One day last September, a woman arrived at Caboodle Ranch, a fenced sanctuary for more than 500 cats in the middle of a northern Florida pine forest.
The woman offered to help the owner, a lonely man named Craig Grant. She cleaned out litter boxes and laid out bowls of food and water for the cats that meandered though a miniature village with a doll-sized post office, town hall and Walmart.
Unbeknownst to Grant, the woman was an investigator for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. She took video of wheezing and sneezing cats with oozing eyes and drippy noses. She showed cats that could barely lift their heads, lying in vomit and feces. She documented a fridge of medical supplies crawling with maggots.
On Monday, Madison County sheriff's deputies arrived at Grant's property in Lee and charged him with one count of felony animal cruelty, three counts of cruelty to animals and one count of scheming to defraud. His bond was set at $250,000.
Responders from the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals say that as many as 700 animals may have lived at the ranch. The ASPCA said it's the largest number of cats they have ever rescued in one place.
Humane societies from around the country, including an animal disaster response team from Belleair Bluffs, are helping the ASPCA count and care for the cats.
Grant, an unmarried man with crooked teeth beneath a handlebar mustache, opened Caboodle Ranch in 2003, about 64 miles east of Tallahassee. He called it a "cat-opia" in a story last year in the Times.
Over the years, he had been featured on The Colbert Report and Inside Edition and on Animal Planet. In 2010, he said, he received $150,000 in donations. Ellen DeGeneres sent him a pallet of cat food.
But people who dropped off their cats noticed sick animals with trails of mucus hanging from their noses. Volunteers tried to get Grant to take animals to the vet, but often he told them no.
"It's like kids in day care," he told the Times last year. "The ones getting (sick) are the new arrivals. If they survive the first winter, they're going to make it."
The Times reported that Grant used Clorox wipes to clean the cats' noses and eyes. Occasionally, he'd pull a bottle of antibiotics out of his pocket and shoot a dropperful into the mouth of a sick cat. He didn't wipe it clean between cats.
At the time, he thought he had amassed about 500 cats, and people were calling him a hoarder.
PETA had received complaints about Grant, so the organization began researching him.
One of the first cats the undercover PETA volunteer encountered was a shy black and white cat named Lilly. She had an upper respiratory infection that had spread to her eye.
"Craig consistently refused my suggestions — and pleas — that Lilly be taken to the vet, even when her eye was bloody, swollen, encrusted with hair and goo and practically falling out of her head," wrote the investigator, whose name was not released.
Lilly stayed in Caboodle Ranch's sick ward for 11 weeks, until she could no longer lift her head, said the PETA investigator. She died Jan. 31. She was one of about 15 dead cats the PETA investigator observed at Caboodle Ranch.
Leonora LaPeter Anton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.