The odor was so strong that Nicole Thompson could smell it on the first floor. By the time she and a Bristol Township Police sergeant had climbed two flights of stairs, "the smell of ammonia and feces made our eyes water and throats burn," according to court documents. Then there were the flies, swarming in thick groups unnatural for November.
And when the door was finally forced open into the apartment at Stonebridge Run, Thompson, a humane society police officer for the Bucks County Society for Protection of Animals, found 31 cats living in squalor, picking their way through trash and debris covering the floor, confined to using just two overflowing litter boxes. Five exotic birds – four macaws and a cockatoo – perched nearby, one so ill that it was euthanized not long after.
Now, the animals' owners, Ann Reddy, 59, and Warren Muffler, 48, face a litany of criminal charges in a landmark case for the county: This is the first time that its nonprofit humane society has brought misdemeanor animal-cruelty charges against pet owners since state law was beefed up last June.
"I'm just hoping that this sends a message," Thompson said. "That it encourages people to just follow the law, rather than face the heavier penalties."
The case also represents the first time Thompson and her agency have successfully filed a petition under the state's Cost of Care Act, a law passed in 2013 that reimburses animal shelters for expenses incurred for treating seized animals. That victory allowed the cats to be quickly put up for adoption. Some of them have already found new homes.
"Without the Cost of Care Act, we would have had to hold those animals until the case was decided," Thompson said, "and that could have been months or years."
Penny Ellison, an adjunct professor at the University of Pennsylvania Law School and vice chair of the Pennsylvania SPCA Board of Directors, said the prior law structure discouraged some smaller animal shelters from pursuing abuse cases.
"The ability to recover costs in a timely manner affects whether you can bring a case in the first place," Ellison said. "Yes, you could eventually get restitution, but smaller shelters really can't afford to pay out of pocket all that time, and you're not going to find a vet who is going to donate services on this large of a scale."
Similarly, before the change in August, animal-abuse charges were limited to summary offenses, which usually carry only a fine.
"It's not only an insufficient penalty for the suffering caused, but it also meant that prosecutors weren't willing to take on cases," Ellison said. "It was hard to get them interested in cases that won't result in jail time. It's not a serious enough matter to allocate resources to."
The Stonebridge case is already eight months old, and likely won't see a resolution until at least August, when a hearing has been scheduled after a continuance in May.
From November, when the animals were seized, to June, the Bucks County SPCA spent more than $53,000 caring for the 31 seized cats and the 12 kittens born to some of the pregnant ones since. (The birds were relocated to the Feathered Sanctuary Exotic Bird Rescue in Lancaster.)
That total included the daily expenses of housing and feeding the cats, as well as emergency surgery for some of them. One kitten had to be spayed immediately because of an infection in her uterus. Another cat was found with a seeping wound where his right eye should have been. He has since had a full recovery and has been affectionately renamed "Captain."
The medical tab would have kept climbing had it not been for a civil case filed pro bono by lawyers at McCarter and English, a law firm out of Newark, N.J. Joann Lytle, a lawyer at the firm and volunteer at the Bucks County SPCA, lobbied under the Cost of Care Act to require Reddy and Muffler to reimburse the shelter. A county judge ruled in the SPCA's favor, ordering the couple to pay.
When the two didn't make an effort to by the end of the 10-day grace period, ownership of the cats was transferred to the SPCA. Lytle noted that Muffler and Reddy will still be liable for the $53,000 if they are convicted.
Thomas Kenny, a lawyer representing Muffler in the criminal case, described it as a "very sad and difficult situation." Previously, he was also representing Reddy, but has filed a motion withdrawing as her counsel — Muffler was charged with assaulting Reddy during a domestic dispute in February. Muffler remains in custody in the county prison on the assault charge, for which Kenny is also serving as his lawyer.
"Both crimes have some medical issues causing them, and we're hoping [Muffler] can get some help that he needs to move on with a productive life," Kenny said. "This is one of the saddest situations I've seen."
Muffler and Reddy's dispute with Stonebridge Run's management company stretches back several years, according to documents filed in both the civil and criminal cases against then.
The smell from their apartment seeped into the hallway and surrounding units, "so bad that neighboring tenants have made numerous complaints and some have vacated their apartment to get away from the smell," according to a civil complaint filed by the apartment company's lawyer.
In January 2017, after years of leasing the unit to the couple, Stonebridge declined to renew the contract, telling them they had until March to vacate the property. They did not.
Two months later, Stonebridge filed a landlord-tenant complaint in District Court, which netted a ruling in their favor. The couple appealed the decision, beginning a months long legal dispute.
In the middle of the back-and-forth, maintenance crews at the apartment entered the couple's unit and discovered the conditions in which the cats and exotic birds were living. They contacted Thompson, who visited the building herself and contacted Reddy, who "said her animals were fine," and told Thompson that the matter was none of her business, according to a search warrant application she filed.