Doctor charged in deaths of 9 dogs

A Mount Pleasant police detective stands by during the bond hearing Wednesday for Dr. Charles Bickerstaff, 64, who was jailed after nine of his dogs died in his SUV.

Dr. Charles Allen Bickerstaff thought his nine spaniels would be safe Monday when he left the dogs in his vehicle and went to work at a Mount Pleasant hospital.

But the weather changed, his attorney said, and the gastroenterologist got consumed with an emergency at East Cooper Regional Medical Center.

The temperature rose, and he went back to his nine Cavalier King Charles Spaniels about three hours later, the police said, they were dead. The lap dogs ranged from 5 months to 9 years old.

Bickerstaff, 64, a resident of Catbird Retreat on James Island who has been involved in dog shows, was arrested Wednesday on nine charges of ill treatment of animals. Each felony count is punishable by up to five years in prison and carries a minimum sentence of 180 days.

Animal advocates called the case an egregious one that underscores the danger of leaving any living thing in a vehicle during summer months. The People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals in Washington issued a statement because of the high number of deaths.

But attorney Bill Thrower called it a mistake that left his client "extremely distraught." Bickerstaff also had fully cooperated with detectives, Thrower said.

"This was a tragedy that he feels as bad as anybody about," Thrower said. "He left these dogs in a situation he thought was perfectly safe. He got tied up in an emergency proceeding. ... He had no idea it was going to happen."

Bickerstaff posted $90,000 bail Wednesday night. It was his first arrest in South Carolina, where he has spent his entire medical career.

Because his arrest was "unrelated to patient care" and was still under a police investigation, East Cooper Medical Center spokeswoman Kari Davis said the hospital would not take any immediate action. Bickerstaff has been a credentialed gastroenterologist there for a decade, Davis said.

Since 1978, the graduate of the Medical College of Georgia has held a South Carolina medical license that remained in good standing Wednesday, state records showed. He also has been affiliated with Roper St. Francis Healthcare hospitals, according to the records.

Bickerstaff shares a medical office and a home on James Island with Dr. Barbara Magera, who has exhibited Cavaliers at dog shows throughout the Southeast. The breed is known for its friendliness and long, soft fur.

A worker at their Folly Road medical office said Magera was not available to comment.

Officials from the Charleston Animal Society said it doesn't take long for temperatures in a car to hit fatal levels. Without water and fresh air, dogs can suffer heat stroke and die, a society statement said. "If the defendant is found guilty," society Chief Executive Joe Elmore said, "we believe the maximum penalty should be applied by the judge in this case."

Sometime Monday morning, Bickerstaff put the nine Cavaliers into five crates and loaded them into his red Ford Explorer.

Police documents did not specify what time he parked outside the hospital near Interstate 526 and Johnnie Dodds Boulevard. But it was about 73.4 degrees with 100 percent humidity outside the sport utility vehicle at the time, according to arrest affidavits.

The seven adult dogs and two puppies had no food or water, the documents stated.

As the hours passed, the temperature reached 82.4 degrees. Factoring in 84 percent humidity, the heat index made it feel more like 90.9 degrees outside, according to the affidavits.

Inside a parked car, the temperature can soar to between 100 and 120 degrees on a 78-degree day "in just minutes," PETA spokeswoman Lauren Rutkowski said.

Bickerstaff's attorney didn't say what kind of an emergency tied up the physician Monday inside the hospital. His specific duties then also were not known, the facility's spokeswoman said.

Before noon, Bickerstaff left and soon showed up at Veterinary Specialty Care, an emergency veterinarian's office not far from the hospital, according to an incident report.

He opened the back of his Ford and showed the staffers six of the dogs still in their carriers, the employees later told the police. He thought they had passed out, according to the affidavits.

But the workers examined the dogs and told Bickerstaff that they were dead. Rigor mortis had already set in for five of them. The veterinarian staffers directed him to a local crematory, then called the police after he left.

Police officers caught up with Bickerstaff and interviewed him Monday afternoon.

He was arrested Wednesday morning and appeared for a bond hearing an hour later. He bowed his head and clenched his hands during most of the proceeding. His attorney asked a magistrate for a chance to let him and his client start working on Bickerstaff's defense.

But Magistrate Linda Lombard set bail at $10,000 on each count and said Bickerstaff had left his dogs in the SUV for "too long."

"There's a saying in my religion ... that you feed the children and the animals first because they can't feed themselves," Lombard said. "I apply that to this situation."

Magera, the doctor who shares an office and a house with Bickerstaff, has posted online about her affection for dogs.

Magera mentioned in a Facebook post about her first dog, a Cavalier named Willis, who prompted that love. A dog by the same name was identified as one of those who died Monday.

The breed comes in four color schemes - Blenheim, the most popular one; tricolor; ruby; and black and tan, which are a mix of white, tan and black. They have long hair and can grow up to 20 pounds.

The affidavits identified the nine as: Money, a 5-month-old Blenheim; Lucinda, an 11-month-old black and tan; Drayton, a 2-year-old Blenheim; Madeline, a 4-year-old ruby; Shelby, a 4-year-old ruby; Katie, a 5-year-old ruby; Butler, an 8- or 9-year-old tricolor; Freddie, an 8- or 9-year-old Blenheim; and Willis, the 8- or 9-year-old Blenheim.

They all had experienced "excessive and unnecessary pain and suffering" before they died, which accounted for the felony charges, the police said.

"Of course, it was shocking," said Mitch McCullers, Bickerstaff's vet at James Island Veterinary Hospital. "We were all very upset."

Though Bickerstaff had cooperated with the investigation, Mount Pleasant Detective Logan Fey said during the bond hearing that the town "takes cases of abuse and neglect very seriously."

"If needed," Fey said, "we will prosecute to the fullest extent of the law."

Reach Andrew Knapp at 937-5414 or