More than 1,000 animals recently seized from the Pet Depot will not be returned to the store after a judge on Wednesday awarded custody to Cleburne Animal Services.
A complaint filed with Cleburne Animal Services on Nov. 30 prompted a welfare check of the store, which has been the spotlight of controversy throughout the years over allegations of animal abuse.
After the welfare check, Cleburne Animal Services Mindy Henry the same day obtained a warrant and staff from the shelter, with assistance from the Humane Society of North Texas, seized 1,046 animals from the store.
A majority of the animals were rats and mice found in aquariums and containers in a back room of the store.
"When we discovered the room that the rodents were in it was obvious where the smell was coming from," Henry said. "The smell was overpowering. It was enough to make your eyes water; it was very strong."
Henry alleged that the rats and mice were cruelly confined and not humanely cared for.
"The rats were obviously diseased," Henry testified on Wednesday. "They had missing eyelids and missing feet and missing tails and bloody eyelids. Missing parts of their faces and giant tumors. I didn't think that it could be much more obvious that they were being inhumanely treated when it came to them."
Pet Depot Owner Michael Fowler claimed the rats were unintentionally overcrowded from breeding.
"It happens two or three times a year, just all of a sudden," he said. "We try to balance our breeding to what we are selling — that's only good business. But every once in awhile the rats will produce too many. We were in the process of lowering those counts the last two weeks."
Fowler said about 99 percent of the rodents at Pet Depot are sold to people who have snakes and other reptiles.
"As I said, we were in the process of bringing the population down," he said. "I had a buyer over in Granbury that was supposed to take over 100 large rats prior to this."
City officials also alleged other animals at the Pet Depot were not being adequately cared for, citing lack of water in bowls and health issues such as ringworm and tapeworm.
Fowler did not agree.
"I thought the birds were in good health," he said. "The beak problem with the little cockatiel was just the way he was born. He had a crooked beak.
"The puppies came in a couple of days ago and they had scabs on them from fleas. We bought this lady's puppies over the last two or three years and they were given a bath, along with a cream rinse and soaked them, and then the scabs were removed so that is where the bald skin came from. It's flea dermatitis. But they had their first set of shots and wormer.
"[Ear mites] is very common and none of [the kittens] were shaking their heads or showing any symptoms at that point. The ear mites can hide down in there and not be seen for a few days.The kittens had just been [at the store] for a few days."
Fowler asked if the court would be willing to allow him to continue reducing the rat population, and resume business as usual.
"[The city] shut me down, I'm basically out of business," Fowler said. "This is the busiest time of year."
Fowler said he was losing about $5,000 per week from being closed.
"I would like to have permission to lower my rat population to get it where it's acceptable, and continue to breed the animals because that is a big part of our business," he said.
Cleburne Municipal Court Judge Michael Kurmes ultimately ruled in favor of the city.
"Considering the evidence presented, I'm going to find that the animals were cruelly treated," Kurmes said.
The judge also ordered Fowler to pay the city $36,770 in restitution.
Fowler will have 10 days to appeal the judge's decision.
To appeal, Kurmes said Fowler will have to post bond in the amount of $36,770.