Garrett and Tricia Rees won't be allowed to keep any of the hundreds of chinchillas they kept in their former Waukesha home, but they will not be spending any time behind bars if they behave, a Waukesha County Circuit judge has ruled.
The Reeses appeared in court Wednesday, Jan. 27 and each pleaded no contest to one count of child neglect and one count of not providing proper animal shelter, both misdemeanors.
The Reeses, who now live in Muskego, were accused last May of child neglect and animal abuse after a well-being check at their previous home revealed that toxic levels of ammonia were present inside the house and were likely linked to the 331 chinchillas for which the couple was caring. The youngest of the couple's three children, who was 7 at the time, was reportedly found in the home during the well-being check.
The chinchillas were seized following the incident and taken to the Humane Animal Welfare Society of Waukesha County, where they have remained for almost a year. Most of the chinchillas were adopted from HAWS last year, but Garrett Rees was allowed to retain legal possession of and care for 49 of them.
Probation, not jail
Judge Michael Aprahamian, who presided over the plea and sentencing hearing, found Garrett and Tricia Rees guilty of both offenses. He imposed but stayed a sentence of 15 months in jail for both of them in favor of two years of probation.
Conditions of that probation include 100 hours of community service directed at helping animals, mandatory parenting classes and a prohibition on owning chinchillas or any other pets besides the two cats the Reeses had before they were charged.
Aprahamian said his primary concern in determining a sentence was the welfare of the children.
"This is a serious offense," he said of the child neglect charge. "You're neglecting your children and putting them at risk. You didn't take care of them."
'Never happen again'
Both Garrett and Tricia Rees were remorseful and apologetic at the hearing.
"I take full responsibility for the events that happened," Garrett Rees said. "I've never had to go through anything like this, and I can guarantee you that this will never, ever happen again."
Tricia Rees echoed many of her husband's words, adding "I just wanted to apologize. This was something that definitely shouldn't have happened."
To ensure that the incident would not be repeated, Aprahamian ordered that the Reeses will have to relinquish possession of the remaining 49 chinchillas, which are still housed at HAWS, within 30 to 60 days. They are not allowed to keep the animals in their home — they will remain at HAWS in Waukesha.
Not properly cared for
A few days before the sentencing hearing, HAWS Executive Director Lynn Olenik wrote a letter to Aprahamian asking him not to allow the Reeses to regain possession of the chinchillas.
"On behalf of HAWS, I question the defendants' ability to maintain sanitary conditions for these animals once they are removed from our facility," she wrote.
Olenik, who attended the hearing, said afterward that she was pleased with the judgment but concerned for the welfare of the chinchillas.
"I'm glad that there was a punishment imposed for the lack of animal care," she said. "It does send a message to others that you need to be an adult and take care of your animals.
"But I'm concerned about where (the chinchillas) are going to go."