Make room at the table for those in need

The quality of mercy is not strained;

It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven

Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest;

It blesseth him that gives and him that takes....

— Portia, in William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice



The Stannard sisters dream of their cats; they talk of them like ghosts.

“It’s like I feel a cat in bed with me,” said 73-year old Frances Stannard.

It’s a gentle haunting. She also felt as if one of her cats had rubbed against her leg, she said.

“I believe animals have spirits that live on,” said her sister, 65-year-old Shirley Stannard. “You can almost hear them breathing,” she said.

The two sisters were arrested on Sept. 29 on one count each of failure to provide sustenance to animals, a misdemeanor. After hearing from the Delmar Animal Hospital where, the sisters say, they had taken their pets for treatment and cremation for 40 years, the Albany County Sheriff’s Office reported its investigation “revealed there were 45 cats living in deplorable conditions” in the Stannards’ camper.

The Stannards, forced out of the New Scotland trailer park where they had lived, had bought a 16-foot camper with the idea of traveling south. Having grown up on a hardscrabble farm in Bethlehem, they had long found comfort taking in stray cats. Shirley had eight cats and Frances had six when they started taking in more strays — far too many, they concede.

Their trip south — they dreamed of living on a mountaintop where their cats would thrive — was delayed first because of the wait to complete government paperwork to get the benefits to which they are entitled. It has now been delayed because of their wait to be heard in court. They are next scheduled for Jan. 29.

The Stannards first appeared in New Scotland Town Court on Oct. 23 and were back again on Nov. 20. The night before, Nov. 19, was a cold one. For the first time, they left their camper and slept in a women’s shelter called Mercy House, run by Catholic Charities. They worried how they would maneuver their camper in the snow and also about how plowing would get done in the Walmart parking lot where they had been sleeping in their camper for three-and-a-half months.

The Stannards are on several lists, waiting for subsidized housing. “Money is an issue,” said Shirley Stannard.

She also said they were “flabbergasted” to read in The Enterprise that 30 of their cats were euthanized at the Mohawk Hudson Humane Society where the cats were taken when the sisters were arrested.

“That’s what we were trying to avoid,” said Shirley Stannard. The sisters took in and kept the stray cats, they said, because they worried, if they took them to a shelter instead, the cats would be killed. They say their cats, many of which had problems when they took them in, always had food and water.

They’ve made up lists of their cats and tried to figure out which ones might have been euthanized.  “I’m afraid it’s two of my older ones,” said Shirley Stannard. “Big Girl had a respiratory problem her whole life. We treated it with Benadryl. She could see but she had film over her eyes.”

As we approach Thanksgiving Day, when many of us will be feasting and celebrating the bounty of our land, we feel for two old women who have worked hard all their lives and are left with so little. Cleaning other people’s homes isn’t easy work and it’s a largely thankless job. They have no family who will take them in. Their glasses are taped, their sleeves are frayed — yet they hold on to their pride.

“We’re not homeless,” said Shirley Stannard, pointing to their camper, after media reports last fall labeled them homeless.

“We’re not leaving town,” she said after court last Thursday. “I don’t want it down on record I’m an animal abuser, because I’m not.”

So what went wrong here, and how can it be fixed?

Certainly, it is bad for cats to be hurt. But it is also bad for people to be hurt. No one person or agency is at fault. Each of us involved in this saga has played our parts without malice and with good intentions, yet 30 cats are dead and two women are suffering.

The town of New Scotland’s senior liaison, Susan Kidder, believed the sisters when they said they had 14 cats, their original pets. She helped them with paperwork to get their benefits but had never visited their camper.

When we asked if they could get any mental-health help, she 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.”

Veterinarian Carrie O’Loughlin at the Delmar Animal Hospital told us, “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.”

The sheriff’s office was lenient when deputies arrested the sisters for one count each of failure to provide sustenance to animals; each could have been charged with 45 counts. “The Stannards were known to the sheriff’s office in that they have been seen around New Scotland living out of their camper trailer and were homeless,” said the release announcing their arrest. Shirley Stannard said she called the sheriff’s office when she heard deputies were looking for her and her sister. She pointed out they could have left town then, but did not.

The director of the Mohawk Hudson Humane Society, Brad Shear, said the 30 cats that were euthanized were “past saving.” He also told us, “Once you have 44 cats in an 8-by-15 foot trailer, there isn’t any way they can be well cared for…You’d have to be mentally ill to live in those conditions and not see a problem.”

He pointed out 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.

Such a disorder should be addressed in the mental-health system rather than the legal system. That is a worthy goal to work toward in the future.

But what about the here and now? The Stannards were arrested and are facing misdemeanor charges in town court.

The New Scotland judge who heard the Stannards in October, Margaret Adkins, immediately appointed a public defender for them, Michael Jurena, rather than having them go through the usual paperwork to be assigned one. Jurena told us last Friday he had been busy with a murder trial so hadn’t been able to return the Stannards’ calls. “They’re not criminals,” he told us. “Things spiraled out of control…I’d like to see them with a small fine and sent on their way.”

Before the bench last Friday, the Stannards were told they could not have pets, an order Adkins had issued in October at the insistence of Renee Merges, an assistant district attorney, who said then she’d be prosecuting the case.

Jurena told the judge that a special prosecutor in the district attorney’s office is still reviewing the case and hasn’t decided how to proceed.

“You ladies are not leaving town?” asked Judge Adkins.

Jurena said, if they did, he would represent them in their absence.

“I was hoping it would be over,” said a disappointed Shirley Stannard afterward. “It’s very painful. We’re not going to run away…We can’t ever forget what happened. To have the court case continue on and on doesn’t give us relief.”

“We’ll never forget,” said Frances Stannard. “We just want to get on with our lives.”

“You need time to recover,” said Shirley Stannard. “Everything that led up to this…having to move,” she said of leaving the trailer park where they had lived for 16 years. “It’s so overwhelming.”

We at The Enterprise are not exempt from a role in this. As members of the press, we reported on the Stannards’ arrest. Other media left it at that, searing an impression of animal abusers into many minds. This has made the sisters feel like outcasts.

Among the dozen or so women at Mercy House — “Some of the people, their stories are so sad,” said Shirley Stannard — the sisters have felt welcome. Because many of the women have been addicted to drugs or alcohol, there are strict rules, the Stannards said. “It’s three strikes and you’re out,” said Shirley Stannard. “They keep everything respectful.”

A small miracle occurred at the aptly named Mercy House.

“They all said hello to us,” said Frances Stannard. “They know about us,” she said, referring to the headlines about animal abuse. “And they’re not shunning us.”

“We found support,” agreed her sister.

That is a lesson each of us should heed in this time of Thanksgiving — not to shun another person. The pilgrims, after all, survived the harsh wilderness of the New World because the natives, rather than shunning them, taught them useful skills.

We should seek the whole truth and not judge before we fully understand.

Perhaps such an approach would have led to help for the Stannard sisters before, as their lawyer said, things spiraled out of control. Would the stray cats the sisters took in have died instead in the wild, one at a time and unknown?

Could help along the way from the town’s liaison, the veterinarian, or the sheriff’s office that knew they were living in a camper have made a difference?

Are we, as a society, not seeing — truly seeing — the suffering in our midst? Do we have good intentions but no system to rectify the situation, to prevent further harm to humans and animals alike?

The Stannard sisters may have had good intentions but didn’t have the wherewithal to follow through. Then they could not see or rectify the suffering in their midst. They need our help, as a civilized society, not our condemnation.

Melissa Hale-Spencer

More Editorials

The Altamont Enterprise is focused on hyper-local, high-quality journalism. We produce free election guides, curate readers' opinion pieces, and engage with important local issues. Subscriptions open full access to our work and make it possible.