JACKSONVILLE — Inside a trailer, cats cringed and yowled in crates stacked four high.
A Tampa woman hunkered on Thursday over a squirmy brown cat with bright blue eyes and dirty white paws.
"It's all right, bubba," Lori Piper said, stroking the cat's head. "Shh. Shh. Shh."
A vet from Naples listened to Blue Eyes' heart. Discovered missing teeth and a skin rash on her back. Shaved a small patch of fur and stuck her with a needle for a blood sample. Her hands explored the cat's abdomen.
"This one's possibly pregnant," she said.
This is a rescue operation of a rescue operation.
For the past four days, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals has plucked nearly 700 cats from a Madison County pine forest where a man named Craig Grant lived and ran a sanctuary. It is the largest cat rescue ever undertaken by the ASPCA. Caboodle Ranch was shut down Monday following a five-month undercover investigation by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.
The cats, with more coming every day, are being housed in an abandoned warehouse west of Jacksonville. They are divided into isolation units based on their medical problems. Cats with ringworm, feline AIDS and leukemia in one area. Cats with upper respiratory ailments and eye infections in another. Feral cats in yet another.
One hundred and twenty-five volunteers and veterinarians are working round-the-clock to treat animals that had for years depended on Grant, and an occasional helper, for their sustenance and care.
By Thursday, dozens of cats still waited in staging areas to see teams of veterinarians inside the triage trailer.
Lori Piper looked at the vet and turned to the rows of cats waiting to be treated:
"Tell me when you are ready for the next one," she said.
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Caboodle Ranch opened about eight years ago after Grant bought property and started accepting cats at his "no-kill sanctuary" in the woods.
In an interview last year with the Times, he acknowledged his affinity for cats grew at a time when he was lonely. His son had moved out and gotten married. He started with 11 cats. Soon property managers were paying him $30 to remove cats. His unusual setup in the woods, featuring a small cat village with a post office, a town hall and a Walmart, attracted national attention. Inside Edition, The Colbert Report and Animal Planet featured him. Donations trickled in. He told the Times he received $150,000 in 2010 alone.
People from all over the country brought him their cats for a fee. But combining hundreds of felines on 5 acres in the woods resulted in many of them getting sick.
Five months ago, an undercover PETA investigator volunteered at Caboodle Ranch. She took video of cats with swollen eyes that could barely breathe or lift their heads. According to PETA, the helper volunteered to take some of the sick animals to the vet, but Grant refused.
Grant was arrested Monday and charged with animal cruelty and scheming to defraud. His bond was set at $250,000.
In a statement he posted on his website this week, he said he was out on bail but not being allowed back on his property.
"I feel very sick and in a daze right now. My happiness, my life and the lives of my 600 babies are being destroyed."
He claimed all the cats in photos and video taken by PETA were being treated.
"I either take them to the vets or call to describe symptoms and am told what to do," he wrote. "I do not have the heart to put cats to sleep … I feel my heart does most of their healing. Night after night I am in the sick ward and work until I can't stand up anymore. Sometimes grabbing a roll of paper towels for a pillow to sleep on the floor with them at the end of the day."
• • •
Inside the "dipping room" where the cats are taken after they've seen a vet, an orange tabby decided it had had enough. The cat backed into the corner of its crate and hissed.
Francisca Rapier, an animal protection investigator from Spokane, Wash., tried to grab the cat with a white towel, but it twisted out of her hands. Connie Brooks, who once ran the Tampa Bay SPCA and is now president of the Bay Area Disaster Animal Response Team, grabbed a net.
The cat caught its mouth on its collar and started tumbling around the cage, hissing wildly. Rapier got her by the scruff and pulled her out, took the cat over to a big gray tub of yellow liquid.
"She's all right," Brooks said, as Rapier and two others dipped the cat into the tub of lime solution, which kills ringworm. Droplets of yellow liquid was splattered up and down their arms.
Jenn Miler-Most from Pinellas Park, who runs her own organizing business, approached the next cat, a short-hair gray.
"You're going to love it," she said. "You're going to feel like a new woman."
• • •
In front of a row of outdoor kennels, Tim Rickey, senior director of field investigations and response for the ASPCA, stood by as volunteers assembled more cages donated by PetSmart Charities.
"Almost all the cats have some type of upper respiratory (illness)," he said.
One had to be euthanized. Some had to go to emergency vet clinics for treatment. Though some appeared to be recovering, many huddled in their cages, wheezing and listless. A dark mottled cat cried loudly above the others. An orange cat with mucus dripping from its nose sneezed over and over.
The animals will stay at the Jacksonville facility until either Grant agrees to relinquish them or they are awarded to the ASPCA, a process that could take up to 60 days.
For now, the cats are evidence. Once they are healthy, they will be put up for adoption.
As Rickey spoke, he got a phone call. "I have to take this," he said.
Then he was on the phone, planning ASPCA's next operation: to help animals stranded by the deadly tornadoes in the Midwest.
Leonora LaPeter Anton can be reached at (727) 893-8640 or [email protected]