NEWS- Tragic tail: What do you tell the kids, and when?

For Vanessa and Klaus Wintersteiger, the April 24 discovery that their cat Carmen had been shot was hard. But even harder may have been telling their children that the beloved pet was gone– and that her death was no accident.

Since going public with their story in the Hook's May 18 cover story, "Claws and Effect: Bentivar shooting sparks outrage," the numerous neighbors and community members have reached out offering support and consolation. But they've also received a barrage of letters criticizing them for telling their children what happened.

"Why he shot your cat and even the fact that he did, should have been kept from them," says an anonymous author, referring to the Wintersteigers' neighbor George Seymour, who was arrested the day after the shooting and charged with misdemeanor animal cruelty. "Your actions are inexcusable and should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law," the writer continues, criticizing not Seymour but the Wintersteigers.

As in that letter, another missive also focuses on the Wintersteigers' decision to publicize the incident, and to permit the publication of photos of their children.

"The picture at the gravesite would be a psychologist's nightmare," wrote the anonymous author, referring to an image of seven-year-old Isabella and nine-year-old Nicholas next to the handpainted gravestone they made for Carmen.

Though each of the dozen letters– sent to the Wintersteigers and copied to the Hook and George Seymour– is written in a different font, the Wintersteigers believe a single person may be responsible for the flurry of letters. None of the missives are signed, and the messages contained are essentially the same: the Wintersteigers shouldn't have have told their children what really happened. Several threaten investigations by the department of Social Services. 

Were these parents wrong? Messages left with social services went unreturned, but one local psychologist doesn't think so.

"Because they told the truth to their kids?" asks Peter Sheras, a child and family psychologist. "Telling the truth to your children should be something you should strive to do."

Sheras believes the Wintersteigers behaved appropriately. They waited until the children had come home from school the day after the shooting to break the news so that the family could process the incident and loss together. They notified school officials including teachers and guidance counselors that both children might need extra support. And they helped conduct the graveside memorial service, telling the kids that Carmen was "chasing mice in heaven."

"Discovering that the world is a cruel place is a lesson we all have to learn," says Sheras, who adds that while parents should strive for honesty, they should also consider the ages of their children when discussing painful issues.

"There are things you do want to keep from your children and things you don't," he says. "It depends on your child and whether your child can come through it without becoming angry and bitter."

So how do you know when your child is old enough?

"Psychologists generally believe that children by the age of seven are capable of processing that kind of information," says Sheras. At such age, he says, they can separate fact from fantasy. For instance, he says,  "If you see a cartoon character flying off cliff, flapping their arms and settling softly to the ground, kids understand around age 7 that that's not really true."

Klaus Wintersteiger says both children are doing well, and that the publicity has helped them feel less helpless.

"Seeing the article," he said shortly after publication of the first story, "was the first time they felt like they were more in control of the situation." 

The Wintersteigers say they are trying to tune out any critics and focus on making a statement about animal cruelty. They are encouraging people to sign a local petition– available online–  supporting tougher laws for animal abusers. They are considering a civil suit against Seymour, with any potential proceeds donated to the SPCA.

Seymour's lawyer, Benjamin Dick, did not return the Hook's call for comment on this story. However, in the Hook's May 25 article, "Carmen's legacy: Community rails against alleged cat killer," Dick acknowledged that while his client did shoot the cat, he believed it was a stray animal who had scratched the paint on his cars.

"If he'd known it was the next door neighbor's cat," Dick said, "he wouldn't have fired away."

Seymour faces trial in Albemarle District Court on June 20.

The Wintersteigers wonder if multiple missives stem from a single source.