensitivity to the individual needs of each case.

More New Scotland News

  • The New Scotland Town Board unanimously adopted the budget at its Nov. 9 meeting, where it also discussed the need for new planning board members due to the impending resignation of Christine Galvin and previous departure of board alternate Robert Davies.

  • But now, nearly 12 months after it rescinded its objection to the deal, the village of Voorheesville finds itself in roughly the same position it did in December 2021, with the Quiet Zone project appearing to be back on track, only now Voorheesville could be looking at $50,000 in annual maintenance costs for the two safety gates it’s been pining after for a decade.

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