By Chris Lane
By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
Toyya Braskey took two tranquilizers her first night dancing topless at Heartbreakers. She doesn't remember being there, she says, but she made $700. As she danced on subsequent nights, men asked her what she was thinking. They wanted to know what fantasy or porn movie was playing in her mind.
Actually, she was calculating her vet bills and how many lap dances it would take to pay them off. Toyya owns The Momma Cat, a shelter for sick or injured cats. She lives in and operates the shelter out of an old dentist's office and says without it the cats would all be dead. She keeps alive the unfixed feral cat with thick jowls and a missing eye and says another shelter wouldn't. She gives insulin to diabetic cats and buys chemotherapy for kittens.
Toyya doesn't believe in cages. As she walks around the shelter, dozens of cats rush toward her. Cats gaze sleepily from bunk beds covered in crib mattresses. More are curled on the floor, dozing in standard pet beds. A few have bald patches. In late May, there was a mite outbreak and 22 cats lost their hair.
Sitting on a shelf is Tabby. Toyya paid $1,000 to rebuild the cat's jaw after it was trampled by horses. Sitting beside Tabby is an orange cat named Stubby. Kids wrapped rubber bands around Stubby's tail. It rotted, so Toyya had it amputated.
Last October, the 39-year-old shelter owner received a $10,000 donation. She stopped stripping and relocated her state-registered shelter to La Marque.
In May, the city told her she had to get rid of 96 cats.
From several feet away the shelter smells like the gorilla room at the zoo. Inside the old dentist's office hangs a picture of Jesus holding a cat and various cat-lover plaques with sayings such as "Dogs have masters, Cats have staff." Toyya sleeps in a twin bed in the shelter's small office. She shares it with eight sick cats with sticky closed eyes. There's a small kitchen with a toaster oven, a microwave and a dorm-sized fridge. There's no shower, so she bathes in a plastic tub. "Even I admit that's a little crazy," she says.
If a make-a-wish television show stopped by her shelter, she'd ask for a shopping spree at The Gap because all her clothes smell like cat pee. "They're saturated," she says. "They've been washed so many times the cat urine is just in the fabric." She picks cat hairs out of her lipstick and mascara.
"I'm tired of this. It has been disgusting -- I'm not gonna lie," she says. "I feel like I'm gonna end up with leprosy or something."
Toyya constantly changes her hair color. Sometimes she's blond on Monday and brunette by Wednesday. She's tall and thin and it's easy to believe her when she says she made good money dancing. Some days she works in the shelter wearing surgical scrubs and a stethoscope around her neck. Other days she scrubs cat shit dressed in tight jeans, a fitted, stylish shirt and white sneakers. She speaks in a sweet, black-and-white-television-mom voice. She says she could never be a veterinarian because she would be nasty to people who wanted to put pets to sleep.
She rarely answers the phone or returns calls. She blows off lunch dates. She repeatedly tells reporters that she doesn't trust anyone and accused one journalist of being a spy or private detective hired by people out to get her. She tells reporters that if they write anything negative about the shelter they will be putting 100 cats in their graves.
When told that people say nice things about her, she says she's surprised. She says they haven't seen her bad side -- yet. Often acting on the spur of the moment, Toyya writes long, threatening letters and leaves angry voice-mail messages. A skyrocketing utility bill convinced her someone is stealing her water.
Toyya says she doesn't talk to most of her family members and refuses to give their names or numbers. She says she and her siblings have a wave-when-they-pass-on-the-street type of relationship. Her mother and stepfather tell her she's never going to make any money running the shelter. They encourage her to do something else with her life. After Toyya reprimanded her nephew for being mean to a dog, Toyya's sister told her to apologize. Toyya refused. The boy called her a crazy cat lady. Toyya demanded an apology she never received -- so she hasn't spoken to her sister in more than a year.
She says she got married in her teens to get out of the house, then quickly divorced. She hasn't had a boyfriend in years. She doesn't think she could ever live with a roommate or a husband again. Toyya says she never used birth control and never got pregnant. Her doctor told her she might not be able to have kids. She says she used to feel empty because she didn't have a baby. Now the cats are her children.
Everything she does is for the cats; the cats eat before she does. Fillings fell out of her teeth, but she didn't replace them. She has a leaky heart valve, but she doesn't take her medication or get cardiograms every six months as her cardiologist recommends.