A family of five adults faces felony child endangerment charges for allegedly exposing two children to "severely unsanitary conditions" by living in a urine- and feces-filled home in Santa Ana with 110 cats.
The two girls, ages 6 and 12, now reside elsewhere while the five adults, whose ages range from 23 to 68, must answer to counts that could bring sentences ranging from probation to eight years in state prison with convictions.
According to an arraignment statement from the Orange County District Attorney's office (OCDA), Sharon Lynn Howe, 65, and her granddaughter Courtney Lynn Howe Perez, 23, used their home to house unwanted cats, obtaining felines from animal shelters under the pretense of operating a rescue organization that would find the animals permanent homes.
In February, Animal Services officers from the Santa Ana Police Department received complaints from neighbors about a foul animal odor emanating from the residence. Responding officers arrived and noticed from the outside an intense odor of urine and feces and live and dead flies congregating around the windows and doors.
Officers entered the home wearing paper masks but had to leave after only a few minutes due to feeling ill from the overwhelming smell. They returned wearing full hazmat gear including body suits and respirators. They observed feces and urine all over the floors and other surfaces, as well as cat hair, roaches, and flies.
Severe ammonia exposure, which can be caused due to exposure to urine, can cause health problems for humans including respiratory illness, eye irritation, headaches, burns, nausea, vomiting, dizziness, and shortness of breath. Officers say they discovered one child slept in the living room on a couch, surrounded by cats and constantly exposed to the smell of feces and urine. The second child slept in a bedroom under the same conditions.
According to prosecutors, at least one child had scratches from the cats on her arms and legs. Both girls had cat feces caked on their feet from walking barefoot in the home even after the officers were allowed inside.
Child Protective Services was contacted, but were not admitted into the home due to the health and safety risks. By the time police officers arrived, the girls were not there, but the adults were advised the children could not come back to those conditions and would be taken into protective custody if other accommodations could not be provided. Kerri and Jessy Moreno found alternative housing in February for the girls, according to the OCDA.
Animal Services reports 110 cats were captured inside of the home, many of them feral. Each was taken in separate carriers for examination and medical treatment. More than 20 had to be euthanized, while all survivors had severe flea infestations, according to prosecutors, who add that half suffered serious upper respiratory infections, 25 percent had ear mites, and 25 percent had fecal and urinary contamination of their coats.
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The total veterinary cost to treat the 110 cats exceeded $10,000, says the OCDA.
Sharon Howe, Courtney Perez and other adults in the household--the elder woman's husband, John Ed Howe, 68; their daughter Kerri Lynn Howe Moreno, 44; and Moreno's husband Jessy Moreno, 41--are accused of failing to protect and endangering the two children by having them to live in a severely unsanitary and unsafe environment. Sharon Howe and Courtney Perez are further alleged to have abused the cats by keeping them in an unsanitary environment and failing to provide food, water, and proper medical care.
John Howe and the Morenos face sentences ranging from probation to up to seven years and four months in state prison if convicted. With the additional animal cruelty counts, Sharon Howe and Courtney Perez could be slapped with probation up to eight years in state prison if convicted. All five are scheduled to be arraigned Jan. 18 in Santa Ana.
None of the adults returned to the home. All the surviving cats have been adopted by families or rescue organizations.