Casandra Barelli will tell you she did everything for her pet rat.
When Natalie developed degenerative myelopathy, an incurable paralysis of the hind legs, Barelli began bathing her daily with a mild soap. Afterward, she'd wrap her pet in a soft washcloth.
"I wanted to make sure that she was clean and felt good," says Barelli, 35.
When tumors developed, she realized Natalie's days were numbered; cancer is one of the most common maladies for rats. Two of her previous pet rats had died from cancer.
She and her mom, Kathleen Linx, cleaned the abscesses that would form near the tumors, and treated them with a topical antibiotic. A vet could do little more, she says, than what they were doing.
So it was stunning that when she finally brought the rat in for euthanasia at the Humane Society of the Pikes Peak Region, the shelter, after accepting her $15 for the procedure, cited her for cruelty to animals.
Now she's facing possible jail time.
Until the day she died, Barelli says, Natalie was eating and content. "She was hefty. She was a happy, happy rat," she says, "and I was helping her live out her life."
One Friday evening in October, Barelli and Linx returned from two hours out of the house. Natalie's sniffles that morning had grown into full-blown pneumonia and obvious pain. She had begun to chew at the tumor on her chest, and was whining.
"I panicked," says Linx. "I had Cass call the Humane Society. I wasn't even sure that they would take care of a rodent."
Barelli says that she rushed to the Humane Society, and handed Natalie to the vet on duty. She says that in no more than five minutes, the officer approached, asked a few questions, and then issued a complaint and summons for cruelty to animals, a Class 1 misdemeanor. On the citation, the description of the offense points to a failure "to provide adequate vet care."
According to the Humane Society, there is a rigorous standard applied when determining animal cruelty. But as Barelli points out, the state statute for animal cruelty makes no mandate of veterinary care, nor does it stipulate when a pet owner must euthanize an animal.
Lee Richards, public information officer for the Fourth Judicial District Attorney, says she can't discuss a pending case. However, she says, "No matter what the pet is, you have an obligation to care for that pet."
Dr. Anne Pierce, with High Plains Veterinary Hospital on Tutt Boulevard, says surgical options exist for rats with cancerous tumors. However, Natalie was almost 4 years old; the average lifespan for a rat is 2.
Pierce did not attend to Natalie, but upon hearing of her age and conditions, including the paralysis, she says:
"This one, I can almost guarantee you ... we could have gotten the lump off and then it would have just crashed and burned from all the stress. We wouldn't have helped the situation at all."
The care Barelli claims she gave Natalie in her final days "sounds reasonable," Pierce says.
According to Barelli, the DA's office offered a deal: She would pay all court costs and associated fees, and accept 10 days of community service. She also would plead guilty to the charge that she mistreated her pet.
Barelli will fight the charge in court. Her trial date is set for late March. The single mother is worried how a conviction might affect her ability to make a living.
"Would you hire someone," she asks, "who was convicted of animal cruelty?"
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