Stannards assigned a lawyer and court date

The Enterprise — Melissa Hale-Spencer

After court: Shirley Stannard, left, and her sister, Frances, appeared in New Scotland Town Court on Oct. 23 after being arrested on Sept. 29 for one count of failure to provide sustenance to animals. They live in a camper trailer and had 45 cats, which were taken by the Mohawk Hudson Humane Society. The Stannards were assigned a public defense lawyer and are scheduled to appear in town court again on Nov. 20. They have put aside their plans to travel south in their camper.

NEW SCOTLAND — The Stannard sisters — 73-year-old Frances and 65-year-old Shirley — sat side by side, waiting quietly for their turn before the judge in New Scotland Town Court on Oct. 23. They grew up in the area — on a farm in Delmar, part of a large family that had taken in strays — and for the last 16 years had lived in a trailer park in New Scotland but had never been to town court before, and didn’t know what to expect.

The Stannards were arrested by sheriff’s deputies on Sept. 29 on one count of failure to provide sustenance of animals. Their 45 cats were taken to the Mohawk Hudson Humane Society in Menands. Since August, the Stannards have been living in a 16-and-a-half foot camping trailer, hitched to the back of their car.

The sisters had lived at Kissel’s trailer park, off of Route 85 in New Scotland but, when the park came under new management, now called Blackbird Estates, “We couldn’t afford the new housing, even the single-wides,” said Shirley Stannard. She estimated the prices for the new manufactured homes ranged from $50,000 to $75,000 whereas old trailers could be had for as low as $1,000.

When the Stannards left the trailer park this summer, after paying $1,500 to remove their old trailer, they bought a camper with the idea of traveling south and the dream of buying a small piece of land to live on.

After their arrest, they waited for their court appearance. On Oct. 23, they were assigned a public defender, Michael Jurena, and another court date, Nov. 20.

The school-auditorium-turned courtroom was packed with defendants for the usual cases of speeding and drunk driving as well as two score college students, from Siena and Southern Vermont, learning about law enforcement. The judge, Margaret Adkins, was both cordial and stern, juggling multiple tasks while the court clerk by her side, Sue Gruss, was matter-of-factly efficient as she kept papers in order and collected fines.

At one point, Renee Merges, with the Albany County District Attorney’s Office, was forcefully addressing the students: “Hold on! Hold on!” she shouted.

“Did she say, ‘Hold on’ to me?” asked the judge.

The sisters listened as Adkins, following a spate of speeding cases, addressed the courtroom at large, saying, “If you want to beg, cry, plea, say that puppies were being born in the back of the car…If you have a story to tell, enter a not-guilty plea.”

The sisters expected they might be fined and required to perform community service. They listened as a young man in a crisp white shirt and a blue necktie had his case, for unlawful possession of marijuana, adjourned in contemplation of dismissal, meaning, if he is not arrested again in six months, his arrest will be sealed.

His mother, who had been knitting, and his father stood by him at the bench. He was assigned 40 hours of community service as the judge listed some local organizations that could use help — a firehouse, the Hilltown Christmas project, the Helderberg Garden Club.

With the mention of the last organization, Merges, made a quip about “the nature of the offense,” causing a ripple of laughter across the rows of students seated to the left of the judge.

“Mrs. Gruss has a list of people,” Adkins continued, unperturbed. “Do you think he’ll do the garden club?… Yes, his mother says yes.”

Then, Adkins looked directly at the young man and addressed him sternly, saying, “I should not have to say this. You cannot be back here in trouble. Use your brain. If you want to go to college….”

The Stannard sisters listened as the judge explained to others several times, “You have a right to have an attorney…If you cannot afford an attorney or believe you cannot afford an attorney, I will give you information to apply through the public defender’s office.”

“We didn’t think we’d need an attorney,” Shirley Stannard said after they were finished in court.

“It’s not yesterday,” her sister added.

About an hour and 15 minutes into the court session, when the sisters were called to the bench, Adkins asked, “Mr. Jurena, would you be kind enough to stand in?”

He nodded assent.

Adkins consulted the papers before her and said the Stannards were charged with two counts each of animal cruelty, under the state’s Agriculture and Markets Law.

Merges stated to both the students and Adkins, “The two ladies are charged with felonies.” She asked that the court forbid the two defendants from having any animals at all pending the outcome of the case. Merges said there was “probable cause” to believe animals would be “in danger.”

Merges, who said she is prosecuting the case for the district attorney’s office, told The Enterprise afterward she made her comments “because it was such a large number of animals.”

Actually, each of the Stannards was arrested on a single misdemeanor charge. Although Gruss noted the arrest report said two counts, an officer present in court said, “The arrest report must be wrong. We could have done a count for every cat,” he said, which would have been 45. “We did just one count.”

Adkins asked the Stannards if there would be “a conflict issue” meaning their interests wouldn’t be the same and they would therefore each need a lawyer. The sisters indicated there was no conflict and briefly met together with Jurena before returning to the bench.

Adkins ordered the Stannards to “not have pets of any type.”

She also told them, “You have the right to counsel…What I have done on your behalf is appoint an attorney.” Adkins set Nov. 20 as the date for their next court appearance.

“I own up to it”

Jurena told The Enterprise afterward that the Stannards had said of losing their cats, “They took away our children.”

Shirley Stannard originally had eight cats and Frances Stannard had six, so, when they moved in together, that made 14. Then, they began taking in more strays, they said.

Standing outside the courtroom, Shirley Stannard said, “We were hoping something would be settled tonight…We love animals. We screwed up because we’re human beings. We lost our family and our friends. We never meant any harm. We’re not monsters.”

Jurena copied papers the Stannards had brought to court — bills from the Delmar Animal Hospital. The Stannards were concerned because it was widely reported in the media — based on a release from the sheriff’s office — that the sheriff’s office “was contacted by a staff member at the Delmar Animal Hospital who was concerned about the number of cats they had euthanized for the Stannards over the past few months; there have been five since August,” the Sept. 30 release said.

The bills from the Delmar Animal Hospital show that one cat was euthanized, for $188, and four were cremated for $68.75 each. The cat the Stannards had euthanized was Zipper, the sisters said; she was a 13-year-old female that had been one of Shirley Stannard’s original pets and had a cancerous growth.

The other four cats were not euthanized but brought to the animal hospital to be cremated, the Stannards said: Freddy, a 14-year-old original pet who died in his sleep; Chucky, a 17-and-a-half-year-old original pet who also died in his sleep; and then two of the recently taken-in stray cats — Teddy and Biddy, two of “the youngsters.”

Asked about the discrepancy between the sheriff’s release and the Stannards’ account of their bills, Dr. Carrie O’Loughlin, veterinarian with the Delmar Animal Hospital, said, “Legally, I can’t say”; she cited patient-client privilege.

However, she commented, in general terms of veterinarians, “Just like a health-care person or school teacher, as part of our medical licensing, if we think there is animal abuse going on, we are required to report it.” She said of the Stannards’ situation, “I asked animal control to take a look.”

Asked if the veterinarians often come across cases of animal hoarding, O’Loughlin said, “Thankfully, no.”

The Stannards worry about what happened to their cats. “I’m scared to find out,” said Shirley Stannard.

“I’m not sure we want to know,” said Frances Stannard. “We had some that needed a lot of help.”

“They came to us that way,” said Shirley Stannard. “People would ask, ‘Why not take them to a shelter?’ We didn’t want them euthanized. We thought we’d try other paths. We screwed up.”

Shirley Stannard also said, “We don’t expect to hear from the shelter. They didn’t like us.”

“They had in mind not to like us,” said Frances Stannard. “It was their attitude.”

When, on Sept 29, the day of the arrest, the humane society staffers came to take the cats from the Stannards’ camper in Voorheesville’s Hannaford parking lot, “They didn’t even acknowledge us,” said Shirley Stannard. “It was like we were nothing.”

Brad Shear, the executive director of the Mohawk Hudson Humane Society, said this week that 30 of the Stannards’ cats were euthanized. “They were past saving,” he said. Ten have been adopted.

“We still have four here,” said Shear. That adds up to 44 although the sheriff’s release said, “There were 45 cats living in deplorable conditions.”

Asked about the society’s policy for euthanizing, Shear said, “There’s no time limit.” Healthy animals with appropriate behavior for adoption are kept alive, he said.

“We treat when treatable,” he said. “A lot of these were beyond treatment,” he said of the Stannards’ cats. “Once you have 44 cats in an 8-by-15-foot trailer, there isn’t any way they can be well cared for,” said Shear.

Asked if staff had noticed a difference between the condition of the Stannards’ long-time pets and the many other cats they had more recently taken in, Shear said, “They all needed treatment. Any difference was in their minds, not in reality.”

He went on to say that just last year hoarding was recognized as a mental illness in The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders used by psychiatrists and other mental-health professionals. “That’s fairly new to the psychiatric community,” said Shear, who has been with the humane society for seven-and-a-half years. “Those of us in animal welfare have seen it a long time.”

Shear said, “You’d have to be mentally ill to live in those conditions and not see a problem.” He continued, “It’s unfortunate it’s addressed with the legal system instead of the mental-health system.”

Asked about the Stannards’ assertion that humane society workers who took their cats acted as if they weren’t there, Shear said, “In that situation, police officers deal with the people. We end up being expert witnesses if there’s a trial.”

He noted the tasks of taking animals from their owners can be “emotional,” and said, “We don’t want to aggravate the situation.”

Although the Mohawk and Hudson Humane Society deals with two or three cases of hoarding a year, Shear said that the case with the Stannards was unusual “because of how sick the cats were.”

He also noted that, while the organization aids police departments when called on in such situations, “We are solely donor-funded.” No funds are provided to care for the animals by police agencies.

“We’re not stupid people,” Shirley Stannard said outside of the courtroom. “We know we should have handled this differently.”

“We won’t be smelling like a rose,” her sister agreed.

“You’ve got to hear a story before you pass judgment,” said Shirley Stannard. “I’m not a monster. I’m not evil. I’ve made mistakes. I own up to it.”

More New Scotland News

  • 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.

  • 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.

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