SPRING HILL — Dr. Kim Domokos removed her surgical mask and took a deep breath of fresh air.
For two hours Friday, the veterinarian and a team of workers from the Florida SPCA had collected and evaluated more than 40 cats they had removed from a white mobile home on High Point Boulevard. They were told to expect roughly 65 cats but found nearly 80.
"It's like another world in there," Domokos said. "I'm going to have flashbacks in my nightmares."
For three years, neighbors say, Kristine Pacek's brood of felines grew. Then Pacek, 39, moved in December and left the cats behind. Neighbors complained that the odor wafting from the home forced them to stay indoors.
The Hernando County Sheriff's Office issued 65 citations, mostly for unlicensed and unvaccinated animals, and Pacek racked up $7,800 in fines. The Hernando County Health Department declared the home a public health hazard.
On Wednesday, the Sheriff's Office gave Pacek an ultimatum: Remove the cats by the end of the month or face the possibility of animal neglect or abuse charges.
SPCA Florida officials saw news reports and volunteered to remove the cats, check their health and ready them for adoption. Pacek signed over the animals to the group Friday with the agreement that the citations would be dismissed. She did not stay for the removal and couldn't be reached later for comment.
"She is very distraught that she has let it get to this point and she's having to give them up, but she's glad the animals are going to be taken care off," said Adam Lamb, the SPCA's director of medical services and animal care.
So is the Sheriff's Office, said Lt. Andrew Batchelder. The county's Animal Services shelter didn't have room for the animals.
"We could have taken a very different route by getting a court order to remove the animals, but our fear was the animals would have been put down" Batchelder said.
At 10:30 a.m., SPCA workers donned yellow smocks, surgical masks and blue booties and opened the home's door. The sound of pattering paws could be heard; then an overpowering stench filled the air.
Lamb called the conditions among the worst he has seen. Workers stepped carefully for fear of putting a foot through the exposed wooden subfloor saturated with urine and feces. Cats were hiding in the walls. At least one had died.
By noon, the workers had collected 42 cats, ranging from about 8 weeks to 10 years old. At least some were suffering from upper respiratory infections, dehydration and malnutrition, among other ailments, but were in better condition than expected, Lamb said.
The cats will be taken to the SPCA's Lakeland headquarters for a full evaluation. Some could be ready for adoption as soon as Sunday, Lamb said.
The cats that remained Friday were skittish or feral. The workers left food, water and fresh litter boxes. They will return daily and set traps on Monday.
Neighbors watching the removal unfold shook their heads in disbelief and smiled with relief.
Nancy Whitney-Conway, who lives behind the house, leaned over the metal carriers and tried to soothe the meowing rescuees.
"It's okay. This is good news, guys," Whitney-Conway said. "Be happy."