Man facing more than 800 counts related to animal cruelty

A Titusville man is facing 834 charges related to animal abuse after nearly 200 rabbits, chickens, quail and chinchillas were found abandoned at his property in Cherrytree Township.

The Venango County sheriff’s office said in a criminal complaint they investigated in late March a report of a large number of abandoned chickens and rabbits at a property on Fairview Road where the owner, later identified as Jeffrey Ralston, 55, had not been seen for a week.

Sheriff Eric Foy and a deputy found several cages of chickens in the front yard of a mobile home that “didn’t look livable” as well as more cages of rabbits on a path to a second mobile home on the property with no door, the complaint said.

Foy and the deputy could see more rabbit cages and hear chickens inside through the doorway of the second mobile home, according to the complaint.

As they went around the second mobile home to a camper parked nearby, they could see chickens through the glass sliding doors of the second mobile home, the complaint said. The door of the camper, which also “didn’t look livable”, was open and only empty cages were inside, according to the complaint.

Then they saw more rabbits with no food or water as they walked back to the front of the trailers, the complaint said. Neighbors said no one had lived at the property for a while but someone would stop by in a car to get the mail, according to the complaint.

Foy and two deputies executed a search warrant for the property two days later on March 24, the complaint said. They found only empty cages and no animals in the first mobile home, and in the front yard they found eight chickens in “poor condition” in one cage with a muddy floor and no food or water as well as several cages containing seven rabbits with no food or water, according to the complaint.

A rabbit was dead in one of the cages, and all the cages had large amounts of feces in and around the cages, the complaint said.

Moving to the camper, the deputies found empty cages and one cage with bones in it as well as several more piles of empty cages on the property and six more rabbits in cages under a blanket with no food or water in the yard, the complaint said.

Due to concerns about potentially low oxygen in the second mobile home and the deputies being unable to open the glass sliding doors because of debris, Cherrytree volunteer firefighters with breathing apparatuses entered through the open doorway to count how many animals were inside and take pictures, the complaint said.

The firefighters said there were about 60 rabbits and 65 chickens in the second mobile home and some of the rabbits and chickens were dead, the complaint said.

“Throughout the property there were empty cages, garbage piles and debris piles,” the complaint said.

During the search everything was photographed by the sheriff’s office, except for the interior of the second mobile home photographed by the firefighters, the complaint said.

On March 25, several deputies, two Cherrytree firefighters, representatives from the county animal response team, the Anna Shelter in Erie and the Franklin Animal Clinic, and other volunteers went back to the property to collect the animals and take them to the Anna Shelter, the complaint said.

The Anna Shelter intake records show that 79 chickens, 92 rabbits, two chinchillas and six quail were rescued and five chickens, six rabbits and one quail were found dead, the complaint said.

Ralston showed up at the property during the rescue and said he owned the property and all the animals belonged to him, the complaint said. Ralston said he didn’t live at the property and is currently staying with his aunt, and he added he had just returned from a trip to Florida that day, according to the complaint.

Ralston signed a form relinquishing the animals and another that allowed the deputies to seize the mail in his mailbox, the complaint said. Officials verified he had been in Florida from March 17-24, according to the complaint.

The complaint notes he is an “experienced breeder and owner of animals for the past 30 years.”

The complaint also says Ralston took animals to shows and “with his experience” should have known what “proper husbandry the animals required …such as food, water and clean shelter” as well as how to “handle overgrown nails and overgrown teeth.”

He has been charged with 196 felony counts of aggravated cruelty to animals – torture, 50 felony counts of aggravated cruelty to animals – causing serious bodily injury or death, and 196 misdemeanor counts each of cruelty to animals, neglect of animals-shelter/protection and neglect of animals-sustenance/water.

He was arraigned Wednesday, and his preliminary hearing is scheduled May 12 in Venango County Central Court.