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Gone but not forgotten

Cindy Walsh had her animals taken five years ago. Now the county wants $380,000 for three months of their upkeep.

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How much does it cost to care for a dove for two months? San Luis Obispo County claims it cost $1,020 to take care of a single dove for 63 days. In fact, the county kept 23 birds for that long and the tab adds up to more than $26,000; far more than what someone would spend on birdseed for the backyard.

The bill for the birds along with nearly 100 other animals cared for by the county totals more than a third of a million dollars—and one person is stuck with the tab: Cindi Walsh, their former owner.

Four years ago, Walsh became notorious for her brood, many of which she kept in her house. She was arrested and charged with animal cruelty for owning 83 dogs, seven cats, four goats, 26 birds and one duck. The duck was named Clarence.

“I miss that duck,” said Walsh sadly on a recent February afternoon. “Clarence was a good duck.”

She doesn’t know what happened to Clarence or any of the other animals that were taken from her. The county animal shelter adopted out her animals before her trial began.

Walsh provoked a lot of news coverage when her animals were seized. She was vilified in many media as an animal abuser. Within a week of her arrest, PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) demanded she never be allowed to own animals again, even before the facts of the case were known publically.

As the case progressed, it became evident Walsh was not a monster. Walsh bought enormous amounts of food for her animals, as well as making many trips to the veterinarian.

Several animal experts said at the time of her trial that the conditions her animals experienced in the county animal shelter were worse than those when they lived with her. In fact her brood actually grew larger after they were removed from her: one of her dogs became pregnant at the shelter and had puppies. A few of her animals died before they had a chance to be adopted.

After a three-week trial, a jury convicted her of misdemeanor animal abuse but deadlocked on the felony counts. She served 10 days in county jail.

Walsh admits she had too many animals but she doesn’t like being called a hoarder. To her, being called a hoarder implies she didn’t take care of the animals. She recites a long list of daily chores she did for them and still remembers all their names. “I know I had too many animals,” Walsh admits. “They were my life and I took care of them. I really did.”

It seems the judge understood she was not a true animal abuser. After she was convicted, the judge let Walsh have two dogs; two Pekinese, one named Sushi and the other Peking. She said they have comforted her. Sometimes though, the past returns.

After the trial, she spotted one of her dogs in a restaurant in Arroyo Grande. The dog recognized her and strained to see her. The new owner let her hold the dog for a little while.

“That was the only one I ever saw again,” Walsh said quietly, with tears in her eyes.

Though she says she has put the trial behind her, the case still looms large in her life now as she deals with the county coming after her for the huge bill. She is trying to fight the bill in court. To her, the short time the animals were at the county animal shelter could not possibly have cost what the county is charging.

During the short time her animals were at the shelter, they were treated to an array of medical treatments. Most of the dogs had dental work. Most of those had teeth pulled; some had as many as 30 removed (dogs have no more than 42). Every dog received a teeth cleaning that cost $50.

The birds were charged at the same rate as that for a dog or a farm animal. The final bill came to $128,844.23 for a little more than three months of care for all her animals. The county is charging more than 15 percent interest, compounded monthly.

The records of the built-up fees are difficult to unravel, the numbers have grown spectacularly. Sometimes a $50,000 charge appears for no evident reason. The bill amounted to $381,049.94 as of December.

At the time of the trial, it was revealed that local vets had volunteered to work on the animals for free. Their offers were turned down and the veterinary work reportedly was done by the same veterinary office where Erik Anderson, who heads the county animal shelter, sometimes worked.

Walsh has appeared in court 14 times since she testified she could not pay the bill. Through it all, she wishes the county had given her warnings so that she could have reduced the number of animals she had.

“I just wish that the thousands of dollars [spent] prosecuting me was put into improving the conditions of animals at the county animal shelter,” Walsh said.

Though Walsh claims she doesn’t have the money to pay the bill, she doesn’t seem very worried.

 “You see they took my animals and that was my whole life,” she said. “They can’t take much more away from me.”

Staff Writer Robert A. McDonald can be reached at rmcdonald@newtimesslo.com

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