Cheryn Smilen seemed like the person who cared deeply about South Florida’s stray cat population. She helped the Cat Network with its sterilization efforts, fed cats for friends while they were out of town, and ran her own rescue where she listed dozens of cats available for adoption.
So the rest of the cat activist community was stunned when they heard that Smilen had been arrested for 18 counts of animal cruelty. They were even more shocked when they heard about the horrors people found inside her efficiency apartment: Cats were decomposing, litter boxes were overflowing, and no food to be found. The few skeletal felines that were still alive had been feeding off the dead cats.
“She lived a double life,” says Yatir Nitzany, an animal lover involved in volunteer work with strays. “We all thought that she was doing good.”
Miami-Dade Police were summoned to Smilen’s efficiency last month on a report of “very foul smells.” Inside the feces-smeared and urine-soaked unit, they found about 30 cats, most of them dead or unresponsive. Several had to be euthanized by Animal Control because of their poor condition.
Animal Services enforcement chief Kathy Labrada told WSVN, which first reported the story, that it was the worst case of animal neglect and cruelty her agency had ever seen.
“The amount of death and decay and filth inside this residence that cats were living in is absolutely beyond belief,” she said.
Smilen, who did not immediately respond to New Times’ request for comment, was arrested February 17 and released three days later on bond. Her listings on adoption sites, where she described Smilen Cats Rescue as “dedicated to the welfare of Kittens & Cats,” have been removed.
Local animal advocates set up GoFundMe accounts for the survivors. “They need our help,” the advocates wrote on the crowdfunding site. “Please don’t fail them.” But one of the cats, Pumpkin, died of a heart attack last week.
Another, Prince Diamond, underwent surgery and is now being cared for by a woman who raised $2,683 of the $3,540 she’s seeking for his care.
Because Smilen had so many cats listed as available for adoption, Nitzany and other activists worry she stashed more of them someplace else.
Lindsay Donzanti, who volunteers with Cat Network, says she and others tried to encourage Smilen to trap, spay or neuter, and release the animals instead of keeping them.
“All the way along, many of us that knew her always said, ‘Let the cats go,'” she says. “She always with such confidence said, ‘Oh, I can find them homes.'”