When to intervene with the cat lady?
September 5, 2010 2:58 PM   Subscribe

My new neighborhood has a certified cat lady, and I am concerned for the 10+ cats I've seen roaming around with various signs of poor health and lack of vet care.

I am new to Austin, and I love everything about my new neighborhood, except the cat lady a few houses down.

I've counted a minimum of 10 cats at this house, possibly as many as 20 (no I haven't trespassed, they're in the front lawn, visible as I walk by). I saw one with really bad pus around his tear ducts, and another with a slight limp. Most that I can tell have one clipped ear, which would suggest they were feral and were trapped and neutered. They're all way too skinny, but I do see food and water bowls. As a cat person, this makes me really sad. I've said exactly 'hi' and no more to the owner when I saw her out front. She looks about 65- not so old that she can't care for them, but she could be low-income, mentally ill, whatever. I don't want to judge her or get in her business, but the way she's treating the cats is unacceptable. If the cats were previously feral and she is fostering a neutered colony, I guess that's better than the cats roaming unfixed with no food. For now I don't think I can or should do anything but keep a close eye on the cats for any signs of an emergency.

When is it appropriate to intervene and call 311 to report animal neglect? I don't know if an eye infection is enough to call the cops on her, but what is? Should I keep calling every time I see a problem, even if they don't investigate her, so there is a record over time?

If it happens that I see a cat with an obvious emergency injury, should I take it upon myself to get the cat to a vet, even though that is technically not legal? As I understand, animal control in Austin will not act if the cat has a known owner, but if the owner is neglecting to treat an eye infection, I shudder to think what worse things could happen. I am torn between my concern for these cats and my desire not to provoke this woman and stay out of her business.
posted by slow graffiti to Pets & Animals (23 answers total)
From the Austin Humane Society's website:
If you have encountered a stray animal, please contact Town Lake Animal Center, as that is the best option for reuniting the animal with their owner. The Town Lake Animal Center is located at 1156 W Cesar Chavez, and the phone number is (512) 972-4738.

I assume this is the same number you would call for this situation. Good luck, though. I called the Chicago SPCA a couple years ago to report some very sickly, sore-covered, poorly cared for cats that "belonged" (read: were fed irregularly, sometimes taken inside, but mostly lived in their dumpsters) to my next door neighbors. They actually sent someone out to check up on the situation but it was at a time when the cats usually weren't around anyway and never followed up.

Right now, I say it's up to you. If there are small children who play in the area, however (as was the case with where I lived), you should call as soon as possible.
posted by phunniemee at 3:07 PM on September 5, 2010

Maybe a better option would be looking for an active and reputable Austin animal rescue organization who can look into the situation. Calling 311 might lead to the cats being picked up and sent to a shelter where they'll be destroyed. Hopefully a local no-kill organization would investigate and if necessary, work with the city to get the cats to a no-kill shelter.

Take a few more days/weeks to observe and see if you can get a good read on the situation...
Making friends with this woman is also a possibility...depends how much you want to get involved.
You could tell her you're a cat lover and if she's taking care of feral cats, you'd like to help out a bit with some food. Some cans or a bag of dry food might be a great way to strike up a convo and get some insight into the situation before calling in the authorities.
posted by BillBishop at 3:19 PM on September 5, 2010

I live in Austin and will check with a friend of mine that has volunteered with a feral cat group. I'll get back to you.
posted by murrey at 3:45 PM on September 5, 2010 [1 favorite]

To answer your question succinctly, the point at which it is appropriate to call 311 is when you notice a decomposition-like smell coming from the house.
posted by juniperesque at 3:46 PM on September 5, 2010

You may be observing an animal hoarding situation.
posted by jeri at 3:47 PM on September 5, 2010

Austin and Texas laws must be different, because I've called animal control in cases where the animal's owner was known. Why don't you also look into the possibility of a TNR program operating in the area? They may know these cats, because feral cats will have a general territory, and the colony may be monitored.

The two major types of feline respiratory infections have ocular symptoms, not to mention a host of other possible causes for the eye infection. I'm listing the two that are airborne and highly infectious, and that show up in feral colonies all the time.

A no-kill shelter is probably not going to pick up these cats. That's just not how it works on the front lines, especially with a large group of at least ex-feral, tipped cats of unknown health status in a possible hoarding/neglect situation, especially when you already know one has an eye condition.
posted by Uniformitarianism Now! at 4:01 PM on September 5, 2010

Awesome, murrey's already on it.
posted by Uniformitarianism Now! at 4:02 PM on September 5, 2010

10 cats is far too many for one household, and for one person to look after! You should definitely call SOMEONE. Right away!
posted by foxy at 5:42 PM on September 5, 2010

Response by poster: Uniformitarianism- I got this from the City of Austin on the interwebs:
"If the injured animal is a stray:
Call 3-1-1 to make a report to Animal Protection.

If the injured animal has an owner:
Animal owners are responsible for taking the animal to a veterinarian.
Austin Animal Center cannot provide veterinary care for owned animals."

Let me know if this is somehow not accurate or a different agency handles it or something.
posted by slow graffiti at 5:59 PM on September 5, 2010

I live in St. Louis, not Austin, but here there are legal limits to how many animals someone can own. The limit is much fewer than ten. Maybe you could look into similar laws in the Austin area, and add some illegality to the situation so it's more likely to be looked into?
posted by hoperaiseshell at 6:50 PM on September 5, 2010

Why don't you just call 311 and ask them what Animal Protection or another local agency can (or would) do for these animals or their owner? There's no harm in asking, and if the cats are walking around with infections and injuries, they are not being properly cared for and are likely suffering. Whether they'd be humanely euthanized or adopted out to new homes, the cats would be better off than to remain neglected by an irresponsible or mentally ill owner.
posted by Meg_Murry at 6:58 PM on September 5, 2010 [1 favorite]

Most that I can tell have one clipped ear, which would suggest they were feral and were trapped and neutered.

It does sound like they are feral, and feral cats by definition can't "belong," to anyone, so I'm not sure it's a hoarding situation. I moved into a place that turned out to have feral cats. My neighbor and I got some humane traps and tried catching them. If you catch kittens before they are twelve weeks old you can tame them really easily, but it is very difficult to "tame" adult feral cats, so the kittens got neutered and adopted, but the adults got neutered, ear-clipped, and returned. There are still some adults I need to catch and TNR (it is harder to trap cats than you think, and the spay clinic isn't open every day), but this year there was only one feral kitten (who was caught and adopted) instead of the eight or so we had last year. So I consider it progress. I am also still feeding the feral cats. All the ones I'm feeding now seem pretty healthy and they're not skinny, but last summer I found one of the tomcats, very ill, with a gaping wound on his neck. I managed to get him to the vet, which tells you how sick he was, but I ended up having him euthanized. It was awful. There just aren't that many options for vet care for feral cats: getting them to the vet would involve trapping them, they aren't going to tolerate being examined, and most people are hesitant to spend thousands of dollars on a wild animal that has to be freed as soon as you get it back from the animal hospital. Maybe the cats should be fed more (have you considered feeding them yourself?) but I'm not sure there's much more that can practically be done for them.

I'm uncomfortable with TNR, even though I do it. Ideally I think all cats should be tamed and found homes. However, it just isn't feasible sometimes. I'm not sure adult ferals can ever be tamed, any more than wild animals can, and I couldn't even find homes for all the tame kittens (my neighbor and I ended up keeping some of them).
posted by Violet Hour at 7:16 PM on September 5, 2010 [2 favorites]

If these cats are not feral, that's a whole different situation. Can you pet them, or do you ever observe the cat lady petting them? If these are tame cats, it's a problem.
posted by Violet Hour at 7:20 PM on September 5, 2010

Just so you know, Town Lake Animal Shelter (apparently recently re-named Austin Animal Center) is NOT a no-kill facility. They euthanize plenty of animals there, so think hard before you call them, at least.
posted by Devils Rancher at 7:41 PM on September 5, 2010 [1 favorite]

If they are feral, what responsibilities do you think the person feeding them actually has?

I ask because while I trap "my" (neutered) ferals and take them to the vet for injuries, vaccine boosters, etc I don't think that's typical of people who feed feral cats. I "have" feral cats because they appeared in my barn one day; I got them fixed and vaccinated because I've seen cat population explosion and it's just too sad for me to bear. I feed and I baby them as they permit me to do because I'm a sucker.

Many people would trap them and take them to the pound (for certain euthanization) or get them fixed and forget about them. Either of these is a happier outcome than being left as a stray cat with intact sex organs; constant litters for the queens or frequent fighting for the toms, with high likelihood of getting a blood-borne disease for either, is a pretty miserable way to live. I don't think there's anything terribly wrong with getting a cat fixed and putting it back where it came from, and forgetting about it.

So somewhere in between: someone who happens to be feeding a ton of ferals, for who-knows-what reason? Where does their responsibility end? You don't even know what IS going on, since you haven't asked--the cat with the pussy eyes might just have a cold, the skinny cats might be hyperthyroid or old and unable to put on weight. Perhaps this is a retirement colony, cats that were too sick or old to make it as feral anymore. At least they have clipped ears, so they're fixed, and not likely to cause population explosion.

Strict numbers, by the way, are pointless; the person above who says "10 cats are too many" has clearly never tried ;) Some people can, some people can't. Trying to make an outright judgment just on numbers just suggests that you don't know how well animals can be managed in groups, not that no one knows how to manage groups of animals.
posted by galadriel at 7:56 PM on September 5, 2010

The ASPCA deals with animal hoarders all the time. She sounds like one--please contact them.
posted by melancholyplay at 1:06 AM on September 6, 2010

If you call the authorities on her, animal control would come and take the animals away, put them in a shelter for about one day, then kill them. There's a huge, huge cat population explosion, shelters are dying due to insufficient funding, they're understaffed and there's simply no room or food to keep them all alive. People have to realize that there is no magic animal fairy at the local shelter. If people want change and to help - they have to pitch in individually and lend a hand.
posted by watercarrier at 4:56 AM on September 6, 2010

Unpopular opinion ahead, but here we go.

These cats are ear-tipped, meaning they are feral -- unsocial -- but also neutered. While it is great that they are neutered, it's simply not good enough. Cats, as domesticated animals, are not suited for "wild" life. They get hit by cars, poisoned by antifreeze, shot with bb guns (and real guns!), suffer from major illnesses, and die. Feral cats do not die of old age, for the most part. Let's be realistic, here. If someone is taking care of a feral cat colony, how do they intend to get injured or ill or simply thin cats to the vet? It is difficult to trap a cat once -- almost impossible to trap a cat twice. That is the double-edged sword of TNR: you've trapped them to prevent them from contributing to cat overpopulation, which is wonderful, but you've almost guaranteed them an eventual unpleasant death. (Sorry, warned you this would be an unpopular opinion.)

So, what's the right thing to do? People above have mentioned no-kill shelters. I think this is total lunacy. I am hard-pressed to imagine something crueler and more inhumane than dooming a feral cat to a life in a cage. Think about it. A feral cat is simply NOT going to get adopted from a no-kill shelter. Nobody wants a cat they can't handle, or even get near. Nobody wants a cat that is going to fear them, and be dangerous to their children. They are going to adopt the cute, social cat 2 cages over. I used to volunteer at a no-kill shelter. This is not speculation, this is fact. We had cats there that had been there over 9 years, and in all that time, still had not stopped fearing humans. That is abhorrent. That is simply terrible. There is nothing kind about that fate at all. Nothing.

What do I think is the right thing to do? I would trap a feral cat and deliver that cat to a traditional shelter in a heartbeat, with all of the compassion and love in the world. Shelter workers are not nightmarish beasts, getting glee out of killing every animal that comes in their doors. The cats will be evaluated for adoption -- those that stand a good chance of being socialized, and are healthy, will get a chance at a REAL home. Those that are very sick or totally feral will likely be put to sleep. While this is sad, I strongly believe this is kinder than leaving them outdoors with illnesses, injuries, and the myriad dangers presented to them by humans. I have seen with my own eyes dozens of feral cats that have been hit by cars, or are suffering from major abscesses, or who have gone blind from untreated infections, or who are walking around on one or two crippled legs, or are so emaciated and malnourished that they can't even take a step without falling. I have seen these things; they are not theories or possibilities to me, they are reality.

So, slow graffiti, you're in a very difficult situation. She obviously considers these cats "hers." You can't, in good conscience, start trapping these cats and taking them to shelters, or doing ANYTHING to them, for that matter. My advice would be to strike up a conversation with her, as uncomfortable as that might be. Find out how she does feel about the cats. Does she consider them her companions? Did a previous tenant move out and leave this colony behind, whom she now feels obligated to feed? Are they at all friendly? What are her plans for the ones that are sick and limping? Is she able to afford vet care for them? If not, would she like assistance trapping them and getting them to a shelter? And so on. If you really want to help these cats, you might have to do a lot of legwork yourself. But as an obviously compassionate person, it might be worth it to you to do so.
posted by srrh at 7:08 AM on September 6, 2010 [8 favorites]

Haven't heard back from my friend yet, but you might call the Animal Trustees of Austin (per another friend's suggestion). The ATA is a great group and do a lot for animals here in Austin. They will likely give you the best advice as to how to handle this situation.

There is also the Feral Cat Society of Austin that may be able to give you guidance if these are feral cats.

If I learn more, I will post but start there. Thanks for caring about the kitties.
posted by murrey at 7:52 AM on September 6, 2010

From the Children of Hoarders web site:

ASPCA Launches 'ASPCA(R) Mission: Orange(TM)' in Austin, Texas
Thursday February 8, 12:01 pm ET

Collaborative Campaign Aims to Create A Country of Humane Communities,
One Community at a Time

Reducing Intake. This includes anti-cruelty training for police and public
workers, supporting the work of an animal hoarding task force, cross
reporting with child protective services for at-risk animals and children,
helping to establish dog parks, and promoting the use of microchips so
lost pets can be reunited with their families;

Posted on Thursday, February 08, 2007 @ 21:03:56 CST by Donna

And there's this (link to Google Docs).

It looks like the ASPCA in the area started dealing with animal hoarding issues a couple of years ago, and created a task force, so if you suspect a hoarding situation, you might start there.
posted by magstheaxe at 9:26 AM on September 6, 2010

Ok, this is going to be an unpopular opinion, but why are you labeling this woman as a “certified cat lady?” Because she is feeding ferals? (A good thing). 10 cats is a tiny colony. I know people who feed colonies of 50+ or more every day. They do not belong to anyone and they are not being “hoarded.” You can't “hoard” cats you don't own that live outside. You did not mention any odors. Are there any? There should not be if the cats are living outside. Then you surmise she may be mentally ill???? Because she feeds feral cats? You have already judged her. You have already gotten in her business. Without even so much as speaking to her or attempting to find out what she is doing.

Austin does not have leash laws for cats. Therefore, Animal Control will not pick up these cats, nor any stray or loose cat. We actually tried to call them and get them to assist us in getting a pregnant feral out of a culvert when there was a torrential rainstorm coming and she was about to give birth to the kittens and they refused. If the Animal Cruelty Department were to do an investigation they could if there were abuse obtain a warrant and seize the cats if they could catch them. I cannot imagine this ever happening in a situation with feral cats and have never heard of it happening, but there are a lot of people out there feeding feral cats, so lets not start a trend.

There is no limit on how many cats a person may have in Austin. If there were, hopefully it would not apply to feral cats, since they are not owned. There is a 6 dog limit inside the city limits.

You don't know about the cat with a limp. She may have had it checked out when the cat was altered and the vet found it to not be fixable (congenital, old injury, whatever). She may not have the money to take the cat to the vet (there are low cost solutions for spay/neuter – not so many for vet care). There is an “injured feral fund” at the Austin Humane Society. She may not know about that. She may be trying to retrap the cat and finding it difficult – you don't know, and you haven't asked. If the other cat does have an eye injury, how would you suggest getting ointment or drops into a cat you cannot touch – several times a day? I have not seen the cat so I can't say – the eye may need to be removed – in which case again she may be trying to retrap the cat (a difficult proposition) or she may just not have enough money to have it done. Perhaps you could offer to help her with these things, learn how to trap, and pay for the vet care. That would be a great way to get involved. You might even get into TNR yourself:)

As for the weight, do you know how to determine proper weight for a cat? (Most house cats are overweight). She may be feeding them all she can and may for that matter be taking food out of her own mouth to do that. You don't know because again, you have not asked. Also, many ferals lose weight in the summer because it is just too hot and they don't feel like eating. Offering to help her with food would be a GREAT thing, if she needs it.

Rescue groups are NOT going to intervene with these cats. There are healthy, adoptable, social cats being killed every day at TLAC and many other government run shelters in surrounding counties. This is a colony that is already TNRed so TNR groups are not going to intervene either, they are busy TNRing the thousands of feral cats in Austin. No no-kill shelter will take them because they are not adoptable and not only would it be cruel to them, as someone else mentioned, but would take space away from cats who could actually be adopted.

If she can pet the cats, there is something called “feral fixation.” If you feed ferals every day for years, they may let you pet them – or they may not. I have some I have been feeding for 4 years. Some will allow me to pet them and some will not. Just because I can pet them – does not mean I can pick them up and put them in a carrier and waltz off to the vet like you can with a domesticated cat. It just doesn't work that way.
posted by moonvine at 4:35 AM on September 7, 2010 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks all. I exchanged emails with the feral cat program coordinator at the Austin Humane Society and they told me this is a known problem house, but the majority of the cats were trapped and neutered and vaccinated as I guessed, after the owner was prodded enough. I will ask if she needs help with food, but for as many cats as there are I won't be able to do much good on a grad student budget.
As for whether or not this is a hoarding situation- it sounds like maybe strictly not, so thanks to those who helped me understand that hoarding could be different from a feral colony that is being managed as well as can be expected under the circumstances. However, I still disagree with how she is keeping 'her' cats, but it looks like those who are in a better position to help are already doing more than I could alone.
posted by slow graffiti at 1:28 PM on September 7, 2010

Even donating a little bit of food will help.
The other thing that will help is L-Lysine -- you can buy it anywhere, I think I got a giant bottle of pills for humans at Target for $11 -- crush the pills into powder and sprinkle it lightly on the food. One bottle should last a couple months, and it slows the growth of the virus (that causes sniffles & eye gunk) in the stomach.

And srrh: removing/euthing a feral colony has been proven to not be effective -- it just allows a new colony to move in to that location. Trap-Neuter-Return has shown the best results to date for limiting the stray/feral cat population. See Alley Cat Allies for more information.
posted by MeiraV at 7:23 AM on September 15, 2010

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