In early September, authorities and a handful of volunteers rescued a large number of malnourished and neglected cats that were suffering from flea infestations and disease from a property in Whitefish.
The Whitefish Police Department, Flathead Sheriff’s Office and County Animal Control executed a search warrant at a home on East Edgewood Drive on September 7 and initiated the removal of more than 130 cats and two dogs , all in poor condition.
Currently, the Flathead Spay and Neuter Task Force is caring for 93 of the cats, KittyMOM’s rescue organization has 28, and the county shelter is home to six cats and two dogs. The owner signed a letter renouncing animals.
Several of the cats that have returned to good health, thanks to the hard work of animal organizations and volunteers, will be adopted this weekend from the Flathead Spay and Neuter Task Force in Columbia Falls.
Charges have yet to be filed, but the case has been referred to the Flathead County District Attorney for review, according to Whitefish Police Chief Bridger Kelch.
The Flathead Valley has not seen such a serious case of animal hoarding since the Criswell case 12 years ago, when 120 cats were seized from a trailer in Marion.
BEFORE authorities recovered the animals in early September, Chelsea Hilbun contacted several agencies for help with the growing problem. Hilbun’s father has lived next door to the cat-infested property for almost four years, and she described the deplorable conditions.
His best guess is that there were litters born every two weeks at the home on East Edgewood Drive. She took in a five week old kitten and a seven week old kitten and bathed them several times to get rid of the fleas.
She also buried young kittens more than once and said the cats weren’t wormed, never checked and barely fed. She and her children saw horribly injured animals, at least one case of cannibalism among cats, and other nightmarish scenes.
“I was walking in the woods and saw this kitten playing with something and thought it was a dead mouse,” Hilbun recalled. “It was a dead kitten.”
The numbers are astonishing. Cats are able to reproduce when they are about five months old and without neutering or neutering they can have three litters a year. At last count, 143 cats had been removed from the property.
“In the evening, when it’s warm… you can walk in this field and find (several) piles of five to ten cats,” Hilbun said.
She said they were all over the driveway, on the porch, under every vehicle, in the woods. Once, as she stood on the property line and sprinkled food on the ground, more than 30 cats emerged from everywhere to eat the food.
“I was shocked. I know there are a lot of cats there, but to see so many cats out there was absolutely crazy,” she said.
The yard offered several places where the cats could nest. Hilbun describes the property as having a mattress sitting flat on a “pile of junk”, an overturned hot tub and another large pile of trash, wood and possibly furniture, which the cats were using. all as shelter.
Many cats are hit by cars traveling on East Edgewood Drive and often several can be seen in the ditch. Hilbun said many of the dead were dumped in the woods near his father’s house.
“You can’t stand on that part of the property most of the time because it absolutely reeks of death – it smells so bad,” she said.
DARCY ALBERT, founder of KittyMOM’s Rescue Organization, said when officials go to a reported location and see some food and water nearby, their hands are tied. They can’t do anything about it unless they can prove that they were cruel or negligent.
“When Chelsea called (late August) and said she was burying kittens and they were covered in fleas,” Albert recalled. “That’s where I said, this is direct evidence and you need to call animal control and dig your heels in. This is a public safety hazard. None of them has been vaccinated against rabies This is animal cruelty and neglect and needs to be addressed.
Once the Flathead Spay and Neuter task force agreed to take over the cats, the wait for the warrant was short. After being removed from the property, the animals were transported to the working group where the organization’s chief executive, Mimi Beadles, and her team weighed, vaccinated, sex-sorted and photographed the cats. They treated the cats for fleas, mites and worms and neutered or neutered each one.
Beadles said it took days for animals to realize what cat food was, and almost all cats were underweight. The task force’s cat veterinarian, Dr. Kristin Hollemans, found that all of the cats had adult teeth, indicating that they were all over five months old.
In general, cats should weigh a pound per month of age until about six months old, but many of these cats are so small that they were mistaken for very young kittens before being examined, Beadles said.
“Most of the kittens never survived,” Beadles explained. “They were all infested with fleas.”
Each cat was tested for FIV (feline immunodeficiency virus) and four were found positive for feline leukemia. The national average for FIV is less than 4% of all cats, but nearly half of the cats at the Edgewood property tested positive for FIV.
“Their life expectancy should still be almost that of a regular cat, around 10 years,” Beadles said. “It’s just to keep them healthy and away from other cats.”
The Spay and Neuter Working Group is hosting an adoption event this weekend and will offer a special price for couple adoptions, since these cats have so far lived in groups.
“What would help these cats the most right now is getting them adopted,” Beadles said.
The county shelter provided much of the supplies to the Spay and Neuter task force, so the only thing they need now is more clumping litter.
“Litter is number one and cash donations would be great,” Beadles said, adding that they would also appreciate help emptying litter boxes.
The cats appear to be mostly Russian Blues, a breed known for their steel gray coat and green eyes. Beadles describes them as “beautiful” and they are all exceptionally friendly. They are so cute that she chose one to take home and another to be adopted by KittyMOM volunteer Bonnie Hodges, who has spent over 100 hours trapping cats on the property.
KittyMOM’s has already adopted 11 of the cats.
“We hope the community will step up and do adoptions,” Albert said. “We are looking for good responsible owners who can afford veterinary care and keep them indoors. They’ve had their fill of trying to survive on the outside.
HILBUN SAID that every Whitefish officer and most of the Sheriff’s Department as well as every relief organization and humane society knew about this house.
“Police have been to the scene several times,” Hilbun said. “My father tried to shake things up. It’s been going on for three or four years. »
While law enforcement and animal advocates may have known about this property for years, the lack of manpower, lack of space for animals, and lack of other support systems in Flathead Valley slowed the action in this case.
The excessive time it took to obtain and successfully execute the search warrant is also a source of frustration for everyone involved.
“It drives me crazy that it took so long because 30 cats entered the shelter a year ago from this location,” Beadles said, pointing to the dozens of cats currently in her care. “None of these cats should have been born.”
Albert added: ‘There are no ordinances, no law enforcement for cats. Whenever someone calls animal control, their response is “we don’t answer calls from cats”.
Although there are no cat ordinances, Beadles pointed out that there are Montana laws about how dogs and cats should be cared for. She said local shelters take in both animals, in accordance with their mission statements, and taxpayers pay for them to care for the dogs and cats.
“People need to be responsible for these cats,” Beadles said. “We’ve had discussions with dispatch, the sheriff’s department and even the shelter about (the attitude), ‘Oh, they’re free spirits’. No. No, they’re not.
Chief Kelch said the resources needed to deal with this situation are continually dwindling due, in part, to increased demand for services and a lack of resources to meet the demand.
“I will…have a post-surgery discussion, with the right partners across the county, (and) social services. Why is it taking so long? It’s ridiculous,” Chief Kelch said. “We can’t continue on the road we’ve been on…it’s just, (it) has been too long.”
Flathead Spay and Neuter Task Force will be hosting an adoption event on Saturday and Sunday, October 8 and 9, from noon to 4 p.m. each day. The task force is at 3491 Trumble Creek Road in Columbia Falls.
The adoption fee is $50 and new adopters must bring a carrier.