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I Am Cat Lady, Hear Me Meow

A cat's best friend or worst enemy? How a feline fixation can go too far

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Animal control officer Shannon Corkwell once spent an eight-hour shift emptying a South Charlotte home of cats. More than 30 starving and inbred feral cats clawed and leapt wildly to get away from officers in the squalid home on Providence Road. They were half-starved, wild-eyed inbreds "living in this house in filth, in their own sickness," Corkwell recalls. "You could see mountains of feces in the corners.

"They could not get out," she continues. "Everything was scratched up. You could see where the cats had tried to climb the windows to get out, but they were stuck. It was the saddest thing."

ETERNAL DAMNATION: Barbara Snow, executive director of the Humane Society of Charlotte, was once informed in a previous job that she was "going to hell" because she confiscated a hoarder's pets. - KAREN SHUGART
  • Karen Shugart
  • ETERNAL DAMNATION: Barbara Snow, executive director of the Humane Society of Charlotte, was once informed in a previous job that she was "going to hell" because she confiscated a hoarder's pets.

It took animal control officers, outfitted in haz-mat gear borrowed from the fire department, more than a day to rid the home of cat after feral cat. Some were dead; others were mere skeletons after subsisting for so long on the occasional meal the home's owner would toss inside. All would be euthanized at the Mecklenburg County animal shelter, a facility already overrun with healthy, adoptable cats that would never find homes.

Like many animal-hoarding cases, the Providence Road house didn't attract any media attention. The owner, an elderly woman who lived elsewhere, was never charged with animal cruelty. Her situation had merely spiraled out of control, authorities believed, and wouldn't happen again.

It was the dark side of love for animals -- or at least love as its practitioners understand it. Believing, often quite correctly, that the animals will be euthanized if their presence is discovered, animal hoarders claim that any home is better than none. In the eyes of many such people, these animals are their children, and they are saviors in an uncaring world.

Many people treat their pets like children, of course. I tell people often that I treat my cats better than most people treat their kids ... except I can feed them on the floor, let them to poop in a box and stay out all night -- all without drawing attention from social services. Sometimes, however, you have to wonder: Where's the line between a "crazy" cat lady and a pathological hoarder? It's an exaggerated fear, of course, but one many cat lovers, particularly female felinophiles, know. You hear the jokes. And God forbid you're a man with more than one cat -- you must be gay.

A Crazy Cat Ladies Society Web site (www.crazycatladies.org) extols the virtues of felines, and a Crazy Cat Lady action figure is even marketed online and in gift shops like Paper Skyscraper. "It starts innocently enough," advertisements for the toy read. "You find a little kitten on the doorstep and 'rescue' it. Then, somehow, another cat comes along, and you take that one in, too. Then another. And another. Before long, you look in the mirror and ...OH MY GOD!! You're a Crazy Cat Lady!!" It's something some cat lovers have wondered: Am I a crazy cat lady?

Turns out the gulf is huge between the cat lady and the cat hoarder: one's a benevolent version who makes felines her life's calling and the other's a malignant, if well-intentioned, animal abuser. Perhaps not unsurprisingly, it's the former group who are more open -- and fortunately more common.

Invasion of the cat snatchers

Earlier this year, a woman called me with a tale of animal-control woe, eager to share her version of the story in a last-ditch hope that media attention might help her. She painted a picture of bureaucratic cruelty complete with jackbooted thugs snatching her babies from her home, à la Elián Gonzales. She agreed to let me join her at an animal control hearing to witness firsthand the gross indignities that had been perpetrated upon her. I went out of sheer curiosity, wondering how, if she spoke in truth, authorities had cruelly wrenched these pets -- mostly cats and a few dogs -- from this devoted animal lover.

TOO MUCH OF A GOOD THING: Charlotte-Mecklenburg Animal Control officers investigate new hoarding cases a couple of times each year. - C.M. ANIMAL CONTROL
  • C.M. Animal control
  • TOO MUCH OF A GOOD THING: Charlotte-Mecklenburg Animal Control officers investigate new hoarding cases a couple of times each year.

Then I saw the pictures that animal control officers had taken inside her home and tried not to let my mouth gape.

"You're not going to help me ... 'cause my house is messy?" she said after the hearing, in which she didn't get her animals back. I hadn't promised to help her or even suggested that I could. But to describe the scenes from those pictures as "messy" would be like describing the marriage of Whitney Houston and Bobby Brown as only the slightest bit atypical. Inordinate amounts of feces were splattered on the floors and walls, in such a quantity as to suggest they hadn't just materialized the day before.

"My litter boxes needed scooping -- yeah, we had some accidents," she'd told me, understatedly, a few days before. "If I'd known they were coming, I would have cleaned it."

The woman's pain was real. She was angry and tearful; she wanted nothing more than to have her animals back. But no pet should have to live in such conditions. She seemed to be in total denial, and I didn't want to take advantage of that. But I wanted to find other cat hoarders and determine whether I, or anyone I knew, was at risk of becoming a truly crazy cat lady. I wanted to get into the filthy house, see the dozens of cats, and see what the crazy cat lady's life is like. But animal hoarders are a secretive bunch.

What they have to hide

Until fairly recently, cat hoarding has been looked upon as little more than a harmless eccentricity. Crazy behavior, sure, but not criminal. People and the legal system viewed cat collectors, as they were then called, as pitiful people worthy of scorn, perhaps, but not severe punishment. The bible of mental disorders, the DSM-IV, still doesn't recognize hoarding as a specific illness, but authorities suspect the behavior is strongly linked to emotional dysfunction.

Dr. Gary Patronek, clinical assistant professor at Tufts University's Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine, founded the Hoarding of Animals Research Consortium in 1997 to investigate the phenomenon. This loose-knit group of scholars and advocates now sets the following criteria as characteristic of animal hoarding: more than the typical number of companion animals; inability to provide even minimal standards of nutrition, sanitation, shelter and veterinary care, with this neglect often resulting in starvation, illness and death; and denial of the inability to provide this minimum care and the impact of that failure on the animals, the household and human occupants of the dwelling.

Authorities quickly emphasize that it's not the number of animals one owns that's the defining factor of hoarding. "I've never judged a person by the number of animals that they keep," says Barbara Snow, executive director of the Humane Society of Charlotte. "It's the behavior that's attached to it." So if you have 15 well-cared-for cats, you're not a hoarder. But if neighbors can smell the cat urine from three houses away, weeelll, you probably have a problem.

The stereotype of the animal hoarder -- a single, older woman of modest means -- is an apt, if not always applicable, generalization. Cats are more commonly hoarded than dogs, but reports have documented the hoarding of a variety of animals: Dogs, rabbits, ferrets, birds, guinea pigs, farm animals, and exotic or dangerous wildlife. The consortium estimates that more than 250,000 animals are victims of hoarding each year.

Corkwell, in her six years as an animal control officer, has noticed that hoarding can begin with a well-intentioned person taking in a couple of strays from the neighborhood. "They just never get them fixed and before you know it, (you have) 30 and 40 inbred, feral cats that you can't handle. These cat hoarders that we deal with, they cannot catch their own cats; their cats will not come up to them. There's no affection; there's no care; there's no enjoyment in their companionship at all."

Patronek says that hoarders really don't know what they're doing is wrong. "This is genuine denial," he says, speaking on his cell phone while walking his dog. "This isn't people who are trying to get out of something bad. They can't see what they've done."

Hoarders often profess great love for their animals but are somehow oblivious to the suffering and neglect to which they subject their pets. "Obviously, loving them or thinking you love them is not enough," Snow says. "It's meeting their physical needs and their behavioral needs."

Authorities say the inside of an animal hoarder's home can make you cry: scrawny, feral cats with bites, scratches and pus-filled eyes. Contagious diseases. Dead cats. Feces. Smells that require special equipment to brave. Ammonia built up to dangerous levels. Homes that are never inhabitable again. Yards that reek of cat piss.

One hoarder whose cats were being seized told Snow she was going to hell and "God wanted him to have all these animals," says Snow, who has worked with animal welfare agencies in several states. One strange case involved a postal worker in Florida who lived in his car because his house was overflowing with at least 100 dogs and cats. Authorities seized the animals, but he started collecting again. He ultimately lost his job at the post office, Snow says. "They didn't want to keep him because they were getting complaints that he was taking (patrons') animals."

"FERAL CAROL" BUTLER: She's fed a colony of 40-something cats for several years, forgoing vacations and the corporate world in the process. These formerly wild cats are now her spayed and neutered friends, but they'll run from strangers. - FERAL CAROL ENTERPRISES
  • Feral Carol Enterprises
  • "FERAL CAROL" BUTLER: She's fed a colony of 40-something cats for several years, forgoing vacations and the corporate world in the process. These formerly wild cats are now her spayed and neutered friends, but they'll run from strangers.

Even after their homes are raided, hoarders almost always revert to their old habits, Patronek says. "You have to think of any other addictive or compulsive behavior. Do any of those powerful drivers of human behavior disappear just because they've been issued a citation? The answer is no."

Some hoarders claim, falsely, to be looking for homes for their animals, says Mark Balestra, bureau manager for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Animal Control. In one case he mentions, a rescue group offered to help a hoarder find homes. At first the woman was receptive. Then she backed out. "They always want to say, 'I'm trying to find them homes. They're not my personal pets, I'm trying to find them homes.' But yet, it goes on and on and on."

Current research indicates hoarding may be associated with obsessive-compulsive disorder. Other possibilities include attachment model (a person suffers from early developmental deprivation of parental attachment and is unable to establish close human relationships as an adult), focal delusion, addiction, zoophilia (deriving sexual gratification from animals) and dementia. What literature exists, according to Patronek's consortium, suggests hoarders may resist psychotherapy and medication.

Hoarders "have a lot of problems," Corkwell says. "They have a lot to say. They don't have anybody to listen to them. I've called myself a collector of collectors because I get attached to them. And I worry about them a lot.

"There's nothing I can really do for their personal problems, but I figure maybe, if they have somebody to talk to every once in awhile, then I just hope it works."

More power to her. My experience indicated cat hoarders weren't too chatty. More often than not, they didn't want to talk -- not in person, not on the phone. Arranged meetings were canceled; many homes were said to be in no condition to visit (remodeling, you know). More often than not, I was questioned as if I were in cahoots with animal control.

Spay and neuter your pets, dammit

Hoarders often say, what's the alternative for these animals when the only alternative is euthanasia? "They just can't accept that the animal would be put to sleep, so they keep it but they're not taking care of it," says Snow, who's worked in animal welfare for almost 30 years. "Obviously, we don't want to euthanize animals, but at the same time we want them taken care of. It's the same thing as with a child -- if you have a child, you have to provide for that child food, shelter, medical care, and love and time and attention. You have to do the same thing for animals."

Of course, when authorities find an abused child living in squalor, society doesn't order him killed. Authorities step in with a social safety net, however weak or inadequate. But animal shelters are so inundated by homeless, stray and feral cats and dogs that authorities often see little alternative to euthanasia.

In the 12 months preceding June 2006, more than 14,000 animals were euthanized at Charlotte-Mecklenburg Animal Control. Eighty-four percent of cats and 69 percent of dogs that came into the shelter never came out alive. In July alone, 701 cats were put to sleep -- that's about 23 each day. Wait lists for no-kill rescue groups can be long. And as long as people refuse or neglect to get their pets spayed or neutered, a ready supply of uncared for animals will always be waiting.

A cat's best friend

Perhaps, then, society shouldn't look askance at the more benevolent variety of the so-called cat lady. Almost all of us know this type, if you aren't, ahem, one yourself. They're the women you call when you find a stray. You can tell instantly when you walk into their homes -- not necessarily because of cat hair, but because of the cat pictures, toys, dolls and knick-knacks. Cats seem to find them. Their clothes may be covered in cat hair, they may bore their co-workers with talk of cats, but their animals are cared for -- often to a precious, eye-rolling degree. "Everyone makes fun of us," says Clea Simon, a Boston-based author whose book, "The Feline Mystique," explores the bond between women and their feline companions.

Simon, who describes "The Feline Mystique" as a tongue-in-cheek "feminist-felinist manifesto," writes mysteries in which cats play a central role. In "Mew is for Murder," the murder victim may or may not be a cat hoarder. But you don't have to be a hoarder to draw scorn, she says.

"There's this long history of persecution," Simon says. "Most of the witches killed during the witch-burning times were women, and many of the animals killed with them were pets."

No one has ever asked "Feral Carol" Butler if she's a witch, even though the 54-year-old Lake Wylie-based digital photo artist has more than 40 cats, most of whom are solid black. Butler has a seemingly innate love of cats -- as a small child she believed her family's pet cat was her brother.

Butler, a well-known cat lady who has a weekly two-minute show about felines on Lake Radio 93.7, also writes plays that sometimes (you guessed it) feature cat themes. She says it's her colony of feral cats that helped her give up the corporate world and explore her calling. If she hadn't needed a job that would allow her to care for the colony, now stabilized at 42 cats, she wouldn't have had the guts to work from home.

"I'm an artist and a writer because of the cats," she says. "I would never have found the time to write or do art."

Her journey from a garden-variety cat owner began after family illness brought her back to Charlotte and she decided to pursue the bachelor's degree she'd abandoned decades before.

On the way to a class at UNC-Charlotte, she noticed a starving cat in a gutter near a Bojangles restaurant. She had three pets then, and she didn't need any more. When trying to feed and trap the kitty, she noticed a colony of more than 60 sick, starving feral cats on a nearby hill. That's when she trapped her first feral. "You can imagine my weakest point is my compassion, so I named that cat Achilles. And I learned everything and more from that one cat."

Paying for their vet care -- spaying, neutering, basic shots and, if they were too sick, euthanasia -- did not help her bank account. "I didn't like being put in that position, but if you've ever seen a cat die of FIV (feline immunodeficiency virus), it's horrible; they bleed from everywhere."

She moved with friends to Lake Wylie, where she hoped to regain financial footing as a digital photo artist. The first day she found a mother cat and five kittens under her deck. "I started shaking. Oh no! I've got these two dogs that were rescues and these old three cats that were rescues, and already had more than my fair share."

More and more starving, feral cats arrived. Today, she's spayed and neutered the colony -- stabilizing a problem that neighbors warned her couldn't be helped. Most of the 42 cats are solid black, but she knows all their names and recognizes their faces. Almost all flee at the sight of a stranger, but these glossy-coated cats are the fattest, happiest-looking feral cats imaginable.

Only a handful live indoors, the rest congregate on her porch and yard on the banks of Lake Wylie. Their twice-daily feeding time is a major undertaking, as she scoops out Friskies from cans into more bowls than she can count. She changes the litter -- at least one box in each room -- every day. Amazingly, her home doesn't smell like either litter box odor or canned cat food. "I'm not going to have a smelly house," she says. "That was a promise to my two housemates."

She estimates she used to shell out $400 each week just on food; now her housemates spend about $80 every three days on food and cat litter.

People, of course, try to foist cats upon her constantly. She will have none of it. "If you see an emergency, it's yours to do something with," she says. "If it is to be, it's up to me. If you want something to happen and you care enough, why don't you personally take it upon yourself to intervene in that cat's life?

"People caused that problem," she says. "People who didn't spay or neuter their one animal. So how many animals were out there because how many people didn't spay or neuter their one animal?"

Call her a cat lady -- it's a description she accepts gladly.

"I'll tell you that there's nothing that is probably more rewarding than seeing that look in your cats' eyes."

To comment on this story, use the link below, or send an e-mail to karen.shugart@creativeloafing.com.

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