TAMPA — A Town 'N Country woman accused of hoarding and neglecting more than two dozen animals will serve five years in prison, a judge ruled Wednesday.
Cynthia Cuervo had pleaded guilty to 25 charges, including three counts of felony cruelty to animals and 20 misdemeanor charges of unlawful confinement without food or water. She also pleaded to two felony counts of resisting arrest with violence and battery on a law officer.
Cuervo, 47, was arrested in February after investigators discovered 22 dogs — some of them suffering eye ulcers, untreated sores and broken bones — confined without food or water, along with a dead bird. A spokeswoman for the Hillsborough County Animal Services called her a "hoarder of the worst kind."
Cuervo wasn't even allowed to own animals at the time. She was on probation for a 2008 neglect case after authorities seized 16 dogs and a crate of bones from an apartment where she lived.
"I've never seen anything like it," Circuit Judge Gregory Holder said Wednesday.
Holder gave Cuervo the maximum 25-year prison sentence, but suspended 20 years of it. When she gets out of prison, she'll be on probation for 20 years and will again be restricted from owning animals.
"No animals of any kind. None, zip, nada," Holder said.
Cuervo has 30 days to appeal.
Prison sentences for animal cruelty convictions aren't typical, but prosecutors and county animal services investigators argued that Cuervo had shown she cannot stop herself. She was not only on probation but had been forbidden, twice, by a civil court from owning animals.
"The impact this person has had on the animals in our community is overwhelming," animal control officer Sgt. Pam Perry testified. "This has got to stop."
In the past six years, Perry said, animal investigators seized more than 80 animals from Cuervo.
Hillsborough County deputies also charged her with two counts of child neglect in February after finding her two young daughters in the home, which reeked of urine and had dried feces piled so high in the bathroom that the door wouldn't open.
Prosecutors did not pursue those charges, however, because the two girls, now ages 12 and 13, were healthy and other parts of the home, such as their bedrooms, were in good condition. The girls remain in state custody, prosecutor Susan Lopez said.
Cuervo's attorney, Samie Ata, asked the judge for relief, saying Cuervo has mental health problems.
"It's obvious we're dealing with a sick person here," he said. "Prison is not the solution."
Cuervo did not speak during the hearing. Her father, Eddie Cuervo, told Holder that her actions resulted from the abuse she had suffered at the hands of her earlier relationship.
"This is an end product of an abusive man, mentally and physically," he said.
Ata said a psychological exam that found Cuervo competent to stand trial also determined that she suffered from depression and got overwhelmed by the stress of caring for the animals. It was, he said, "a learned helplessness rather than lack of genuine care."
Jodie Tillman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3374.