CHARLESTON, SC (WCSC) - The Charleston Animal Society expressed outrage Friday after learning a doctor was fined $500 for the deaths of his nine pet dogs left in his car.
Court records show Dr. Charles Bickerstaff was allowed to plead guilty to abandonment of animals in December. In exchange for his guilty plea, prosecutors dropped the more serious felony charges of ill treatment to animals.
Police say in August, 2014, Bickerstaff was making rounds in Mount Pleasant while his pet Cavalier King Charles Spaniels were packed into crates in his SUV.
Bickerstaff told officers he checked on his dogs several times, but after 11 a.m the dogs were not moving. He said he went to a nearby emergency veterinary office at 11:30 a.m., where experts told him the dogs were dead. Bickerstaff then took them to his veterinarian on James Island.
In accepting the guilty plea to the lesser charge, prosecutors said they could not prove beyond a reasonable doubt the cause of death was heat stroke.
"Heat stroke is a cause of exclusion and we had no medical expert who would say that," Ninth Circuit Solicitor Scarlett Wilson said in a statement. She also said the dogs' internal organs did not have the appearance typically associated with heat stroke.
Wilson also said there is no municipal law that prohibits leaving animals unattended in cars, adding that if such a law existed, "we would have had a different issue on our hands."
Wilson also said Bickerstaff was seen on surveillance video tending to the dogs midway through seeing his patients at the hospital.
"It is undisputed that prior to this, he had been a good faith pet owner," Wilson said in the statement.
However, Charleston Animal Society CEO Joe Elmore called the case "a slam-dunk case of animal cruelty" in a statement released Friday.
"The thought that our 9th Circuit Solicitor's Office placed a price tag of just $56 on each of the animals who died while locked in that SUV in the searing Charleston heat two summers ago is almost too much for us to bear," he said in the statement.
Wilson also said Bickerstaff had no record, lost his medical license and his beloved pets who were worth thousands of dollars and much emotion to him.
"These nine dogs suffered an excruciating death that was completely preventable," Charleston Animal Society Director of Anti-Cruelty Aldwin Roman said in a statement.
The animal society is planning a candlelight vigil for the dogs Saturday at 6 p.m. at its campus on Remount Road in North Charleston.