Reflections on the Best Friends Cat Rescue: Cats Laid to Rest, Case Moves to the Courts

Sun, Apr 6, 2008

Animal Welfare

Angels Rest at Best Friends Sanctuary

In January, I wrote about a large-scale cat rescue in Pahrump, Nevada by Best Friends Animal Society. This is the worst case of institutional hoarding ever recorded in the US. Last weekend Best Friends held a memorial for the cats who did not survive. I was not able to attend, but Peter made the trip to the sanctuary in Kanab, Utah. Here are his reflections on the memorial as well as an update on the rescue efforts and what will hopefully be justice served.

I don’t know what either of us expected when we visited the cats of “The Great Kitty Rescue” in Pahrump, Nevada last December. Other than to spend a few days cleaning up after the 200-plus cats then housed at the failed FLOCK facility. The critical work, of course, had been carried out long before our arrival, in brutal heat and torrential downpours–in conditions that, by all accounts, were simply horrific.

Actually, I recall very few dirty jobs over the course of our brief tenure. What we did in Pahrump, mostly, was socialize the cats. Which at first I interpreted to mean “play” or “visit,”–neither of which sounded much like the “work” I’d come prepared for. In fact, the socializing proved to be more difficult. To begin with, we often couldn’t tell the friendly cats from the fearful cats. Most times, somebody was there to give us a rundown of the cats in a particular “house.” Occasionally, though, we were left to the trial and error method (resulting in surprisingly few errors, thankfully).

In some ways, I think the tougher part of the job lay in getting to know the cats (as opposed to serving merely as their dutiful custodians). Bonding with these cats meant also struggling to comprehend what they’d been through on that scrap of inhospitable desert. And when we left, after only a few days, I couldn’t stop thinking about the cats in Pahrump.

The FLOCK facility was closed in early February, and all the remaining cats moved to the Best Friends sanctuary in Kanab, Utah, into “Rescue Village.” In March, I learned that the Pahrump cats were to be honored with their own dedicated corner of Angels Rest, the pet cemetery at the sanctuary. Rarely have I felt so compelled to be anywhere for anything. And so, on March 28th, I drove to Kanab.

Once again, I wasn’t sure what to expect–other than a great deal of sadness. And, sure enough, I made it just inside the front gate and was already starting to fall apart–a lump in my throat at the mere sight of their cheery, cartoon-like road signs (e.g., a dog and cat seated in a roadster, the dog pointing the way while the cat–naturally enough–drives). This, it seemed, was going to be a long evening.

But, as anybody who’s ever been to Best Friends will tell you, Angel Canyon is more than a little magical. It’s a natural wonder in every sense of that term. It’s as peaceful and comforting a place as you’re ever likely to find–even more so when the staff and volunteers are gathered together for an event like this one. Simply put, these are some of the kindest, most generous people I’ve ever come across–and I think that has a lot to do with the energy there.

The ceremony began with the laying to rest of Lollipop, a cat I don’t recall meeting in Pahrump (she might have been one of the 117 cats found at the home of the former FLOCK president). It was clear she’d touched the lives of, and was loved by, many of the 120 or so guests present, some of whom shared their memories of Lollipop with the rest of us. Lollipop received the sort of sendoff most of us would envy.

As a chorus of wind chimes rose and fell, people removed the wooden stakes that had served as temporary markers (upon which were written in black magic marker the names of the deceased), replacing them with permanent markers, each bearing the name of one of the 79 “Pahrump Angels.” After many of us shared stories about our experiences with the Pahrump cats, Beamer read aloud these familiar lines (from “The New Colossus,” by American poet Emma Lazarus):

Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed, to me:
I lift my lamp beside the golden door.

Today, with the immigration issue being such a hot topic, I found it difficult to hear these words in anything but a highly political context. However poetic, I struggled to reconcile their meaning with the situation at hand. After a week of rumination, though, I’ve come around to a different understanding. Reinventing oneself is an integral part of the American dream, and–with the help of Best Friends–that’s sort of what these cats are up to. Or maybe rediscovering the cat they were once, before their ordeal in Pahrump. In any case, there’s good reason to think their futures will be a far cry from the horrors of the past. Angel Canyon is many things, among them a sanctuary, a resting place, and a site of renewal. And for the Pahrump cats–perhaps even those who could not be saved, and are now memorialized here–this is surely their “land of opportunity.”

Milk Mouth

Among the many cats making the most of their new opportunities is Milk Mouth. This was one of those cats we could never get close to while in Pahrump. In fact, all I got from Milk Mouth was a look somewhere between fearful and menacing–it was a scowl-y look. But a lot had changed in three months, thanks mostly to Feline Finishing School located in Rescue Village.

To begin with, it turns out Milk Mouth is a female (a change less in anatomy than classification, obviously). More important, I was able to pet her. And she purrs! Who knew? She’s still a bit cautious, of course, but I wouldn’t be surprised if “lap cat” status is just around the corner for Milk Mouth. The best news of all, though, is that she’ll be on her way to Texas, soon, to her new home.

I visited others too, including Snoopy (an immediate favorite of mine, as his face reminds me of my oldest cat Sparky). Snoopy had the “Real Life” section (designed to be as home-like as possible) of the Yurt all to himself, and was taking full advantage. Although he wouldn’t let me pet him, he was eager to play. And as soon as I began to visit one of his neighbors, he protested loudly, pleading with his bright, coppery eyes.

There were plenty more cats to visit–far too many for the few short hours I had before heading home. Of the nearly 900 cats moved from Pahrump, about 250 of them remain at Rescue Village, each looking for a home. Although the waiting list for the finishing school is a long one, many of these cats have already made dramatic turnarounds. Everybody I’ve spoken with from Best Friends has their own success stories, and more are posted on the Best Friends Network website (including, of course, an update on Flora’s remarkable progress).

.  .  .

The Great Kitty Rescue continues–and it’s moving from the Yurts into the courts. Last month, the former president of FLOCK was formally charged with 13 counts of animal cruelty for her treatment of the cats kept at her home. Yet, despite mounting pressure on prosecuting attorney Bob Beckett, no charges have been filed in the FLOCK case–which, as I understand it, is the worst case of institutional hoarding to be discovered in this country. “We’re continuing to put pressure on that prosecutor,” said Russ Mead, general counsel for Best Friends, “but it really upsets us that for the biggest cat-hoarding case in the nation–with photographs of maggots crawling out of eyes of live cats–that nobody’s been charged with cruelty yet.”

Mead is now pushing for a law in Nye County (which could become a model for cities around the country) to prevent something like this from ever happening again. “The answer is community involvement, and good hoarding laws,” says Mead. “Most places don’t have a hoarding law.”

There’s an opportunity here to call attention to the under-reported problem of institutional hoarding, the consequences of which are clearly disastrous. And, as with so many efforts of this kind, each one of us can make a difference. “When somebody has 50 animals, catch them before they have 500,”says Mead. “And get them into counseling. Have them stop collecting these animals. Because in almost all cases, the animals are better off wherever the hell they were, compared to where they’re going.”

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7 Responses to “Reflections on the Best Friends Cat Rescue: Cats Laid to Rest, Case Moves to the Courts”

  1. 1

    THANK YOU for this excellent reportage of a huge and senseless tragedy and its bright and positive aftermath. I have been to Best Friends and can vouch for its being “a magical place” filled with kindness, compassion, and people who are committed to walking the talk on behalf of cats and other living beings. Much appreciation for publicizing this story in so moving a way.

  2. 2
    Barbara B

    Peter is a friend of mine and some one I respect for his kindness and his intelligence. His writings are inspirational and should be heeded by all of us. If we become vigilant in our own communities, we may be able to nip hoarding in the bud. It is a challenge for us all to do whatever we feel we can to help end this deplorable situation nationwide. Thanks to Kate and Peter for all their efforts on behalf of our furry friends.

  3. 3

    Thank you for your thoughtful and beautifully written description of your visit to Best Friends. And thank you for being at the memorial. I had been out to Kanab in early March to care for the Pahrump kitties that I’d cared for in that FLOCK hellhole back in August. It was remarkable to see how much progress so many had made, thanks to great medical care and tons of TLC. Unfortunately, little Lollipop wasn’t strong enough to overcome what his time in the dessert had inflicted on him, and with the help of Steve, Joni, Molly and me, peacefully crossed the Rainnbow Bridg. I was as sad as could be but also felt privileged to be part of this band of warriors who care enough to make a difference and who stronly believe that we can, indeed, create a better world through kindness to animals.
    Thank you again, Peter, for being there and sharing your experience.

  4. 4
    Abby in Vegas

    I am a resident of Las Vegas and would like to know who I can contact on the behalf of these cats to urge strong prosecution. Does anyone know? Perhaps you could post follow-up info for those of us that would like to do so. Thanks.

  5. 5

    Thank you for your interest!

    My understanding is that the prosecuting attorney, Bob Beckett, is the one to speak with. You might try reaching him at the Nye County District Attorney’s office (address: 1520 E Basin Ave. Pahrump, NV 89060; Phone: 775.751.7080; Fax: 775.727.5234).

  6. 6

    Thanks so much for the update on this tragic story that also speaks to the best of the human spirit.

    One of the biggest problems with hoarders is that they truly believe they’re doing the right thing.

    Another problem – that I learned about the hard way – is that some of those involved in grassroots rescue movements hoard animals. Not all, but some.

    I had a disturbing experience (worse for the cat) with a woman who ran one and who agreed to foster a cat for me. I didn’t know that she was a hoarder until after the fact. To this day, I’m surprised that she didn’t put up a fight when I told her that a veterinarian and I were taking the 2 hour trip to pick up the cat, because she knew that if the cat was beyond medical treatment and was suffering that I would opt for euthanasia.

    After 8 weeks of receiving extraordinary medical care, the cat survived and now lives in a great home.

    My heart goes out to these creatures and kudos to everyone working on their behalf.


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