Originally printed in the Best Friends Magazine November/December 2007
The continuing rescue of 800 cats in the Nevada desert Sherry Woodard, Best Friends’ animal behavior specialist, spent several weeks heading up the Best Friends rescue team in Pahrump, Nevada, where Best Friends has been caring for hundreds of cats rescued from a very serious hoarding situation.
Back at the sanctuary, we caught up with Sherry for a few minutes before she went home for a well earned rest.
You thought there were only about 400 cats when you arrived. It’s now over 600.
It’s actually right at 700 now, plus the 114 who were rescued from a nearby home! It’s taken a long time for most of them to come out of their hiding places. So it was difficult to count them all. Most of them would come out for food in the evenings but we had to stay out of their way, otherwise they wouldn’t even eat.
What were they so afraid of?
These poor cats were living in fear. The only explanation for this is that they were abused. I’ve seen more broken tails than anywhere ever before.
Broken tails? How do they break their tails? Are you saying someone was swinging them by the tail?
I think that’s exactly what had been happening. I think there were people there who were truly sick. We’ve seen a lot of scarring on the cats, too. And one of the people who lives nearby told me that she’d seen people on nearby buildings throwing things at the cats. It was truly a hoarding situation of the worst kind.
As a behavior expert, how would you describe the difference between these cats and dogs you’ve seen in a similar type of situation?
Dogs wouldn’t have hidden away for so long. They might have been afraid of people, but they would have come out earlier. And dogs generally want to show you that something’s the matter with them, whereas cats often tend to hide it.
One thing that was surprising to see was how lots of the cats were trying to dig their way under the fence. Dogs are always trying to dig their way in and out from under fences, but I haven’t seen cats do that in the same way.
Were they trying to dig their way in or out?
Both. The ones who were scared when we were trying to bring them in for treatment might try to dig out. But also the ones who’d been trying to get away from the previous people were trying to sneak back in now that we were there. So we had a bit of a conundrum. We were trying to secure the fences to keep the kitties in, but that was also keeping out the ones who were roaming outside. Gradually, we’ve been bringing them all in, and that’s how we’ve been able to get a precise count. It’s right on 700 now.
Plus the 114 we brought to Best Friends.
Yes. They’re the ones who were in the home of the woman who was arrested by the local authorities on cruelty charges. She had all those cats in her home.
They’re doing a whole lot better here.
Yes, the move back to the sanctuary was a bit stressful for them, but they’re really recovering. Very sweet cats.
A lot of the work in Pahrump has been stressful for staff and volunteers, too. What has been the best part of it?
The best thing always is watching these cats in the arms of volunteers and the people who adopt them. It’s seeing them return to being real cats again. That’s beyond nice!
We humans don’t recover as easily as these cats do. The fact that they can start trusting people again amazes me.
And the other best thing is getting updates from people who’ve adopted them. They tell us how the cats are jumping up on the sofa and how they are completely comfortable in their new homes. These were obviously once people’s pets and they need to be pets again.
You mentioned the volunteers.
They’re all wonderful. But I need to say something special about the people from Pahrump who come in and sit with the cats in the evening and make dinner so we don’t have to leave the cats. That’s one of the nicest things – these folks who continue to come night after night to help look after the cats … and look after the staff, too.
What’s Pahrump like as a town?
It’s a really interesting place – quite a strange one, too!
Well, it’s known as the gateway to Area 51, after all!
It’s a mix of people of all kinds. Some are people who come back and forth from California. Some are people who are very libertarian and don’t want to be part of organized society. And there are the “big antenna” people – the folks who are watching for aliens! It’s also a bit like Sedona – there are more and more New-Age-type people there.
The one thing they all have in common is that they all seem to love their community. For example, I’ve been going on local TV and radio regularly and it’s obvious that people listen in and watch. I did a call-in show recently and there were lots of people calling.
And one very touching thing was a 17- year-old boy who came and walked the yard and visited the cats. He was crying and said if he’d known how bad things were there, he would have found a way of stopping it long before Best Friends was called in.