NEW PORT RICHEY — Visitors to one upper-floor room of the SPCA Suncoast shelter can't get through the door without hearing a loud purr. Mandy, a gray cat, hanging out of the cat tree by the door at shoulder level, bats newcomers with one paw. And Marge, a small black cat with white paws, twines around their legs.
Mandy, Marge and the three other cats in the room have survived upper respiratory infections. They've had to fight for food, water and space. They were among the nearly 400 cats rescued last month from the filthy, overcrowded conditions of a Pennsylvania shelter. But their playfulness remains intact.
"You normally would expect these cats to be standoffish," said Kelly Payne, the SPCA Suncoast's development associate, as Mandy's head butted against her hand Tuesday. "But they're very friendly."
The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals rescued the cats from a sanctuary in St. Mary's, Pa., 120 miles northeast of Pittsburgh, where a 1,200-square-foot space was supporting 392 cats.
Although the sanctuary staff provided enough food and water, there were so many cats that keeping the sanctuary clean and sanitary was impossible, said Tim Rickey, the ASPCA's senior director of field investigations and response.
"Cats were just basically crawling over cats," Rickey said. "This situation was allowed to get completely out of control."
The operators of the Animal Friends of Elk and Cameron Counties will likely face charges from local authorities, but for the past month the ASPCA has focused on nursing the cats back to health, Rickey said.
Many of the cats were suffering from feline leukemia, feline immunodeficiency virus or upper respiratory infections. Several of the cats had open wounds, including one whose injury from a tight collar had become severely infected. Some had eye infections so serious they had lost an eye or needed to have an eye removed.
And not all of them made it.
Of the 392 cats in the sanctuary, the ASPCA team and its partners in Pennsylvania were able to save only 313. They sent them to SPCA shelters across the country, who promised to take care of the cats and put them up for adoption — including five at the SPCA Suncoast. The case is the largest Rickey's team has handled this year, he said.
The rescue came at a time when shelters are already on the brink of overflowing. Late spring and early summer are kitten season, and despite the SPCA Suncoast's half-price adoption specials on both cats and kittens, the shelter is nearly 30 cats over its normal capacity, Payne said.
Still, they agreed to take in five of the Pennsylvania cats.
"Everybody's in the same situation we are," SPCA Suncoast executive director Gail Armstrong said. "I can't imagine a shelter anywhere that has lots of room. We said we'll take what we can."
Along with Mandy and Marge, there are Lilac, a Siamese kitten; Tammy, who has light gray tiger stripes; and Fluffy, a big black male with a white stomach and paws. Lilac and Fluffy are ready for adoption, while the other three, who suffered from upper respiratory infections, will be available soon, Payne said.
All the cats will be spayed or neutered, microchipped and vaccinated. And Armstrong says they have no special needs, despite their time in Pennsylvania, likely because they were family pets before coming to the St. Mary's sanctuary.
"That's one of the saddest things with this case, that people were bringing their animals to a facility they believed was giving these cats second chances," Rickey said, "and they didn't do that."
But the SPCA Suncoast will.
"You're all much too friendly," Payne cooed to the cats. "Such good kitties. We're going to find you guys homes."