Toby is underweight, with scarred ears and a choppy haircut where severe matts have been cut out. Still, he looks healthier than he did when our Animal Rescue Team first saw him, says Katie DeMent as she sits on the floor petting him at our Maryland care and rehabilitation center in February.

On Jan. 31, our Animal Rescue Team joined local law enforcement agencies and the Mississippi Animal Rescue League to remove 176 cats from three residential properties owned by one individual in Crystal Springs, Mississippi. Most of the cats lived in those three homes, but rescuers also found cats in outdoor enclosures and under a deck. “Everywhere we turned, whether it was in the actual house, in a closet, outside, there were cats,” says DeMent, senior manager of animal care.

Inside, the homes were filthy and dimly lit, with little natural light. Responders needed headlamps for the darkest rooms. Some animals roamed freely while others were found in small wire crates encrusted in excrement. The cats appeared to have little stimulation or human interaction; DeMent describes it as living in “sensory deprivation.” One cat, a senior male the rescue team later named Simon, was found living alone in a chicken coop-type enclosure. He ran up to rescuers as they opened his enclosure, looking for affection.

The living room of the house, filled with cages of cats.
Some of the cats were found confined to cages with little stimulation or enrichment.
Meredith Lee
Three gray cat peer at the camera while crowded in a single cage.
Meredith Lee

“Cats are so sensitive,” says Allison Bundock, HSUS senior specialist of animal health, noting the importance of meeting cats’ physical and psychological needs. Although some cats—including Simon—were friendly, the majority were fearful, she says. Bundock worked at an outdoor veterinary station. As she received reports from responders about how evasive the cats were, she became “really worried about how realistic it was going to be to place many of them” into new homes. 

In addition to behavioral issues, some cats suffered from upper respiratory infections, skin conditions, ear infections and dehydration. Simon had lost all his teeth except one canine, which was later removed. The team brought several cats to an emergency vet right away—including Toby, who was severely emaciated and dehydrated. His fur was so matted with litter and feces it was likely causing pain. 

The 176 cats went to confidential locations to receive care. One night, a veterinary technician noticed Simon was having trouble breathing and brought him to an emergency clinic, where veterinarians discovered he had a heart issue. After receiving treatment, Simon went to The Homeward Bound Project of MS. A veterinary technician with the rescue fell in love with Simon and provided him a loving hospice home where he spent his last weeks before passing away in March. 

Many of the cats will find new homes through our shelter and rescue partners, such as Nashville Humane Association and Kentucky Humane Society, but 32 cats went to our care center for additional medical and behavioral care.

Aside from his physical looks, behavior-wise you would have never known [Toby] lived in such horrible conditions.

Katie DeMent, The HSUS

The team took things slowly while the cats acclimated to the center and gained confidence. Staffers put sheets over their kennels to avoid overstimulation, and when they checked on the cats, they often found them hiding in the corners of their cages.

Enrichment items—including food puzzles and frozen treats—helped stimulate and engage the cats. They soon began coming out of their shells. When one large tomcat named Banks arrived, he “did not want anyone in his space, didn’t want anyone looking at him, thinking about him,” says Bundock. Within a few weeks, Banks stood at the front of his kennel squeakily meowing and rolling around as staffers walked by, asking for pets.

Even something as small as a homemade cat toy can make a difference, says Bundock. “[They] realize, ‘OK, I’m safe, I can play, I can be happy.’ ”

Closeup of Toby, a rescued cat.
Good-natured Toby was emaciated and dehydrated when rescuers first found him.
Meredith Lee

One cat arrived ready to socialize: “Aside from his physical looks, behavior-wise you would have never known [Toby] lived in such horrible conditions,” says DeMent. After gaining weight, he went to Fredericksburg SPCA in Virginia where he quickly caught the eye of a foster family. If it is a good match, they will make it official by adopting him.

Despite the team’s attentive care, a few cats never warmed up to people. Because they had previously lived outdoors, the team decided a traditional home wouldn’t be a good fit: Instead, these cats would be happier living on a farm where they could receive care from a distance. In April, after getting sterilized, microchipped and ear-tipped, those cats went to Uncle Beez Rescue Farm in New Jersey. Banks and 12 other cats went to Humane Society of Chittenden County in Vermont. 

As a self-described “cat person,” Bundock felt especially fulfilled once all 32 cats went to shelter and rescue partners. At one point, she had been unsure of the frightened cats’ prospects. Over a few months, she watched them heal physically and mentally. Now, she sends them off to start their new lives.

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