Volunteer who found dead cat last year, veterinarian who saw it Friday dispute ‘bucket of water’ claim

By Cynthia Prairie
©2016 Telegraph Publishing LLC

A volunteer at Webster’s House and the veterinarian who was on scene Friday are independently disputing a weekend news report that a dead cat found on the site that afternoon was “wrapped in a plastic bag, floating in a bucket of water in back of the building.” And both the volunteer and shelter manager are disputing reports that the cause of death was drowning and that the cat’s death was recent.

Carla Westine

Webster’s House volunteer Carla Westine vacuums the floor on Tuesday as a cat perches behind her. Photos by Cynthia Prairie.

In an interview on Monday, Carla Westine, who has been a volunteer at the animal rescue organization for seven years and serves as chairman of the Chester Development Review Board, said the cat died of undetermined causes in the fall of 2015. She said she knows this to be true because she is the person who discovered the dead cat at that time, then placed it near the stone wall, where it was found on Friday, about seven months later. “She was not drowned,” Westine said emphatically.

In an interview on Tuesday, Dr. Thomas Olney of the Rockingham Veterinarian Clinic, who was at the shelter on Friday conducting medical evaluations of the shelter’s cats, also denied the Rutland Herald report that he had said the cat’s death was recent because it still had its fur. He told The Telegraph, “I never said that it died recently. If it had been there for months in the summer, the carcass would have been intact.” He added, “There was no bucket.” Olney said he was never interviewed for any story on Friday.

The claim that the cat was “floating in a bucket of water,” made in the weekend Rutland Herald, was seen by some as proof that the shelter was cruel to the animals. The 16-year-old Chester organization has also been under investigation by the Chester Police Department for a report of animal cruelty. The findings from that ongoing investigation are being given to the State’s Attorney’s office.

“I never said that it died recently … There was no bucket.”

Dr. Thomas Olney

Chester Police Chief Rick Cloud said on Friday that he believes that if charges are brought, they would be misdemeanors. Coincidentally, more than a week ago, the organization also was asked by its longtime landlord to vacate its home at 1758 Route 103 South. Several humane societies have stepped in to place the 39 cats; and 12 remain in need of homes. The Vermont Volunteer Services for Animals Humane Society has been helping to place cats and is also taking part in the investigation.

When contacted early Monday about the latest allegation, VVSA director Sue Skaskiw said that she could not discuss the investigation.

Cat died last fall, volunteer says

Westine said that she works at Webster’s House every Tuesday, cleaning the floors inside the shelter, changing litter pans and providing fresh food and water for all the cats. She then checks the outdoor pens and those litter boxes as well. It’s a routine she says she has performed every single Tuesday for the seven years she has volunteered.

The cat found on Friday was from a family of feral cats, Westine said. It, another mother cat and their kittens were brought to Webster’s in the fall of last year. The mothers, she said, were “totally feral,” although the kittens could be handled somewhat.  Like many feral cats, they will run and hide from humans, which this one did, escaping a cage and into the shelter proper. Volunteers could not find the cat, Westine said, adding that she is unsure of the exact time of the cat’s arrival and disappearance.

“I left her in the litter box, popped the top off, got another pan and put it on top … put the whole thing in a black plastic bag, secured it tightly and moved it back near the stone wall.”

Carla Westine
on the dead cat she found last fall

She did, however, state that on another Tuesday in the fall, she had begun working on the outside pens when she spotted a black cat in the lidded white litter pan. It did not move and, when she took off the top, Westine said she was hit by the putrid smell. “I found the black escaped cat dead in the litter box. Flies were coming out of its mouth, rigor had set in and it had a million insects on it,” she said.

Because of her routine, she said, the cat could not have been dead more than seven days and likely, considering the warm weather, much less. So how did the cat end up at the back of the property?  Westine said that the protocol is to place the dead animal in a tightly sealed plastic bag and put it in the chest freezer for burial later.

“If she hadn’t been in that state I would have done just that,” Westine said. Instead, “I left her in the litter box, popped the top off, got another pan and put it on top” like a coffin. She said she then “put the whole thing in a black plastic bag, secured it tightly and moved it back near the stone wall,” where she put a heavy stone on top to prevent wild animals from getting to the carcass and eating it.

“It (the cat) was in a litter box. There was some water in it, but the black bag was ripped, so it could have come from that. It had all of its fur, its ears intact. It’s hard to say when it died.”

Dr. Thomas Olney

Westine said she expected that it would be buried when the three cats in the freezer were. Cats who die at the shelter are buried by a friend of the organization, a farmer who, according to shelter manager Mary Donaldson, “gives them a proper burial” on his land.

But those burials never took place because, according to Westine and Donaldson, VVSA took the frozen carcasses as part of its probe into the initial cruelty complaint and the two had forgotten about the cat out back.  Westine said that this spring, they would have found her while doing yard work, then had her buried.

Donaldson said she was inside the shelter late Friday afternoon when the dead cat was found out back, about 35 feet from the building. “Sue (Skaskiw of VVSA) went out there then asked me to come out,” she said. She said she refused to walk to the wall because of a back problem that the “soft ground” could exacerbate. But Skaskiw did take a picture and showed it to her, Donaldson said, adding that, “The cat looked long dead. All I could see was black or brown fur laying in a litter pan. It wasn’t a cat I recognize.”

In an interview, Dr. Olney recounted what he saw Friday. “It (the cat) was in a litter box. There was some water in it, but the black bag was ripped, so it could have come from that. It had all of its fur, its ears intact. It’s hard to say when it died.” The Telegraph then offered Westine’s description. Olney responded, “It was exactly as (she) described.”

Both Westine and Olney say that they do no know one another and have never spoken to each other.

Westine expressed sadness about the turn of events for the shelter. “There are hundreds and hundreds of good and happy tales to be told about that place,” Westine said.

If you’d like to apply to adopt one of the remaining 12 cats, call 802-875-7777. Webster’s House is slated for closure on July 1.

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About the Author: Cynthia Prairie has been a newspaper editor more than 40 years. Cynthia has worked at such publications as the Raleigh Times, the Baltimore News American, the Buffalo Courier Express, the Chicago Sun-Times and the Patuxent Publishing chain of community newspapers in Maryland, and has won numerous state awards for her reporting. As an editor, she has overseen her staffs to win many awards for indepth coverage. She and her family moved to Chester, Vermont in 2004.

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  1. Wayne says:

    It would be interesting to find the reporter’s reaction, Susan Smallheer. Just curious, any attempt to contact her?