LARGO — It was already dark when Crystal Mason got off work at A Second Look Hair and Nail Salon and pulled into the driveway of her little yellow house in what even she describes as a somewhat seedy neighborhood near a Sunoco.
As always, her family was waiting for her, wanting dinner.
Mason, 32, went inside and fed Sienna, her Rottweiler, Kirby, her black Lab, and Marley, her diabetic cat.
Then she tended to her other family: about a dozen cats, maybe more.
Since some are friendly and others are fearful of humans, it's unclear how many are strays and how many are feral. A feral cat is either born in the wild or has been homeless for so long, it has reverted back to its wild behaviors, which makes it unapproachable or even dangerous.
Peanut, Big Mama and Patches, the pregnant one, are all living in the beginnings of a colony, wandered up to the edge of the front porch where Mason was sitting.
They ate from a plate of cat food and drank from a bowl of water she set down on the walkway.
When they were full, some lounged on the steps leading to her front door and seemed to enjoy one of the first cool evenings of the year.
And sure as the sun rises, they come back for breakfast.
"When I get the paper at 6 a.m., they all congregate,'' she said.
Mason is violating a Pinellas County ordinance that forbids residents to leave food out that attracts animals. It also forbids cats roaming freely.
But like so many animal lovers, she has found herself in a dilemma: feed them or let them starve to death.
Ordinance or no ordinance, she can't let them starve. She just said she needs more help from the county to solve her problem.
Mason said she has been doing the best she can on her own. She rented a trap last year and caught five adult cats and took them to Pinellas County Animal Services hoping they would be adopted.
She also rescued six tiny kittens and brought them to SPCA Tampa Bay, again praying they would find a good home.
But taking kittens away from their mother proved too difficult for Mason. Their mother cried, looking for them.
One time Mason found a dead cat in a bag someone put near her yard. She cried.
Now her favorite colony cat, Missy, has been missing for a week. Mason is frantic, hoping she is still alive.
After two years of being the sole caretaker of the colony, she's drained and overwhelmed. The cats keep coming. They give birth under her house or her shed and she doesn't know what to do.
No one else in the neighborhood seems to care.
"Why should I have to do this all alone?'' Mason asked.
On Friday, Mason was relieved to learn Linda Britland, field manager for Pinellas County Animal Services in Largo, is going to try to give her case special attention.
"We'll help anybody with rounding up cats,'' Britland said.
Typically, Animal Services requires a $40 deposit on a trap (the money is refunded when the trap is returned). But because Mason has such a serious, ongoing problem, Britland said she will waive the fee.
More than one trap may be required.
Each cat will be examined, said Greg Andrews, operations manager for Animal Services. Cats that are healthy and friendly will be put up for adoption. But if they are ill or aggressive, they are euthanized.
"It's a very emotional issue for lots of people,'' said Dr. Dewayne Taylor, veterinarian at Animal Services. "The smell, the noise, using their flower beds as a bathroom.''
He said feral cats are considered an invasive species that can spread diseases to healthy cats.
Their life spans are about half that of a house cat. They are often victims of cars, raccoons, coyotes, stray dogs and disease.
"They're all going to die, and it's going to be an ugly death,'' Taylor said. "We had a cat come in cut in half.''
He said that once an 8-week-old kitten was brought in, missing two legs, "and it was still alive,'' he said. The kitten was immediately put out of its misery.
Spaying and neutering is the only solution to the problem, he said.
And the problem is huge.
"In 2007, we took in 12,878 cats (and) 430 were reclaimed,'' Taylor said.
Eileen Schulte can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 445-4153.