PASCO COUNTY, Fla. (WFLA) — A man was arrested in Pasco County on Monday after deputies found he was driving a stolen U-Haul rental van carrying 35 cats and two dogs.
According to an affidavit from the Pasco Sheriff’s Office, Steven Martel, 35, was stopped by deputies after they discovered the U-Haul he was driving was reported stolen out of Newport, New Hampshire. The affidavit said the U-Haul regional manager told deputies Martel had not paid anything for the van since Aug. 5, exactly one month before the arrest.
Deputies found that Martel, his wife and a 72-year-old woman were living in the van with two dogs and 35 cats who were “living on top of each other”. Deputies said they observed “up to eight” cats in some of the cages. The van reportedly reeked of urine and the cats were packed in so tightly that many had yellow-stained fur and open sores “from being soaked in urine for an extended amount of time”.
According to the affidavit, Martel and his wife claimed they were running an animal shelter out of the van called “Veterans Paws For Hope”. Deputies said they did not seek out permits for this type of business.
“There were a lot of cats that had white part of their coats with urine stained and they had a lot of feces impounded into their coats,” said Dr. Tiffany Bogart, a veterinarian at Pasco County Animal Services. “Some had ulcers from the urine scolding.”
Pasco County Animal Control recovered the animals from the van and told deputies that they would need veterinary attention due to their living conditions.
On Thursday, animal control said all of the cats were in good health and are under a mandatory 10-day hold because they were involuntarily surrendered. At the end of the hold, the animals could be returned to their owner if law enforcement allows it. If not, the county will decide whether to put them up for adoption or work with partner rescues to find the animals a forever home.
“Hopefully we will get full custody of these animals and we already started the process of treating all of their sores and skin conditions and they’re getting antibiotics,” Bogart said.
The affidavit said that the 72-year-old woman was found with “large open sores” on her legs. Deputies noted that she seemed confused and had difficulty communicating. Emergency room doctors at Morton Plant Northbay Hospital told deputies she likely had a bone infection from the sores and suffered from other ailments as a result of living in the van.
Martel claimed to be the acting caretaker for the 72-year-old while his wife – the recipient of the woman’s $900 monthly social security check – was reportedly in the hospital for two months. He said he was using the money to care for the victim, the animals and to keep up the van, on top of his $1,700 monthly check from Veterans Affairs. Deputies said Martel could not explain how the group’s money was being allocated.
Deputies took Martel to the Pasco County Jail, where he was charged with grand theft of a motor vehicle, neglect of an elderly adult and 35 counts of animal cruelty.