Fight Cruelty

Elk County, Pennsylvania—June 2010

The Intervention

On June 24, members of the ASPCA Field Investigations and Response Team assisted the Elk County Humane Society of St. Mary's, Pennsylvania, in the rescue of nearly 400 cats from a "sanctuary" known as the Animal Friends of Elk and Cameron Counties. More than 50 first responders, including staff and volunteers from the American Humane Association and PetSmart Charities, assisted in the raid.

The cats—including numerous kittens—were found living in deplorable, overcrowded conditions on the first floor of a two-story commercial building about 120 miles northeast of Pittsburgh. The investigation, set into motion after complaints about the facility were received by the Elk County Humane Society, is believed to be the area's largest cat rescue ever.

According to Dr. Melinda Merck, ASPCA Senior Director of Veterinary Forensics, the cats suffered from a host of ailments, including upper respiratory and eye infections and Feline Leukemia Virus (FeLV) and Feline Immunodeficiency Virus (FIV)—two highly transmittable diseases that weaken the immune system and make cats susceptible to secondary infections. Several of the cats were found in critical condition.

"The overcrowding and unsanitary environment coupled with the stress of coping with untreated illnesses, resulted in severe conditions for many of these cats," said Dr. Merck.

The cats were placed into the custody of the Elk County Humane Society and transported to an emergency shelter set up in a nearby location. At the emergency shelter, a team of veterinarians conducted exams on each animal and triaged any immediate needs. The veterinary team, led by ASPCA's Dr. Merck, included Dr. Rhonda Windam, ASPCA Anti-Cruelty Veterinarian; Dr. Jason Byrd, associate director of the Maples Center for Forensic Medicine at the University of Florida in Gainesville; Dr. Julie Levy, also with the University of Florida; veterinary students from the University of Pennsylvania, led by Dr. Michael Moyer; and veterinary technicians from the ASPCA.

To aid ASPCA investigators in the collection and management of forensic evidence, the Mobile Animal Crime Scene Investigation (CSI) Unit was deployed to the site. The ASPCA's new custom-designed animal transport trailer, mobile command truck and equipment trailer were also on hand.

"We were grateful to be in a position to provide resources and assistance in this overwhelming situation," said Tim Rickey, ASPCA Senior Director of Field Investigations and Response. "Our primary concern was to get these animals the care and treatment they so desperately needed."

Elk County Independence Day Adoption Event

To help place the rescued cats, the ASPCA and Elk County Humane Society hosted a special, two-day adoption event over the Fourth of July weekend at the Elk County Fairgrounds in Kersey, Pennsylvania.

"This was one of the worst cases of animal hoarding this area has seen," said Rickey. "With such a large number of rescued animals, it became critical to find them loving homes as soon as possible."

The event was a success! A total of 139 adoptions took place at the Elk County Independence Day Adoption Event, and the remaining cats were placed with ASPCA partner agencies throughout the country. Many of the cats tested positive for FeLV and FIV, but that didn't stop families from opening their hearts and homes to many sweet-tempered cats and kittens.

"The community really stepped forward to support this adoption event," said Rickey. "One of the most surreal moments of my entire career was standing at the event site wondering if anyone would show up. When a line of 50 people walked up the hill with crates in their hands, I nearly broke down." The two-day event attracted more than 500 potential adopters.

"This rescue took an incredible amount of teamwork, patience and faith on everyone's part," said Rickey. "With so many cats placed, I am proud to say we can walk away from this operation knowing we accomplished something very special."

Elk County Happy Tails

Lyle and Melissa Buhler

I cannot believe how quickly Lyle adjusted (literally overnight), despite his FIV! We were very concerned about how this would impact our dog, Myleigh, but read a lot that it cannot be transmitted to dogs, and they get along so well. Lyle is the most lovable cat ever!

We've rescued cats before, and Lyle, by far, was in the worst situation and adjusted the best. He has been eating for us and drinking LOTS of water! He's VERY playful, loves all his new toys and loves climbing. We had one toileting accident, and then waited for my husband and I to see him use his litter box, almost like he was waiting for praise! Too cute! Even though he is limited to indoors, he is having a lot of fun.

Lyle, like our dog, has his own room with cat trees all over it. He is just amazed by all his new surroundings. His nose is still stuffy, but we gave him his first dose of medicine with no trouble. Myleigh is overprotective of him as she was with our last cat.

Thanks for giving our family the joy of Lyle—I may have "overlooked him" had you not shown me his love!

Lucy and Catherine Tilley

The whole journey to adopt this little kitty was a warm and happy experience. The teams from the ASPCA, American Humane and the Elk County Humane Society should be proud of this rescue event.

When I wheeled my way from Northern Virginia to the fairgrounds in Pennsylvania, I was asked why I came so far to adopt a cat. It was the banner from the ASPCA newsletter: "We Rescued 400. Here's Your Chance to Rescue Just One." It seemed overwhelming to make a happy story for 400 cats, especially since shelters are overcrowded, and rescue groups are working hard to place the many pets already in their care. I have two wonderful cats who were both adopted from a local county shelter in Virginia. But I did have room in my home and heart for one more kitty.

I could not be more smitten with the gentle little girl who came home with me. The first thing I noticed when I met her was her quirky cat grin. Seriously, you can't help yourself—you have to smile back. I named her Lucy because it's a happy name. Despite her rough start in life, gentle Lucy is the most affectionate, optimistic and happy cat I think I have ever met. She seems to celebrate every moment. That joy permeates. I'm glad I made the long journey and so grateful to have her with me.

Mercy and Jesse Winters

I wanted to tell you another success story as a result of this PA operation and your efforts in particular. Cat A-351 is doing just fine. He's in an x-pen in my spare room, slowly acclimating to the rest of the household. He hides in his carpeted kitty cubby a lot, but comes out and solicits attention whenever my other cats come in. He'll let me scratch his head and chin, but only if Helen Keller—one of my other kitties—is there, too. Today he let me take off his collar. He's totally a cat's cat. It will take a while for him to develop a comfort level with people, and that's OK. He can have all the time he needs.

Thank you for the compassion and, well, mercy each of you showed him. You had a soft spot for him and showed him mercy by recognizing he might be just a scaredy-cat, and that perhaps with more time and a very patient guardian, he'd come around. You also showed him mercy by recognizing him as a cat's cat who would do best in a home with other cats (and a very understanding guardian).

So, I held off on naming him to give him time to reveal his personality. Then I realized you gave him his name the moment this seizure began, and it is what you've shown him and every other animal you touch. His name is Mercy.

Why You Should Adopt a Cat with Special Needs

Some of our favorite felines from Elk County have "special needs," but that doesn't mean they have less to give—just more to receive! They require patient adopters who are, in some cases, willing and able to care for those infected with FIV or FeLV and provide lots of TLC. Not to worry—you will receive plenty in return, including years of unconditional love and affection!

Below, we debunk a few pervasive myths about adopting a cat with special needs:

Myth 1: I can't have any other pets if I adopt a special needs cat.
No way! Even special needs cats like company, and viruses like FIV and FeLV are contagious only to other cats, not dogs or humans.

Myth 2: Special needs cats are always sick and live a very short period of time.
In fact, during the early stages of illness, your cat may not show any clinical signs at all. Over the course of months or even years, your cat's health may experience ups and downs.

Myth 3: There is no treatment for illnesses like FeLV or FIV.
Though there's no cure for FIV or FeLV, treatment focuses on providing the best quality of life. You can make your cat feel much better by feeding him a nutritionally balanced diet and giving him lots of love and attention.

Myth 4: Special needs cats are high-maintenance.
Au contraire! Special needs cats are generally pretty mellow, especially compared to a tiny kitten, who will run you ragged with his crazy antics.

Check out some of our favorite success stories starring FIV- and FeLV-positive cats!

From Rescue to Adoption: Living with a Cat with FeLV
Wee Phoenix was rescued from the streets of Brooklyn, New York, and found his new home with a former vet assistant. Now he's living the good life, FeLV and all.

For more information about caring for a special needs cat with FIV or FeLV, please visit our Cat Health library.

Special Thanks!

The ASPCA is immensely grateful for the support of regional organizations and ASPCA partner agencies that offered temporary housing—and eventual, permanent placement—of more than 150 of the rescued cats, including:

Bucks County SPCA, Pennsylvania
Humane Society of Berks County,Pennsylvania
Chautauqua County Humane Society, New York
SPCA Serving Erie County, New York
Atlanta Humane, Georgia
Good Mews, Georgia
SPCA Tampa Bay, Florida
Cat Depot, Florida
SPCA Suncoast, Florida
Columbia Animal Shelter, South Carolina
Noah's Ark, New Jersey
One More Smith, New Jersey

For more information about animal hoarding, see our Hoarding FAQ.