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Thursday, October 28, 2010

Cat Hoarding in Fishtown (From this week's STAR column)

When I wrote about feral cats in this column over two years ago, a friend of mine expressed his displeasure at my choice of topics, and said, “Cats! Why are you writing about cats?” I was shocked at the vehemence of his tone, but later discovered the reason for his objections: He was allergic to cat dander, and hated cats. To each his own, of course, although I find it ironic that the second my cat Zoey entered my life, this friend went out of it, as if some unseen feline force had ushered him away on a slippery sliding board.

It’s no secret that cats and dogs are big business in the neighborhood. When I walk to Wawa every morning for my 24 ounce cup of Costa Rican coffee, I encounter innumerable dog walkers. Some of the dogs are big boned Border Collies, Huskies, Weimaraners and Boxers. These are dogs you’d expect to see in the country because big dogs need a lot of space. To my mind, however, a large dog in a small city house is comparable to stuffing a full grown carp into a gold fish bowl. It’s inhumane, but so is cat hoarding.

Cat hoarders have delusions of grandeur. By seeking to house as many feral cats as possible, they ruin the living environment for humans and inevitably destroy a quality life for the creatures they say they love.

Hoarding, of course, always begins as an altruistic measure to save one homeless kitty. Inevitably that one kitty becomes two kitties, and so on. In a house not too far from my own, I counted 11 cats. Among this collective of diverse sizes, calico, black and long hair, there’s of course a first among equals, the King Ferdinand or Queen Bee cat who gets most of the owner’s affection. And while the owners of these 11 cats more than likely can distinguish among the various feline personalities, a visitor would just see a room filled with multiple cats and then compute that as a confusing mass—or mess.

Having just one cat can be a handful, but seeing the unleashed pandemonium that I witnessed when visiting this house, made me realize the insanity of hoarding.

Walking through the door caused three cats to run upstairs, two to race under furniture, two to leap onto the dining room table, three to head for the kitchen and the rest to claw up the side of a dining room cabinet and then plunge into a hole in the ceiling, where they could then be heard racing back and forth under the ceiling tiles.

I don’t know about you, but all this reminds me of a terrible B-movie I saw as a kid titled “The Shrews,” in which armies of furry rodent-like creatures terrorize a family on an island.
I tried not to judge my friends too harshly. “Maybe these cats have to get used to me before they calm down and do the sniffing thing,” I thought. When this didn’t happen, I knew there was a permanent disconnect between these cats and their owners. I could plainly see that this community of felines didn’t really need the owners when it came to affection. They don’t need people because they have one another. At least with my single cat at home there’s an “emotional” connection, but with this hoard the resident humans were merely feeding and kitty litter “devices.”

The scene in this Fishtown house reminded me of the Philadelphia Zoo’s once notorious Monkey Mountain, an outdoor rock sculpture about as big as a skating rink with planted grass and trees where scores of monkeys and their young could enjoy the outdoors as visitors watched their antics from a side amphitheater. In the 1960s, Monkey Mountain was the Zoo’s most popular exhibit because you got to see how monkeys behave in large groups-- without human interference. What visitors to the zoo saw was not always “family friendly,” however. Indeed, much of it countered socially accepted codes of human behavior, especially “normal” notions of acceptable sexual conduct. Eventually, Monkey Mountain was abolished for smaller, more sterile cages. The monkey shenanigans show was over.

In this house of cats the air was thick with dander and kitty litter. Fur balls lined the rugs like rolling tumbleweed in the West. I began sneezing and itching. My hosts, oblivious as the day is long, dutifully watched cable TV, with one of them periodically throwing pieces of chicken (from a bag of Kentucky Fried) onto the floor for three kittens took this as a game of catch. Unfortunately, the floor was rife with thrown food particles that somehow didn’t make it into the cats’ mouths.

Sitting there, I tried to understand why anyone would want to create an overcrowded feline farm, especially in this economy (the occupants, by the way, had an empty refrigerator). Having eleven hungry felines to feed is no cheap endeavor.

Having said all this, I was not ready for what came next—fleas.

Through osmosis, or a transfer from one of the occupants’ trouser legs, Zoey was re-infested with fleas. Almost a year ago I wrote in this column about Zoey’s persistent flea problem, so the reoccurrence brought me to the edge of an emotional cliff.

“You have too many cats!” I told the occupants, “You need to trim them down to 2, or I will order everyone in your family to disrobe and put on zoot suits whenever you visit my house!”

You’d have thought that I was calling for the extermination of their grandmother, or an aged aunt who supplied them with weekend beer.

“I couldn’t live without my babies,” the biggest and strongest of the two sons said, scratching a flea bite on his arm. “I would cry and cry!”

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