Tiger Ranch operator sentenced to 27 years probation for cruelty

Yesterday marked the end of what will surely go down as one of the worst cases of animal cruelty in Pennsylvania history.

A Pittsburgh area woman was sentenced to two years of house arrest, 27 years probation, and must pay more than $200,000 restitution after pleading guilty to animal cruelty in connection with the mistreatment and deaths of hundreds - if not thousands - of cats housed at her rescue.

Linda Bruno, 47, of Tarentum, was sentenced by an Allegheny County Court Common Pleas judge yesterday after pleading guilty to 12 misdemeanor animal cruelty charges and two other counts of tampering with evidence.Under the plea deal, prosecutors withdrew more than 500 other charges based on the nearly 497 dead, dying and diseased cats found on her property.

Bruno, also known as Lin Marie, operated Tiger Ranch, a 28-acre "sanctuary," which took in thousands of stray and feral cats from throughout the East coast until it was raided by the Pennsylvania SPCA in March 2008. Under terms of the sentencing, Bruno must undergo extensive psychiatric treatment and may not have contact with animals for 27 years.

Judge Jill Rangos sentenced Bruno to one to six months in jail but gave her credit for 37 days she served after violating conditions of her parole in October. Agents discovered Bruno was taking in cats again after her supporters were found burning bags of cat food on her property.

"I came into this case thinking ... you were most likely a woman who had good intentions but became overwhelmed. From that perspective until today, I have learned quite a lot," said Rangos, according to the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. "You have chosen not to cooperate and spew vitriol in others' direction without taking any personal responsibility for the disaster that Tiger Ranch became."

View the TV report from WPXI in Pittsburgh here.

Bruno had billed her rescue as a "no-kill" shelter and "land of milk and tuna" for stray and feral cats. Word spread throughout the East Coast and as far west as Indiana that there was a safe haven in Pennsylvania for unwanted felines.

Rescue groups from Georgia to New York shipped in cats by the van load, hoping to save them from certain death in local shelters. Individuals - a number of whom called desperately seeking information on their cats when they learned of the raid - told me they saw Tiger Ranch as a last resort for feral cats they were unable to keep in their homes or apartments or for feral cat colonies being driven out of their homes by hostile property owners.

What happened to the cats became clear during Bruno's trial last summer.

Evidence produced then showed while more than 7,200 cats were taken in during 2006 and 2007. Only 23 cats were adopted during that time.

It also was revealed that Bruno had provided no veterinary care or spaying and neutering as she claimed she did. Allegheny County assistant district attorney Deborah Jugan said Bruno spent donation money on her own dental work, trips to the hair salon and Italian restaurants.

Bruno might still be operating if not for the actions of the Pennsylvania SPCA with the help of informants who worked as volunteers at Tiger Ranch. Under the leadership of Howard Nelson, the PSPCA took on the case in late 2007 when other humane organizations refused.

Here's what agents and veterinarians said they found during the March 13 raid:

1 house, 5 outbuildings in squalor; insufficient heat; malnutrition; dehydration; rampant disease due to a multitude of viruses and bacteria causing severe upper respiratory infections, pneumonia, septic arthritis, spontaneous abscesses and wounds, eye ulcerations, mouth ulcerations, meningitis, and septic shock.

Nelson, leading an army of some 100 volunteers and law enforcement officers on the property during the raid, called me from the scene. He described tripping over bodies, seeing dying cats struggle to stand, the overwhelmingly foul odor and the absurd sight of a few plastic plug-in air fresheners.

In all, agents found 497 cats on the property, 107 of them were deceased. Burial pits contained remains of many others. Of those brought out alive, 150 had to be euthanized. In the end, 240 healthy cats were either adopted or sent to rescue groups for adoption, a process that the PSPCA reported was completed at the end of 2009.

Throughout the duration of the case, defenders of Tiger Ranch dismissed the reports of widespread disease and suffering and accused the PSPCA of persecuting an innocent woman who was only trying to do her best for the cats.

One of Bruno's fiercest supporters, actor/activist Chris DeRose, condemned the PSPCA for its "false accusations" and urged prosecutors to drop the case and allow the cats of Tiger Ranch to "live out their lives peacefully."

Sue Cosby, chief executive officer of the PSPCA, said she was pleased with the sentence. "This is an important victory for the Pennsylvania SPCA’s Humane Law Enforcement Department, which investigates more than 6,000 cruelty/neglect cases annually," she said. "But more importantly it is some small measure of justice for the hundreds of cats that suffered unspeakable atrocities at Tiger Ranch and lived in deplorable conditions for much too long.”

Jugan yesterday praised the PSPCA for their "phenomenal" job on the case.

And she lamented the fact that had the money that once flowed into Tiger Ranch from those hoping to give unwanted cats a chance at life actually gone to the cats' veterinary care, "we wouldn't be here today."