NEW PORT RICHEY
In RaeAnna Saks' one-story house, only one room contains no cats: the kitchen. Cats cover every other surface, from the cushy futon in the TV room to the jungle gym of scratching posts in the living room to the shelves in Saks' bedroom closet.
Eight pairs of cat eyes and the faint but unmistakable smell of cat urine greet visitors in the front hall. Through the doorways on the left and right, more cats — some fluffy, some smooth, some yellow, some black — uncurl themselves to watch newcomers with sleepy interest.
"Welcome to my world," said Saks, 58, on Friday afternoon, ushering a sleek brown cat away from the front door and telling him not to enter the kitchen. As she walks from one room to the next, dozens of cats watch her from shelves and chairs, push their faces into her hands and swirl around her feet, meowing and crunching on kibbles. She speaks to them as if they are toddlers, naughty but adorable.
Saks' house doubles as a nonprofit cat shelter she calls The Little Cats Rescue. She has 95 cats, all of which she found on her doorstep or on the street or took from owners who could no longer care for them — and she has until Thursday to bring that number down to 50.
Eight years ago, Saks and her cats moved into her current home off Thys Road from a condo in Tarpon Springs, hoping the agricultural zoning of her new house would allow her to keep as many cats as needed rescuing. Instead, Pasco County authorities told her she had to apply for a special exception to house more than nine, the normal limit for cats in a residence.
After spending about $3,000, Saks won an appeal to the county board of commissioners, which granted her a limit of 50 cats a little over a year ago. The county gave her just over six months to bring her numbers down from the original 120 to 50, and inspectors will be back Thursday to count cat heads and to issue a $500 citation if she has more than 50, a number authorities arrived at by giving her a certain number of cats per room.
"Who came up with that number?" Saks said. "Shouldn't I be the one to decide how many I can handle?"
Saks says that because her shelter will only euthanize cats if they are aggressive to humans or beyond medical help — she says none of her current cats are — she sees no quick way of getting rid of 45 cats. Though she hopes some will be adopted through the local PetSmart, where she and her volunteers bring cats every day for potential adopters to see, adoptions have slowed dramatically with the economy.
"They tell me to send them to the county shelter," Saks said. "I'm like, 'Why, so you can kill them?' "
Citing county animal shelter records, she says it euthanized 40 cats a day last year. Rather than have her cats suffer the same fate, she will send some of them to foster homes.
"It's tough," she added. "It's like taking a fire hose and funneling it through a thimble."
Saks' treatment of the cats isn't the problem — Pasco Animal Services director Denise Hilton says Saks sets the bar for other facilities — but she failed to follow the limits imposed by the board despite the leeway she received from the county, Pasco zoning administrator Deborah Zampetti says. If Saks fights the decision, Zampetti says she may ask the board to revoke the exception. If Saks can cut her numbers or present a realistic plan to reach 50 cats within the next month or so, Zampetti says, the county can work with her.
Even so, with few people willing to pay for new pets and kitten season in full swing, Saks may be facing a problem with no solution. Hilton suggests that Saks expand her adoption advertising to other pet stores or take more cats to local shelters, but she acknowledges that most shelters will not have the space for extra animals. In May, the Pasco animal shelter took in 737 cats, Hilton said.
The only way to counter cat overpopulation, Saks and Hilton agree, is for owners to spay or neuter their pets.
Saks, who used to work in real estate, shakes her head in disbelief when she hears of irresponsible owners: People who fail to sterilize their cats, who let them roam where they could fall prey to coyotes, or who take cats in but end up abandoning them. It's The Little Cat Rescue and other shelters that find these cats.
Nearly all of Saks' 95 cats, many of whom are named after baseball players or literary characters, have unusual rescue stories. Brava was found chasing a pitbull down Little Road; Romeo howled for days outside Saks' bedroom window; Stella clung to Saks' screen door as a 3-month-old kitten after her mother was hit by a car; Mr. Blue, a Russian Blue who loves sitting in people's laps, survived a urinary tract disease known as chronic cystitis.
Saks works 12 hours a day, seven days a week, spending her mornings refilling the cats' food and water and her afternoons tending to the sick ones, manning the phone, taking cats to PetSmart and coordinating the nonprofit. She bought $11,000 worth of cat food last year, and relies on donations and volunteers to keep the shelter running.
But many would-be adopters don't meet her standards of care, and many cats do not have good chances of being adopted. There's George, who was dumped on Saks' doorstep and who likes to chew electrical wires; there's Aphrodite, whom Saks rescued from the jaws of a Rottweiler while Aphrodite was giving birth to seven kittens; there's Raja, who likes "to pee inappropriately."
What she dreams of is a free environment, maybe a house, that is zoned commercially, allowing her to keep as many cats as she finds and bring potential adopters to see them in a comfortable environment.
"If we had a place where people can come and go, we'd get way more cats adopted," she said. "I'd love nothing more than to have fewer cats, but they're going to die or end up on the street."