For two months, Allegany County Animal Shelter has cared for nearly 100 cats belonging to one woman.
The volunteers at the shelter feed, care, and give the cats love when they can, but they're unable to put the cats up for adoption or in a foster home until the criminal court case against their owner is decided.
“It's exhausting when you have that many animals coming in at one time that you weren't expecting. And then coming in and having to care for an additional 100 every single day, it's a lot. It's a lot of work,” said Tina Rafferty, the executive director at Allegany County Animal Shelter, a no-kill shelter.
The shelter seized the cats from Michelle Ingrodi, who runs Charm City Animal Rescue. In January, Ingrodi was charged with 97 counts of animal cruelty.
The shelter was first made aware of the conditions at the rescue after receiving complaints about the smell.
"Unacceptable conditions and then there were some underlying health issues that have come to light," said Rafferty.
Back in 2014, Ingrodi also had cats seized from her by Baltimore City Animal Control. Officers took 35 cats from her property on Hudson Street. According to the report, animal control officers found unsanitary and unhealthy conditions, sick cats mingling with healthy cats, and a foul odor. Officials also stated that Ingrodi repeatedly failed to comply with the Baltimore City Health Code and violations had previously been issued at the Hudson Street location and Ingrodi's residential property on Montford Avenue.
“Animals not being taken care of like they should be, feces, urine all around, smell, stuff like that,” said one of Ingrodi's prior volunteers and fosters. She now works for another rescue and asked not to be identified out of fear of retaliation. The volunteer cut ties with Ingrodi after all of her foster cats were adopted, and after she started noticing some unusual behavior.
“Fundraisers for specific animals did not necessarily go to those animals, some did and some did not,” she said.
Ingrodi wasn't prosecuted for the violations in Baltimore City. Sometime after the encounter, Ingrodi moved her rescue to Cumberland where she continued operations and collecting donations.
“She’s been running the rescue full force, and everybody hoped that when she went to Cumberland it would change but apparently it hasn't,” the volunteer said.
The Secretary of State's Charitable Organization Division was not notified of the violations or criminal charges.
“There's no evaluation process aside from filing the proper paperwork. … It's easier than it used to be to become a nonprofit, which is good but it's also not good,” said Christine Sandberg, president of Rescue Well and founder of coalitions of Rescue – East. Sandberg’s coalition is made up of 500 members who share best practices and keep an eye on each other.
Under the Maryland Solicitations Act, charities that ask for money are required to file financial paperwork each year with the Office of the Secretary of State, however there's no annual inspection. Like animal control, the Office is mostly complaint driven and if they receive one, the investigations division looks into it. They also have a website where people can check if a charity is in compliance.
According to the Office of the Secretary of State, Charm City Animal Rescue is not in compliance because they're paperwork hadn't been filed in several years, but there’s no mention of the animal cruelty charges filed against Ingrodi.
There are also a number of charities currently not in compliance. Of the more than 10,000 charities in the online database, over 1,600 are delinquent.
“There should be some oversight, there should be some level of inspection to make sure the levels of cleanliness are met, the pets are kept in healthy environments,” said Sandberg. “What we do is we become very aware of one another. We share what we do and how we do it. And if there is a concern, and we've had a few groups with some concerns, we've followed up with them and met with them and asked the right questions and started pushing the envelope a little bit with their policies and procedures.”
She added that while the rescue community was aware of what was happening with Charm City Animal Rescue, donors weren't always in the know. Last November, Ingrodi fundraised nearly $8,000.
“One of the best things you can do is contact the closest animal control agencies and shelters and inquire about the rescue and inquire whether or not they're able to take in the animals from the local jurisdiction that will tell you there if there are issues to be concerned with,” said Sandberg.
There are also online charity watchdog groups, but sometimes the best thing you can do is pay them a visit in-person.
“Do internet research, investigate their websites, come out to the facility. Any reputable rescue is going to invite and welcome people to their facility,” Rafferty said. “That's one of the big flags in rescue. If you have a rescue group that doesn't welcome visitors or never wants people to come to the actual facility then that's definitely a red flag.”
Ingrodi appeared in court on Monday. Her defense attorney filed a plea of not criminally responsible meaning Ingrodi will have to submit to a psychological evaluation to determine her mental state.
ABC2 reached out to Michelle Ingrodi who declined to comment on this story.
Until a decision is rendered, Allegany County Animal Shelter will continue to care for the cats. Rafferty said they're grateful for the outpouring of support from the local and rescue communities who have donated mounds of food and litter. They estimate that they go through three to four bags of food each day to feed all the cats.