THE HOUSE OF HALF A HUNDRED CATS - KATHERINE TOMLINSON
“I love cats because I enjoy my home; and little by little, they become its visible soul.” --Jean Cocteau
The mission began, as they often did, with a call from a concerned neighbor. Something was just not right, the caller said. She was worried about the woman who lived next door to her. The old woman lived by herself and hadn’t been outside for awhile.
Roz, who ran “No Cat Left Behind,” asked the caller why she hadn’t phoned the police. The woman replied apologetically that her neighbor had “a lot of cats” and she didn’t want her neighbor in trouble with Animal Protection if nothing was really wrong. The phrase “a lot of cats” is a subjective one so Roz told me to be ready for anything, including the possibility I’d find the old woman planted face down on her kitchen floor, with ragged bites taken out of her corpse.
It had happened before.
I took one of the newbies on the run with me. Viv was an earnest college kid who was already burning out. Every time we went on a rescue she ended up with one of the cats. I’d given her the standard lecture—You can’t save them all—but she’d just looked at me with tears welling up in her big brown eyes and I’d given up.
I was the same way when I was her age. At one point in my thirties, I’d shared my apartment with five cats, a tuxedo, a ginger tabby, two Siamese and Collette, a tortoise shell Maine Coon who stuck to me like Velcro when I found her as a skinny kitten in a downtown parking garage. She was 22 when she died and I grieved so hard I vowed I’d never have another cat of my own.
The caller had said her neighbor’s name was Louanne Bettis and that she was 71 and recently widowed. Her home was a modest ranch-style place on a corner lot. A free-standing garage was set back and to the side. As we approached the front door I caught a whiff of the ammonia stink emanating from beneath the garage’s roll-up door. That was not a good sign.
Viv knocked and, to my surprise, Mrs. Bettis answered. She was short and stocky and looked much older than 71. She was dressed in a threadbare track suit too small for her bulk and bedroom slippers that had been slit to allow her bunion-covered feet to bulge out of them for comfort.
Her eyes were blank as she listened to us explain why we had come. She claimed not to know any of her neighbors and complained that people should just mind their own business.
As we talked at the front door, several cats appeared at her feet, their tails held high which means “Hey, what’s going on?” in cat-speak. Viv reached down to pet a little gray tabby, and I took the opportunity to ask Mrs. Bettis how many cats she had. She suddenly looked defensive.
“A couple,” she said, avoiding my eyes. “I have the room,” she added. She stepped back from the door. “Would you like to meet them?” Viv and I shared a look and entered. I heard Viv stifle a gasp as she got a really good look at the living room. There must have been 20 cats lounging around—on the chairs, the sofa, the bookcases, the television. (It was tuned to Animal Planet, I noticed.)
The house was in utter disrepair, with cracks in the windows, peeling paint on the walls, holes in the floor and a thick blanket of cat hair coating everything. As Mrs. Bettis moved through the house, a fat, floppy ragdoll came up to her and bumped his head against her hand. She picked him up and he attached himself to her shoulder, nuzzling her neck as if he were nursing. I could hear him purr from five feet away.
With the cat still clinging to her, Mrs. Bettis took us out to the garage. The overhead light came on as she opened the door. Viv gagged from the toxic stench but managed not to vomit.
There were at least 30 cats in the garage and only one litter box I could see—the cat sand long ago turned to cement. Unlike most cats you see in these hoarder scenarios, all the animals looked like they were in great shape. Their coats were groomed and free of mats. I didn’t see any runny eyes or hear any raspy coughs. They were sleek and well-fed and affectionate.
Mrs. Bettis surveyed her cats with pride, seemingly unaffected by the reek. She clearly loved her cats. And that’s the sad thing about hoarders. They’re usually lonely people who think they’re doing a good thing when they adopt so many animals. They don’t realize that what they’re doing isn’t necessarily in the cats’ best interest. They don’t know it’s also against the law. They don’t realize it’s a sign of mental illness.
I went back in the house with Mrs. Bettis while Viv stayed by the truck to get some air and unload the cat carriers we’d brought. I explained that we were going to help her find homes for her cats and she started to cry. “Don’t take my cats away,” she begged. “They’re all I have left.”
I asked her if she had any family living nearby and she said she did but that she didn’t like to bother them because they had their own families. She showed me a framed family photograph that had to have been taken a good 30 years earlier. Her late husband had been a handsome man.
Viv came in carrying a couple of kennel cartons and we convinced Mrs. Bettis to let us take as many as we could accommodate in one trip.
When you’re out on missions like this, you sometimes have to do triage. There are always way too many cats and the pounds are full of potential pets whose days are numbered. Viv stuffed the carriers with the short-haired white and black cats we called “cows” and I didn’t have the heart to tell her that we’d have a hard time adopting them out.
She had tears in her eyes as she looked around the room and I knew she was trying to figure out a way to rescue just a couple more. I took pictures of the remaining cats and when we got back to the cattery, I posted a video on YouTube. We got a lot of comments on the order of “Leave the poor woman alone,” but we also got offers from people who wanted to adopt every single one of the cats we’d brought back. Buoyed by our success, I put together a convoy of rescuers and we headed out to Mrs. Bettis’ to pick up the rest of her cats the following week.
We arrived to find the house the center of frenetic activity. There were two news satellite trucks parked at the curb and five patrol cars lined up on the dried-out grass of what had been a front lawn. The house itself was open and empty. Not a sign of a cat anywhere. As I watched, EMTs loaded a body bag into an ambulance. I told everyone to stay put and got out of the truck to find out what was going on. My first thought was that Mrs. Bettis, distraught over the idea of losing her beloved animals, had killed herself.
“It’s not the old lady,” a young cop said before the detective in charge of the scene walked over and told me to get lost. I walked slowly back to the truck, looking over the small crowd that had gathered. I spotted a thin woman who was watching the goings-on with the avid eyes of a born gossip. She caught my glance and drifted over, eager to spill what she knew to an appreciative audience. I wondered if she had been the woman who’d made the original call as a “concerned neighbor.”
The body, she told me was not Louanne Bettis but her husband. He had gone missing a little over a year ago under what had been called at the time “suspicious circumstances.” The police had come and searched her house but no one had spent too much time in the garage. The police had shown up early that morning after getting a tip to search the garage for the remains of Al Bettis.
They’d arrived to find Louanne and her cats gone and the garage door open. They’d found skeletal remains buried beneath the litter box. Identification was pending, but the skeleton was still wearing his wedding ring and odds were it wasn’t some stranger. Weird thing, added the neighbor, the phone tip had come from Louanne’s own land line, so the police had just missed her by an hour or so.
They never found Mrs. Bettis, but in Palmdale, a small city northeast of Los Angeles, an animal rescue group noticed there was suddenly a colony of 40 cats foraging in a dumpster behind a Ralph’s supermarket. Overwhelmed, they sent out a bulletin to every cat rescue organization in California. We were full up but when Roz heard the story, she asked me to go to Palmdale and see what was what.
When I drove up to the location in the “No Cat Left Behind” van, I was met by a middle aged man who looked like he’d just mustered out of the Army—brush cut gray hair, rock-hard body. Not your stereotypical cat lover. He was wearing a vintage Lynda Barry t-shirt bearing a cartoon of a poodle with a Mohawk. He told me his name was Bill Clinton, no relation.
He told me he had some volunteers coming in from Lancaster who’d agreed to take 20 of the cats and asked me if we could take ten. I said sure because I knew that’s what Roz would say.
One of the cats came up to me and rubbed against my leg. It was the fat, floppy ragdoll I’d seen Mrs. Bettis cuddle. When I picked him up, he stuck to me like Velcro and started to purr. Bill raised an eyebrow and smirked. “Sucker,” he said.
I named the cat Churchill. Churchill seems happy enough, but after living in such a large social group, he gets lonely when I’m away at work. I think he needs a brother or sister to keep him company.
I’ve got the room.
BIO: Katherine Tomlinson lives in Los Angeles where she works as a freelance writer and editor. Her fiction has been published in Thuglit, Astonishing Adventures Magazine, Acorn Newspaper and other print and online outlets. Her story "The Sin Eater" will appear in the January 2010 issue of Dark Fire.
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