COLUMBIA — Wednesday was a difficult day in court for Susan Kohler, but Friday could be a lot tougher. That's the day Kohler, who pleaded guilty to animal abuse months after Animal Control discovered 33 of her cats in a filthy motel room, will have to pick the three she can keep.
"It's going to be a really hard choice. It's going to destroy me," Kohler said in an interview after her court appearance.
Kohler of Columbia appeared in municipal court on Wednesday and entered her guilty plea. Judge Bob Aulgur suspended imposition of her sentence, dismissed three other charges and placed her on probation for two years. He warned her, though, that she'll face consequences if she fails to comply with the conditions of her probation.
Municipal Court Clerk Shara Meyer said Kohler could face a full range of punishment if she violates probation. That could include a fine of up to $500 plus up to 30 days in jail.
Under the terms of her probation, Kohler, who has paid more than $40,000 to keep her cats at the Central Missouri Humane Society's shelter since they were seized in June, will be allowed to have three of her cats. She'll also be allowed to keep her Pomeranian dog.
Kohler’s offenses include keeping more than four animals and failing to provide adequate water, food, vaccinations, clean shelter and veterinary care.
Animal Control Supervisor Molly Aust, who was responding to complaints when she discovered the cats at Motel 6, 3402 I-70 Drive S.E. in March — and again in June — described the conditions in the room in a June 10 report to the city prosecutor's office.
Aust reported finding four dead kittens: three were in the freezer of the room's refrigerator, the other was in "a urine soaked crate."
The room, Aust wrote, was filthy.
"All of the crates were completely urine soaked. The bed (mattresses) was yellow and soaked with urine. There was vomit and feces all over the room. The walls of the room were yellow with streaks of urine running down the walls from where the cats had sprayed. There was no food or water present."
Aulgur's decision to suspend the sentence went along with an agreement among city-county Public Health and Human Services Director Stephanie Browning, Animal Control, defense attorney Steve Wilson and City Counselor Fred Boeckmann.
Kohler has been diagnosed with depression, according to court documents, and Wilson said she has been under psychiatric care for 15 years.
She normally showed and sold cats, Aust said.
Wilson said Kohler had stopped taking her medicine and was caring for a sick father and injured mother when the situation with the cats exploded.
Kohler told the Missourian that she received financial help from her mother and took money from her retirement account in order to pay more than $45,000 to keep the cats at the Humane Society shelter and to provide them veterinary care. She said she is devastated about losing her cats but thankful she can keep three.
Kohler said she stopped taking her medicine in April because she has Type 2 diabetes and one side effect is elevated blood sugar. Kohler said she returned to taking her medicine in June.
"I kept it a secret from everyone. ... I was ashamed to tell my psychiatrist about the cats and stopping the medicine," Kohler said.
She said she paid $850 a week to keep the cats at Motel 6. The motel is not seeking restitution.
Kohler disputed some of Aust's findings. She said her cats did get veterinary care and that she fed them and gave them water regularly. The kittens died, she said, because Oriental shorthairs are a fragile breed.
"I am not saying I didn't do anything wrong," Kohler said. "I did. I stopped taking my medication, and the cats suffered directly because of me. I didn't mean for that to happen. The cats are like my children."
Kohler had hoped to get all of her cats back. Since they were seized, she has remodeled her house. And she had planned to make her garage a "cat habitat" and to pay a service to clean once a week.
Aulgur ordered Kohler to continue seeing her psychiatrist and to comply with prescriptions. She must notify the court in writing within 72 hours if she switches doctors or medicines. He ordered her not to harbor or possess more than three cats over the next two years or to own any other animal beside the three cats and her dog. She also must notify the court if her address changes, and she must spay, neuter and vaccinate her cats as needed.
Finally, Aulgur ordered Kohler to allow Animal Control to inspect any building, office or shed in or outside the city where she might be keeping animals.
After Kohler selects her three cats on Friday, the Humane Society will neuter or spay, vaccinate and microchip them, Aust said. Animal Control has scanners that will allow them to verify whether any cats she has over the next two years are the same ones, Wilson said.
Aust seemed optimistic. “(Kohler) has a plan, and with (Animal Control) monitoring her and getting those numbers down, she should be able to follow the conditions and maintain adequate care for the animals that remain in her custody,” Aust said.
Animal Control is working with The Cat Fanciers’ Association to find appropriate homes for all the remaining cats, Aust said. People from all over the United States have been coming forward to claim some of the cats as theirs. Aust explained that there is a lot of networking and animal sharing among people who show and sell cats.