Two South Portland girls Thursday denied a felony charge that they tortured a kitten by placing it in a microwave oven as part of a video posted to social media.

The girls, who were 15 at the time, appeared together in a Portland court before Judge Keith Powers. Both said they understood the felony animal cruelty charges against them and both denied the charges, the equivalent of a not guilty plea in adult court. They appeared contrite.

The girls were given a June 2 date to return to court, but first must get a psychological evaluation, the judge ordered.

“Torturing an animal is a marker for some serious behavioral problems but we don’t know if these defendants fit that profile,” said Cumberland County District Attorney Stephanie Anderson in explaining the importance of a psychological exam.

The girls’ attorney, Eric Cote, said the girls had no intention of harming the cat and have been traumatized by the aftermath.

“They were just doing something they thought was funny,” Cote said. “They wanted to make movies. They were playing … I think they didn’t understand what took place here.”

The girls shot a short video for Vine, a social media application that displays six-second submitted videos. The video shows one girl putting the kitten in the microwave and starting it, then, after a break in recording, the other girl taking it out.

The video provoked intense outrage and spread rapidly on the web, even internationally, after media reports about it. The girls were harassed at school, received death threats, and were encouraged to kill themselves or have their ovaries removed, according to one of the parents. One anonymous commenter on a website referenced the video and said the girls and their parents should be “slowly cut and bled to death.”

The girls were initially issued a summons to appear in court on a misdemeanor charge of cruelty to animals but that charge was elevated to aggravated cruelty to animals, a felony.

The criminal petitions were filed with the court March 3. The charge against the girls reads: “in a manner manifesting a depraved indifference to animal life or suffering, did intentionally, knowingly or recklessly cause extreme physical pain to an animal, or did physically torture an animal, namely operating a microwave with a kitten inside it.” Anderson said there was a public outcry but the charge was elevated after the two-month-old kitten’s health deteriorated.

Cote said the kitten, which one of the girls had gotten from a neighbor two weeks earlier, seemed fine in the days after the incident. The South Portland school resource officer and animal control officer determined the cat didn’t appear ill and initial reports from the Animal Refuge League of Greater Portland and a veterinarian that examined it there said the kitten appeared normal a few days after the ordeal.

However, after the kitten had been placed in foster care, the animal’s condition worsened.

About a week after the incident, the kitten, nicknamed “Miracle,” couldn’t walk, wasn’t eating, and was hypothermic, according to court records.

That was either the result of the microwaving or an intense flea infestation, but the microwaving is considered more likely, according to Anderson, who was provided an update on the case by one of her prosecutors.

The cat was taken to a veterinarian who had treated two dogs that had been microwaved in an unrelated incident. The cat had anemia, and possible liver damage, which may have been due to blood clots related to microwaving, said a statement signed by Dr, Leah Goodman, of Forest Avenue Veterinary Hospital. The kitten also was treated for an intestinal infection. A worker at the Animal Rescue League took the kitten home and gave it fluid injections, force fed it and kept it warm. It recovered within a few days.

“The kitten certainly would have died, but for the aggressive and somewhat invasive treatment she received at the (Animal Refuge League),” the statement concludes.

Lynne McGhee, community relations manager for the shelter, said in March that the kitten had grown to become a “thriving” cat. She said the woman who adopted the cat declined a request by the Press Herald through the shelter for an interview.

A class C felony in the adult system is punishable by up to five years in prison and a $5,000 fine, although it is extremely unlikely the punishment would be of that magnitude. Anderson said that in the juvenile system, the courts are focused on the individual and giving the children the help they need to avoid future crimes.

Cote said it would not surprise him if a community service component was included in the sanctions the girls ultimately receive and that it would be fitting for that to include caring for animals.

Cote said the cat was in the microwave only briefly and he does not believe the microwave starts cooking immediately.

Cote said the girls have no criminal history and he is aware of no other incidents of animal cruelty.

“I’ve been involved in cases with very bad people who did kill cats. That is a sign of a very bad personality,” Cote said. “These girls don’t appear to have any intention of doing that.”

The girls were released pending future court appearances with conditions that they abide by a curfew set by the juvenile community corrections officer, attend school and obey house rules. Violating those rules could lead to detention at the Long Creek Youth Development Center.

Staff Writer Scott Dolan contributed to this report. 

David Hench can be contacted at 791-6327 or at:

dhench@mainetoday.com

Twitter: @Mainehenchman