Cat Collector

An Animal Welfare Investigator Makes A Too-Common Call.

I am an Animal Control Field Enforce Officer here in Pima County, but this story is common in any community in the country. It is just one of the many different experiences someone in my occupation encounters in a single day ...

Everyone hates having to go to a home like this. It is easily distinguishable from the other old homes on the street, which are all well kept and newly painted. Ask nearly everyone on the street and they will tell you that some old crazy woman lives here. She hardly ever comes outside, but when they run into her at the store, she is usually loaded down with cans of cheap cat food, which everyone thinks she eats. And they say she smells awful, unlike anything they are familiar with.

Her neighbors planted big flowering bushes or erected tall fences to block the sight and smells out long ago. That only isolates the house even more from the rest of the street. It is, in effect, a fortress now on three sides.

The front of the house is fenced in chainlink but covered in vines, weeds or boards that block the view into the yard. Unfortunately, the gate is not locked. I rattle it loudly and call out, "Hello, is anyone home?" Then I listen carefully. I carry no weapon, and my only defense is my clipboard, my wits and a two-way radio that doesn't always work correctly.

Right away that old familiar smell passes under my nose. It's a horrible scent that makes you want to cover your nose and mouth. It pierces through like smelling salts or ammonia. I enter the yard and keep a keen eye low, looking under and around the clutter that has accumulated over many, many years. You never know what is hiding in the clutter. I especially look for signs of a dog, but all I see are the remnants of a doghouse covered over with bushes and weeds.

I walk the narrow path, the only space left in the yard, and catch movement everywhere but always at the corner of my eye. The house is old, so the cottonwood trees in the yard are large, overgrown and neglected, like the rest of the house. I can hear the scattering of little creatures. Cats or rats, it's usually one or the other.

Near the front door, which is not clearly visible from the street, I get my first clear sight of the cats, more than I can count before they scatter, all thin and sickly looking, with runny discharge from their eyes and noses. They have never had physical human contact. They are terrified and wild, but not truly feral because they depend on a human for food. The young ones hide near garbage-can lids filled with insect-infested dry cat food and mounds of empty cans. It's hard to make it to the door without stepping on the glass bowls of dried or spoiling milk.

The window next to the door is open about six inches and an old dirty linen curtain is blowing outwards. Several of the cats went into the house through the window when they scattered. The smell is blown into my face and I start to gag. I still cannot see inside because that would mean getting closer and directly in line with window, and no one would ever expect or want me to do that.

I knock on the first solid piece of wood I can find with the well-worn edge of my clipboard. I can hear movement coming from everywhere inside the house. No one comes to the door, but I know she is home. It actually does not matter at this point. Based on what I have already observed, numerous criminal animal-welfare law violations are evident. These include inadequate/unsanitary shelter, inadequate/insect-infested food, failure to provide veterinary care, and excessive animal waste. I have grounds enough for a judge to issue a search warrant for the whole property, including the inside of the house.

On the off chance that she might call, I leave a notice on the front door. As I leave the porch, I snap several Polaroid pictures. I'll be back again, most likely with a search warrant, a peace officer, and more equipment to impound these poor sick and neglected animals. The resident will receive criminal citations and orders to clean up the mess.

Due to the extreme number of sick and wild animals, most will be humanely destroyed. We cannot afford the resources that would be taken away from the (also too large) healthy and friendly adoption population. It's sad, but a reality that we must face each day.

Hopefully the courts can assess the mental capability of the resident and get her help that she would otherwise not receive. If she is deemed competent, she might think twice before neglecting another animal.

The house will probably be condemned. It will be torn down, removed like a cancerous tumor, leaving a scar in the neighborhood that someday might heal over. Over time, the bushes will be cut back and the walls will be taken down, but the empty space will probably still be there.

NOT ALL OF these calls end the same. If a problem is caught early enough and if the resident cooperates, we sometimes can work together to find solutions that are not so drastic. Unfortunately, many times the problem is already beyond the means of social services and requires stronger enforcement.

Pima Animal Control is the only animal-control agency in Pima County. Unlike the Humane Society of Tucson, which depends on donations, does no law enforcement and does not go into the field to pick up animals, our agency performs most of the unpleasant jobs involving animals. Of all the animal law enforcement agencies in Tucson--Game and Fish, Livestock, and the Department of Agriculture--we are usually the first responding agency for any animal complaint. We are the ones who patrol the streets and parks for leash law violations and animals that have bitten. We are the people who bring in animals that are vicious.

Last year alone, we picked up thousands of sick, injured or dead animals from our streets and investigated 2,771 owner neglect and abuse complaints from the public. These complaints resulted in 886 impounded animals and 592 criminal citations.

Just last year, the state of Arizona enacted laws making certain neglect and abuse violations a felony. Several of these cases have already resulted in prosecution. Although investigation and prosecution of felony cases falls under the jurisdiction of the police and sheriff, animal control officers are, once again, usually the first to respond.

We all live within a community of people and animals. If people are not a part of the solution, then they are usually a part of the problem. My job, as distasteful as it might seem, can be extremely rewarding; it works toward the solution.

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