CLEARWATER — A truck towing a long trailer pulled up behind a former clothing store on Gulf-to-Bay Boulevard on Thursday afternoon.
When the trailer doors were flung open, a chorus of meows echoed from inside.
The trailer, stacked with pet carriers, was carrying 130 cats in search of a forever home.
The cats are refugees from the Caboodle Ranch, a North Florida cat sanctuary shut down in February after an undercover investigation by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals found sick and neglected animals among the hundreds living there.
The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals or ASPCA retrieved as many as 700 animals from Caboodle Ranch in what they call their largest rescue ever.
In the months since the raid, the ASPCA has housed the cats in a warehouse in Jacksonville, treating them for illnesses and preparing them for adoption.
"It's been a long, long four months of really focusing and getting these cats healthy and happy," said Joel Lopez, senior manager of operations for the ASPCA Field Investigations & Response team. "And getting settled in the court system."
In June, a Madison County court transferred ownership of the cats from Caboodle owner Craig Grant to the ASPCA.
Now the cats are being transported to three locations around Florida in preparation for large-scale adopt-a-thons. Some 150 cats were brought to Pinellas County this week. Twenty suffering from ringworm arrived on Monday and were immediately taken to the Humane Society's shelter for treatment. The remaining 130 rode in style to Clearwater on Thursday in an ASPCA disaster response trailer.
On Aug. 11 and 12, the Humane Society will conduct an adoption event from the rented retail store at 1928 Gulf-to-Bay Blvd., across the street from Clearwater High School. People who want to adopt a cat can show up on those dates between 10 a.m. and 6 p.m.
Sarah Brown, director of the Humane Society, said the workers will begin doing "match-making" during the adoption days.
"We want to make sure it's a win-win situation and people are not picking them out based on the colors," Brown said. "We get to know the personality of the cat, and kind of match it with the people."
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Craig Grant opened Caboodle Ranch about eight years ago, 64 miles east of Tallahassee.
Before then, Grant had lived on the property with his son, Rob. When Rob moved out, he left his cat, Pepper, behind.
Pepper found friends. Soon, the cats were multiplying. Grant opened the ranch as a sanctuary and took in more cats. In 2011, he told the Tampa Bay Times, "I'm not alone anymore."
But what Grant considered companionship, the ASPCA considered hoarding and neglect. Grant was charged with one count of felony animal cruelty and three counts of misdemeanor animal cruelty. The trial is scheduled to begin Aug. 20.
Unfortunately, some of Grant's cats didn't survive, Lopez said. Because the case is pending, he would not release the number of deceased cats, but some were found on Grant's property, according to the ASPCA.
Though he's criminally charged, Grant still has his supporters. The Caboodle Ranch Facebook page shows comments from some of them, most with profile photos of cats.
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Eighteen of the cats that had been living at Caboodle Ranch have been reunited with previous owners. Among those owners is Samantha Cruise, 26, of Largo.
In 2008, she took her female cat, Bratticus, or Bratty, to Caboodle Ranch after discovering pets weren't allowed at her new apartment.
Cruise trusted Grant. She could walk away knowing Bratty wouldn't be euthanized. She was shocked to hear about the criminal charges against Grant.
"I was a little scared and very upset because Craig seems like such a nice guy," Cruise said. "I don't see how he would neglect any cat."
When the cats arrived in Clearwater, Bratty was among them. Because Cruise was recuperating from recent surgery, her boyfriend, Michael Hicks, 37, picked up Bratty.
"My mother-in-law ... put her on the bed with me. Bratty was rubbing me and being affectionate," Cruise said, "like she remembers me."
Diedra Rodriguez can be reached at (727) 445-4154 or firstname.lastname@example.org. To write a letter to the editor, go to tampabay.com/letters.