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'Cat hoarder' fined for animal cruelty

Penny March, founder of the Forgotten Felines no-kill cat shelter, was fined $500 after pleading guilty to animal cruelty charges on Jan. 9.  - South Delta Leader files
Penny March, founder of the Forgotten Felines no-kill cat shelter, was fined $500 after pleading guilty to animal cruelty charges on Jan. 9.
— image credit: South Delta Leader files

The saga of Forgotten Felines came to close earlier this month as the woman behind the no-kill cat shelter pleaded guilty to animal cruelty in B.C. Provincial Court in Surrey.

Penny March, 60, who was referred to as a "cat hoarder" by some people in the animal rescue service, spent nearly 20 years rescuing feral cats in the Lower Mainland.

Although March was fined $500 on Jan. 9 for pleading guilty to one count of causing an animal to be in distress, the B.C. SPCA estimates as many as 500 feral cats were in her care at the height of her problems.

"We've dealt with Penny over the years on a number of occasions and I think it really is an issue with someone becoming overwhelmed with the number of cats in her care," said Lorie Chortyk, general manager of community relations for B.C. SPCA. "It's always that fine line you walk where you have someone who has the best of intentions but when they're taking in far more animals than they can properly care for we have to intervene if animals are in distress."

Chortyk said the SPCA encourages rescue groups to only take in a number of animals it can adequately care for.

The charity, which was started in 1990 by March, first came to the attention of the SPCA in 2002, when volunteers complained about the living conditions of the animals in her care.

The cats were housed in a long, loft-type space in the top half of a barn in the 9000-block section of Ladner Trunk Road. A hallway ran in between high, wired cages where cats huddled beside heat lamps, under comforters or in decrepit chairs.

The SPCA visited in November 2007 by search warrant, noting troubling conditions of the care, but did not seize any animals.

Another search warrant was executed on Sept. 24, 2008, when the SPCA and veterinarians descended on the shelter. What they found was shocking.

"The cats were suffering from life-threatening neglect and many were in critical distress," said Eileen Drever, senior animal protection officer for the B.C. SPCA in a followup report.

Cats were found emaciated, dehydrated, and extremely sick, many with leukaemia or FIV (the feline form of HIV). The bodies of two decomposing cats were also found on the premises.

Drever said it was an "appalling situation."

On the advice of veterinarians, 51 cats were immediately removed. Even under emergency care, five more cats died within hours. A further 10 were humanely euthanized at a later date, although 36 others were adopted to new homes following proper medical care.

“The veterinary report, which outlines the medical condition of each animal examined during the investigation, contains some of the most damning and disturbing evidence of animal neglect the SPCA has ever witnessed,” Drever said.

As many as 125 cats remained in her custody following the raid.

Forgotten Felines billed itself as Metro Vancouver’s largest, “100 per cent donor-funded, true ‘no-kill’ cat shelter dedicated to the care and protection of hundreds of abandoned and forgotten cats and kittens found on the streets.”

March once said her registered charity required between $100,000 and $200,000 to run annually.

Animal cruelty charges were laid March 26, 2009, based on evidence gathered by the SPCA.

March was later evicted from the Ladner barn by landowner John van Dongen Sr., uncle to B.C.'s solicitor general at the time, for failure to pay rent. Van Dongen filed a petition in B.C. Supreme Court in February 2009 claiming $4,500 in back rent and charging that March had allowed her liability insurance to lapse.

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