In summer 2012, my neighbor put about 20 cats out of his house. The cats were malnourished and covered with fleas, rashes visible where they had missing chunks of hair. All of the females were pregnant.
When I went to my neighbor, he said, “I don’t want the darn things.” He had been putting some food out on the porch, but other than that, he wanted nothing to do with them.
I’d only ever seen four cats in his window, so I’d never realized he’d been hoarding. Nor did I know that animal hoarding is a real problem, with approximately 250,000 pets hoarded annually. The summer before, one of his cats had had a litter in his driveway, and I’d taken in a kitten and named him Tippy. I had told my neighbor I’d be happy to run his cats to the vet or help in any way I could to get them fixed.
He promised to get the cats fixed, but didn’t. Now, with 20 sickly cats walking between his yard and mine, I called the Michigan-area no-kill shelters for suggestions on what to do. Then I called animal rights organizations and even local vets. None of them said they could help. They were all overwhelmed by the number of cats on their hands and they didn’t have the funding or support for more. When I asked people if they could adopt a neglected cat, the answer would always be something like, “Oh, how sad. That’s so sweet of you. No.”
And then I found the local animal welfare org Animal Rescue Fund, which I hadn’t even known existed, and which proved to me even small, local organizations can make a big difference. They said the first thing we needed to do was get the cats fixed and get them medical attention.
Katherine, a volunteer for the group, spent the next few weeks helping my boyfriend Taylor and me catch cats, then she’d drive more than 40 miles to where vets would fix and treat them. More kittens had been born in the meantime, so this meant their kittens had to be fostered (socialized) so they’d know people and be adoptable. I contacted different fostering volunteers, but they were all over capacity and turned me down. So I became a feline foster parent.
Katherine kept finding sick kittens she would take in because she was better trained with ill animals, and she saved their lives. One time I stepped outside and found a fluff of a kitten barely able to walk. She looked up at me with these solemn, too-big-for-her-face eyes, and when I picked her up, all I felt were bones under the fluff. Maybe she survived because of the care I gave her, or maybe because my cat Tippy claimed her, grooming her and keeping her close as if he was a mother cat. Because of her fluff and huge anime eyes and overall cute nature I started calling her The Cuteness ... and that stuck ... and I kept her.
During all the fostering, getting cats to vets and my doing my daily writing work, I was still trying -- and epically failing -- to find homes for all the cats. Only a few of them got placed. My neighbor stopped putting out food, saying he wanted the cats gone for good and they were no longer his problem. After the food disappeared from the porch, the cats were gone almost instantly. I searched for them in the neighborhood and found no sign. I was heartbroken and at a loss.
Fast forward to February. It was my final day renting next to my neighbor, and I was doing some last-minute work before going to my new place when I heard a man yelling, “No, you need to come here now!”
I peered out and saw a man from the gas company in my neighbor’s yard, shouting on a cell phone. Two of the cats had tragically died when he'd taken them back in and hadn't told anyone.
I got cold all over. My neighbor had lied again -- he hadn’t made the cats leave. After a whole summer of calling the cats “darn things” and saying how much he wanted them gone, I hadn’t thought he’d take them back.
Apparently the man from the gas company had been called next door to check or fix something, and he’d found a horrible sight. Police and firefighters were called to his home. When my neighbor was asked how many cats he had, he said, “Eight,” and then, “10” and then, “I don’t know.”
I sought out one of the officers to explain who I was and asked him to call LeeAnn, the head of Animal Rescue Fund. Sixteen cats (three of them kittens) were alive, but the shelters were still full and wouldn’t take them, so euthanasia was mentioned.
The officer did not want the animals euthanized, but options were limited. It had all come down to this: If I didn’t do something, there was little doubt there would be 16 defenseless and eventually deceased cats.
“You can put the cats in my garage,” I said. “I will find homes for them.”
Next morning, after paying some medical expenses for the cats out of his own pocket, the officer dropped all 16 cats off in my garage. I got them set with litter, food and water, applied flea medication donated by the vet, then collapsed in bed with a fever of 102.
Taylor came down from school to nurse me back to health and help with the cats. LeeAnn and Tom, another staffer from the Animal Rescue Fund, continued to take the cats to the vet. One older cat was in bad shape and had to be put down, but the rest made it. In the meantime, Taylor and I reached out and finally found homes for every one of the cats. Some of them became house pets and the ones that didn’t really like people (but who could blame them with their upbringing?) became barn cats that were provided food and shelter.
LeeAnn said that because the majority of the cats were saved in this case, it was a “mostly happy ending.” I still can’t wrap my head around what happened, and I feel awful for what the cats had to go through, and so guilty I wasn’t able to do more.
What can you do to take action? Help animal welfare groups like the ASPCA, the Humane Society of the United States or Alley Cat Allies, or local ones to your area. They need volunteers and donations. Adopt pets if you have the means, and make sure they're spayed or neutered. And report animal abuse if and when you see it. Educate yourself on the issue of animal hoarding.
These cats shouldn't have had to go through what they did. But we can help animals in similar situations and prevent things like this from happening.