The Doctor and the Cat House Part I: The First Encounter

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In this ongoing series, Dr. Thomas N. Told shares his thoughts and experiences as a family medicine physician for more than 35 years.

I have heard it jokingly said by other physicians that the Master of Public Health (MPH) is the only degree where the graduates will earn less income after graduating than before. Though I did not earn an MPH, I spent 34 years volunteering as the Chief Public Health Officer of Moffat County, in Colorado, and frequently wished I had earned one.  True, my only pay for that job was qualifying to attend county-sponsored picnics and Christmas parties, so my friends were right that public health as a profession was not a real money-maker.

However, during my volunteer service to the Board of County Commissioners, I quickly realized that my efforts were crucial to maintaining both the physical health of all our citizens and the economic health of our entire county. I happily stayed on the job for more than three decades because I felt that I was contributing much to all the citizens of Northwest Colorado.  Later, I convinced my son to earn his MPH before he entered medical school because every small town’s medical system thrives when it has a well-trained County Health Officer in charge.

It has become clear to me as I reflect back over those three decades that I was richly rewarded with unbelievable experiences and personal development opportunities. There was always something to be learned from helping those who had run into trouble interacting with our rural environment or who were not observing good health practices.  One experience, in particular, stands out among the rest and would leave an indelible mark on our community’s memory and our public health history. If you were to approach any of the old-timers in Moffat County who worked in law enforcement or public health at that time, I bet they would smile and pause for a moment as memories of the Cat House came flooding back.

At this point, you may be thinking that in a county with the tagline “Where the Old West Remains,” this story about a “cat house” would be about a brothel or establishment of such reputation. Indeed, for several years, Moffat County’s police department did deal with a mobile brothel fashioned out of an old converted bus. Sometimes, a passenger of the bus got more than they bargained for, ending up at my clinic, which doubled as the county public health office.

That story, however, will have to wait for another time, because the Cat House I am speaking of was one devoid of human subjects.  It was, in fact, a former family home that had been taken over by a multitude of furry, feral felines whose numbers multiplied daily. At a glance, this seems like an easy problem to solve, right? Why not round up a group of school kids and adult cat-lovers and take them over to the Cat House to pick out a new pet? We could even have the town veterinarian there to check the health of the cats, streamlining the adoption process. Voila! The Cat House problem is solved! Unfortunately, there is more to this story that complicated the removal of the cats, and which resulted in a growing public health crisis.

Photo by Marthijn Brinks on Unsplash

Just a year after I was sworn in as the Moffat County Health Officer in 1976, the US Congress passed the Community Reinvestment Act of 1977 which encouraged banks to make it easier for those in credit-deprived areas—which included our county—to get home loans that they previously could not qualify for.  The plan allowed many to experience part of the “American Dream”—home ownership—which bettered the housing situation in the communities they lived in. This plan worked so well in our community that in a short time many Housing and Urban Development (HUD) homes sprang up seemingly overnight.  Our community was happy to see new growth, and the new residents were warmly welcomed. However, the happiness it brought was sadly short-lived, because many of those new owners, who easily qualified for the HUD loans, could not keep up with their monthly payments and eventually lost their homes to foreclosure.  Faced with the prospect of losing their house or becoming inundated with debt, many new homeowners moved out, leaving their houses vacant and unattended. The sheer volume of abandoned HUD homes quickly overwhelmed the housing agency and many of these houses fell into disrepair, sitting uninhabited for months or even years.  As you might have guessed by now, this would be the fate of our Cat House.

I would never know whether the cats were abandoned by the owner of the house when they abruptly left or if the cats entered the house after it was abandoned. Whatever the case, the cats—completely sheltered from predators, the elements, and with their heating bill being paid for by the government—flourished in their new environment. In a short time, their numbers quickly exploded.

We also never knew who stopped by in the night to feed them or who left the cold-water taps dripping just enough to give the feline occupants an endless supply of water.  We did wonder if these folks were well-meaning friends of the previous owners or just good Samaritans who knew of the cats’ plight and stepped in to help. Whoever that person/persons were, they had a key for the front door and a demand for food from the new occupants that grew every week.   

The cats, though technically squatters, had become wards of the federal government, but the coinciding bureaucracy and red tape made the manner of delegating responsibility for the cats’ welfare complicated. It also meant that the local government had no authority to take control of the abandoned house and capture the cats. Instead, the local authorities would have to apply for, and then receive, express approval from the appropriate federal authorities. For now, the cats had a reprieve and new litters of kittens continued to arrive.

It was not long before the local government phones began to ring off the hook with complaints from the cats’ neighbors about the disturbing and intolerable noises coming from the Cat House at night.  The neighbors’ sleep was often interrupted when the tomcats sang their nightly challenge songs to one another or when cat fights broke out, with cats howling, snarling, and scratching one another all before the sun came up. The neighbors demanded action, not just because of the noise, but also because the Cat House was a breeding ground for disease, a fire hazard, and a huge eyesore for the neighborhood.

For the good Samaritans, feeding such a large and unruly mob of cats was becoming hazardous. They began showing up at odd times, either at night or in the early morning to avoid detection from law enforcement and neighbors. And to avoid cat attacks, they would quietly open the front door and throw a fifty-pound unopened bag of cat food onto the living room floor for the cats to tear open and devour.  This maneuver would also trigger a loud, violent ruckus, as the feed sacks were quickly shredded by more than a hundred hungry, surly cats.  The situation was deteriorating rapidly, and the wait for overwhelmed officials in Denver or Washington D.C. to advise us on a course of action seemed out of the question since any meaningful resolution from them likely wouldn’t arrive for months or even years.  Time and past experience would prove this assumption correct: for the federal government’s response would not happen until years later, after the crisis had already been resolved.

Faced with a growing public health crisis, the commissioners gave me the task of visiting the Cat House to determine if it should be condemned as a health hazard. Normally, we didn’t have jurisdiction over federal property, but we did have implied authority if we declared it an imminent public health emergency (or other imminent danger) to public health and safety.  

I agreed to take the lead but requested law enforcement backup to accompany me and our family medicine resident from Denver who was rotating in our clinic at the time.  While I did want the resident to see what a rural County Health Officer’s job was like, I secretly wanted him to tag along so there would be someone stronger and faster than I was, just in case we ran into trouble.  

Photo by Dan Meyers on Unsplash

The following day, accompanied by city police and sheriff’s deputies, we breached the front door and peered inside the house.  We guessed that the cats were fed the night before, so they would be more docile and not as wild and aggressive as they tended to become when hungry.  Our assumption ended up being correct, which allowed us to slowly pass through the living room without a fight. There were empty, torn-up sacks of cat food all over the floor, but not a single scrap could be seen anywhere.  In just a few hours, a 50+ pound bag of dry cat food had been completely consumed by the cats.

One of the officers had breached the back door at the same time we entered, and when he opened that door a gust of wind rushed through the house. For those of us in the living room, what greeted us next was the strong, acrid odor of cat urine and droppings piled in every corner. Dried puddles of urine had permeated the few bits of carpet that remained, and most of the exposed subfloor had been soaked as well.  The smell turned our stomachs and made our eyes water. I am sure even Mike Roe from the show Dirty Jobs would have been similarly repelled by that stench if he were to encounter a similar situation today. 

We carefully made our way around the few pieces of furniture in the middle of the room.  Both the furniture covers and stuffing were completely torn off, leaving only springs and wooden skeletons.  Apparently, that material was carried off to make nest-like beds for the newborn kittens living in protected spaces, like drawers, and under the counters. In the kitchen, we found a litter of kittens in the open microwave, another litter of older kittens in the open dishwasher, and several kitten litters of different ages in half-open drawers.  The curtains and drapes hung precariously from broken rods, where cats had tried climbing them to reach higher perches, or in search of potential openings in the walls and ceilings where they could make their escape from the house.  Some window shades and coverings were laid on the floor, pushed into piles that made suitable beds for adult cats. 

We also found cats in the attic and in the crawlspace under the house. They were behind the showers and sinks in the plumbing access areas, in the upstairs closets and cupboards, and even large holes in the walls contained cats that would poke their heads out in complete surprise at seeing a human—possibly for the first time.  I was certain these holes were man-made since I doubted cats had the strength to make holes in the drywall.  These large holes in the walls also formed access tunnels to other hidden areas of the house, to be discovered in the days that followed.

It was a huge relief to exit the Cat House, leaving the sights and smells behind. Everyone in our exploratory team could not believe the conditions we witnessed inside.  I had been called to many houses inhabited by hoarders who collected everything—cats, dogs, and even goats included—but nothing of the magnitude we experienced in the Cat House. 

The decision to condemn the house was swift and easy. In my view, the house was totally unfit for human habitation, and I recommended it be destroyed, preferably by a controlled burn, as we would do later with toxic houses that contained meth labs. Before demolition could occur, officials from the Department of Housing and Urban Development would need to be involved, but first, we had to evacuate an unknown number of cats and kittens to safer, more sanitary conditions that our veterinarian would arrange. From what we saw on our inspection, we thought a successful cat round-up may require dismantling the house to find them all. 

In Part Two, I will cover the Great Cat Round-Up conducted by a troop of novice cat herders, including the casualties suffered and lessons learned from the ordeal. We will also cover the fate of the feline occupants and the house that they called home.

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