Wednesday, February 18, 2009

A Foreclosure Animal Rescue: One Story of What It Really Looks Like

The first words spoken to us as we crossed the threshold from our world into theirs were, "Please, don't judge us."

We walked into the house and our eyes began to tear. The stench was was overwhelming. We tried not to blink or let it show that we were literally nauseated. We quelled our instincts to cover our mouths.

Feces and urine were on or ground into everything. Boxes were piled everywhere containing fecal-smeared bags. The furniture and all surfaces, including floors were filthy.

We were here to help and we needed to act like it. That's our role, that's what we do. But one can never get used to this.

(Bobby, pictured)
A Los Angeles rescuer sounded the alarm through a on-line rescue room Friday, February 13: A woman in Los Angeles was being foreclosed on and needed help for her 21 cats. She would be locked out on Monday. I wanted to get there on Saturday to take action, but had animal-related (non-Valentine's Day) commitments which could not be changed.

Early Sunday morning, a friend and I made the hour-and-a-half-long trek to the home. My SUV was loaded with crates and the capability to take every cat at the home, photograph, catalog them and list name/age/medical needs and health/behavior.

As always, easier said than done.

A Little History

Prior to our involvement, another group's volunteers went to this home en mass and removed 35 kittens some time back. Each kitten was spayed or neutered, tested for FeLV/FIV, vaccinated, treated for other ailments as needed and eventually placed in homes. They also took the adults for spay/neuter, testing and vaccinating. The cats were returned to the owner.

Sometimes, treating and returning is all you can do and the promise of return may be the only way to get the animals out to stop the breeding. Under CA law, animals are private property which is necessary to keep in mind. Each case is different.

Starting Out

Prior to our Sunday trip, I had spoken to the homeowner and had her blessing to come with help and remove her cats. She made me promise I would not involve animal control. I promised.

(Blacknose, pictured)
I had asked her to make a list for me of all the cats, their likes and dislikes, what they eat, their behaviors and anything else she felt was important for me to know. Upon arriving, we received information scribbled on a pad for about half of the 22 cats, by name. Though, blind in one eye and with limited vision in the other, diabetic with arterial disease and recuperating from a heart attack and surgery last November, she did her best, though never finished the list. What she did pen was nonetheless quite helpful in understanding some of the cats and the situation. Here are some descriptions we received:
Cat (Name) "Born 2002-2004. Semi Social. Quiet. Loves to have her head rubbed. Can eat no pork. Dose not like pork. Dose not like shrimp or oysters. Likes cheese, turkey, ham, chicken, carrots. Her sister likes bread products." [sic]

Cat (Name)
"Born 2000 outdoors. Became an indoor cat 2002. Had 4 litters. Spaded 2005. Quit cat gets along with others, likes to play mother to other kittens, eats almost anything, prefer softer foods, like fresh step litter, sharp cheese, eggs. I was feeding can tuna (in water) chef blend, dry freskie can. [sic]"
The first thing you notice in these notes is apparent love. She cared for these cats and penned details she felt were important. She took the time to describe what she felt was important to that cat. In another, she notes some behaviors:
Cat (Name) "...[L]ikes to explore, doesnot know what the word no means, loves to walk on your back... likes to hind in clean close, under blankats, and in your underwear." [sic]
The second thing you notice is the emphasis on non-species specific foods which may explain a number of health conditions we are seeing in all these cats.

Cats were not made to eat human foods. They have dietary needs that surpass what we, as humans, judge as healthful for us and yummy besides.

(Skunkie, pictured)
What we found was that in lieu of feeding the cats cat food, the cats were fed a human diet as this is what they had to eat, and they shared with the cats.

They fed a largely vegetarian diet, as it turns out: a lot of pasta with vegetables sometimes with canned tuna etc. I know, I cleaned up the throw up in the crates and saw dishes of it in the house and on the porch. I was also told this by someone involved with the previous intervention. They did feed cat food when they had it which, I later learned, was not often.

At one point, they displayed a four-pound bag of generic dry food. Not much for 22 cats.

(Houdini, pictured)
Their 'loving' diet is a disaster for an animal that is an obligate (strict) carnivore--NOT an omnivore or herbivore--and which derives needed vitamins and minerals from animal organ, tissue, muscle and bone and whose entire physiology is designed to operate on the assumption of being an obligate carnivore. Unlike dogs and humans, cats are unable to biologically "use" many foods that both species can.

Interestingly, every single cat that came from this home had/has enlarged pupils--something I immediately noticed when entering the house. Yes, I have seen this, but never in an entire population of cats like this. It remains in the cats that will now thread through my legs and beg to be held so stress might be ruled out.

Our vet is in the process of trying to discern a possible reason for this because not only must we disclose all potential health issues to adopters, we need to correct it if possible. The cats are now on a very high quality species specific diet.

Dietary requirements of a cat is a topic for an entire post, so I will abridge that discussion by noting that unless you are truly interested in the topic, it is unwise to fool with alternative diets though it behooves every cat owner to at least learn the basics as you are the only means to a cat's health and longevity.

(NoName, yes that was his name, pictured)
Not only are all cat foods not alike, dry v. canned are not comparable and the old yarn about dry cat food being better for a cats teeth is just that... an old yarn. I have yet to find one single peer reviewed study documenting otherwise.

Until the late 1950s, cats NEVER ate dry food but have been domesticated for several thousand years and lived quite well, thank you, without grain-filled nuggets from a bag.

On cat nutrition, I commend you here.

But either lacking the money to properly feed the cats or believing that her cats deserved to be treated differently (for whatever reason), their diets were compromised. The thought is kind and loving, yes, but the results are often not.

One thing that does touch me deeply is that it is clear these cats were loved and treated kindly. I most certainly cannot say that in many of these circumstances, nor can I say it about all homes where only a single cat resides or where the owners have more money than God but no interest in or time for the cat. Neglect and/or abuse is not a class issue.

Why So Many?

(Nala, pictured)
This woman and her husband are termed "hoarders". Much writing has been dedicated to this problem, though it is not really well understood.

What we do understand so well, in rescue, is that these people don't necessarily ever stop hoarding (or collecting as it is often alternatively called). With some people, it happens again and again and unless they are judicially restrained from ever owning animals again (which rarely happens in these cases, but does sometimes happen in cruelty cases), it is likely to happen again.

Many hoarders truly care and are lifesavers to individual cats. Where things appear to go awry is in their inability to move the cats on to responsible rescues and/or their inability (again for whatever reason) to find homes for them or just plain stop. Their intentions are good. Generally, the results are not.

Conditions of the Rescue

Time constraints in this mass rescue were severe. By Sunday evening, we were only able to catch eight of what turned out to be 22 cats in the house given the conditions on the ground. We also learned they had a senior dog and were feeding two feral (wild) cats.

(Nala's Twin, pictured)
We continued home with the eight cats on Sunday, posting widely for more help. They could not catch the cats. When we first got back in the car to depart and return home, my friend turned to me and asked, "Is it always like this?

I replied, "No. It is often much worse. We didn't find dead animals."

Arriving home, I set up the new cats in isolation and got to work again. Incredibly, in a phone call, at about 9:00pm that night, we were informed of an important detail we were lacking: They would not be foreclosed upon that night because it was a holiday.

Thank God.

We now had until midnight Monday, the 16th, about 26 more hours. We were exhausted, but there was no time for sleep.

Offers of concern and help began to come in through the evening as we updated the progress and posted photos of the cats. By 10:00pm, we decided to cancel a planned second trip that night and begin early the next day. We believed our work that night getting help would be more productive.

Enter Miracles!

As well known and highly regarded individuals and groups learned of the situation and began to send out pleas in addition to ours, badly needed offers of monetary donations for veterinary care arrived. One group offered to take four of the cats that we returned with (which were driven to their vet the next day). People offered help in transporting the cats. People were cross-posting the information far and wide on the net. I could barely keep up with the e-mails seeking information and details and offers of help.

Then the kicker that changed the game: One woman contacted the family at our recommendation and arranged for the family to get the cats isolated before she arrived early the following morning. This is key in this situation. She would get all of the remaining cats into crates and drive them to us while we worked furiously to find a veterinarian that would work with us, tried to round up additional funding, and looked for groups to take in the cats. We could not possibly take in all 22 cats and this was going to be expensive.

While my friend was working the phones at her house, I was working the internet at mine. We were messaging back and forth between calls and responding to e-mails.

(Jitterbug, pictured)
The volunteer arrived at the house the next morning unprepared for what she saw, but didn't let it phase her. In the process of helping to crate one of the cats, she was badly scratched. This seems, perhaps, a minor thing but it can be very serious especially in such filthy circumstances. She made a call and paid another experienced person to go to the site to finish what she had committed to.

True animal rescuers know that a commitment cannot be broken short of near death in circumstances like this.

As luck would have it, the new hired person had been involved in the previous intervention and knew the family. The volunteer returned home to properly deal with her very bad and deep wound. (She did the right thing, and is feeling fine and the wound seems to be okay, though she is carefully monitoring it. Cat bites and scratches can be very, very serious which is why shoulder-length welder's gloves are part of a rescuer's tool box.)

(Spike, pictured)
By 6:00pm, seven more cats were out and safely in the care of our vet, and so was the dog, a senior pitbull, Spike.

That morning, the volunteer first drove a very sick asthmatic cat to a vet thanks to a rescuer willing to take on the responsibility for this one cat. Another rescuer took in a single cat. I replaced the four that left with three that came, making my bunch seven. It wasn't easy.

When the rescuer finally saw the asthma cat (which she was familiar with somehow through the last intervention), it wasn't the same cat! Uh oh! That means we may have two asthmatic cats.

At the vet, in crates, the ten cats were absolutely petrified, some were covered in kitty poo (giving real meaning to the term "scared shitless"), and none of them were in ANY mood to be handled. Every sense we were endowed with was assaulted.

Despite my experience, I wanted to just jump into a bottle of alcohol and sit there for an hour or two. My dear friend, who is new at this, took it like a real champ. She was fabulous and being great with people--and immediately likable--she was a miracle to have involved in this. I was not gifted this way. Being in rescue for so long I do what I have to, but am often not great with people.

The Bottom Line

The bottom line, now, was that there were only two cats left. We had six hours to find them in the house. The gentleman that did the heavy lifting there on Monday and got the cats to our vet took two [clean] crates back with him and planned to trap inside the house that night.

The cats did go into the traps, but for some reason the traps didn't spring.

(Stripie Mommy (semi-feral), pictured)
As it turns out, the family was worried about the cats and were feeding them from their own plates, something that you don't do when trying to trap cats. Hunger is often a great motivator for cats to walk into conditions they instinctively perceive as scary or suspicious no matter how well we humans try to disguise it.

This morning, some folks came to attempt to assist the woman and her husband. I don't know all the details, but because she is legally disabled, she qualifies for Section 8 housing. These people left.

Later, the police arrived, but the homeowner would not come out. They did not force entry. The cat trapper is still trying to either find the two remaining cats (in the house!) and grab them or catch them in traps. They will be taken to my vet when caught.

If they lock up the house before we catch the cats, we then have to find the lien holder and get access. More problems and we really don't want to 'go there'.

When we think we have them all, we will spread flour on the floors and return to look for footprints. When we see no prints after several days, we will know we have succeeded.

The two outdoor feral cats must be trapped, and this is being handled by experienced trappers in the area. Its success is tempered by the fact that releasing them back into the area (trap, neuter, release or TNR) is complicated by neighbors that have killed several cats and another that has put out poison. But these are dedicated people, and they will use their considerable experience to do the right thing.

Initial Outcome

The wonderful news is that almost all of these cats are adoptable.

As they de-stress and become familiar with what must seem like penthouse accommodations at the Hilton (they are living in bathrooms at the moment), they are increasingly becoming friendly.

* Our vet told me all seven of the cats currently there are completely adoptable once well. Likewise with the dog. There is no additional asthma cat at the vet, or here.

* The seven here will go to the vet for the various exams, tests and other needed vetting as called for. Five of the seven are absolutely adoptable. One is clearly semi-feral and not adoptable and I will watch and work with the remaining cat.

* The four already up for adoption with another rescue group are doing well.

* The asthma kitty is on medication for infection and asthma. Her blood work returned normal, which is excellent. The air quality in the 22 cat home and the very cold temperature (they had no heat) wrecks havoc on animals with this medical condition. She is a very lucky girl.

* The singular kitty that went with the rescuer is unknown at this time.

* The two remaining cats at the home will hopefully be caught tonight. The trapper is returning determined to get them and take to my vet.

* The two feral cats are still there. There is some confusion as to who is doing what or why. We are trying to get to the bottom of it.

* The senior dog is being treated for skin conditions and infection. His blood work, amazingly, returned quite normal. He will be treated, neutered (and while under get a dental), vaccinated and we will go from there.

Final Thoughts on Animals and Foreclosure

Please, if you know anyone facing foreclosure, please ask and/or help them to deal with the animals EARLY on. We in rescue often don't have available resources or are otherwise committed to situations and don't have the people-power to intervene. Each situation is unique in its own way.

I posted some thoughts on what to do if you have pets and are in foreclosure here at DKos in mid-December 2008. I hope you might find the information helpful.

Anything you can help someone with is good. It can take a very long time to find a rescue with available space at present. We are all jammed. Those needing assistance must start that process early and know what to do.

(Note: All of these photos were taken on site except for the photo of Spike the dog, which was taken at the veterinary office.)