September 9, 2013 Updated: September 9, 2013 at 9:40 pm
A 57-year-old woman accused of hoarding dozens of animals amid filthy conditions in her home in Penrose was arrested Monday on suspicion of 52 counts of animal cruelty.
Rhonda Bernard also faces one count of child abuse because her 10-year-old son also lived in the home, which was so unsanitary that authorities wore hazmat suits and breathing apparatus to go inside, court documents state.
Bernard, who now lives in Fountain, turned herself in at the Fremont County Detention Center and was being held in lieu of $1,500 bail.
The Fremont County Sheriff's Office started investigating Bernard on Aug. 13 after a neighbor reported that Bernard had moved and left animals behind.
Sheriff's Sgt. Megan Richards went to the home and was greeted by barking dogs when she knocked on the front and back doors. In the arrest warrant affidavit, Richards wrote that she could see six cats in the house.
"There was a very strong odor of what I believed to be cat urine coming from the house, so bad that even standing outside the house my eyes were watering and my throat was burning," Richards wrote.
Richards said she noticed two dogs chained up outside. The dogs had food and water but were tangled in their chains and unable to reach the water, she wrote.
Neighbors told Richards that Bernard had moved out weeks earlier and would stop by the house "every once in a while" to check on the animals.
"One of the neighbors stated that he knew that there were at least 20 Chihuahuas inside," Richards wrote.
Richards went back to the home in the 200 block of Garden Drive and found Bernard walking out the back door with a Chihuahua. Bernard initially denied having cats but changed her story when Richards pointed at a cat in the window, Richards wrote.
Bernard "stated that they were wild cats and that they were getting inside her house and wouldn't leave," Richards wrote.
Bernard said she was taking the dogs to the humane society because she was overwhelmed with the number of animals, Richards wrote.
One by one, she loaded 23 Chihuahuas into the car.
The dogs appeared to be in good health, but all had long nails and some appeared to have trouble walking because they were so long, Richards wrote.
"All the dogs were dirty and smelled of urine and feces," Richards wrote. "There was what appeared to be dried urine and feces on their feet and coats."
Bernard told Richards there were only cats left in the house, butofficial found more, documents state.
On Aug. 19, Richards called Bernard to find out if she had taken care of the cats. When she said she had run out of gasoline and also couldn't purchase a cat trap because it was too expensive, Richards told Bernard she would have to seize the cats, documents state.
Bernard gave authorities permission to enter the home and remove the animals.
Richards said staff from the humane society and Dumb Friends League got in through an unlocked door and found a home littered with animal feces and urine, trash and broken furniture.
"Most of the cats were caught in the 'cat room' as we named it due to the amount of empty cat food cans that had piled up and the amount of torn up cat beds inside the room," documents state.
Richards said workers eventually caught 26 cats, two chinchillas and a ferret.
Richards contacted the Department of Human Services because Bernard's son had lived in the house before they moved to Fountain.
Contact Daniel J. Chacon 476-1623