By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
By Jeff Balke
She supports the shelter on donations and money she earns pet-sitting. She has held fund-raisers wearing a "Support Your Local Cat House" sweatshirt. She has written columns and letters to the editor. One op-ed piece said that if city council tightened rules at strip clubs, the result would be high unemployment and hungry cats.
Critics, friends and volunteers agree about one thing: She's "an unusual woman." Shelter volunteers say Toyya makes enormous sacrifices out of sheer love for the cats -- sacrifices that they couldn't and wouldn't make. Even her attorney wrinkles his nose at the thought of visiting the shelter -- he hasn't -- shakes his head and repeats, "I couldn't do it."
People often ask Toyya if she's the crazy cat lady they saw on the news.
Maybe they're thinking of the Waller County collector who recently had 67 dogs and 15 cats seized by the Houston Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Or they might be remembering the 284 cats that were taken from a house in Brazoria County. "The feces in the living room was about three feet tall," says Patricia Mercer, executive director of the Houston SPCA. "You could not open the front door because there was a solid carpet of feces."
Or they may mistake her for the 70-year-old woman in the Heights whose 119 animals were confiscated. There is also the home in Memorial where SPCA investigators found dead animals in the closets, the freezer and the fridge. "Alongside mustard and ketchup there were also dead animals," Mercer says. "There was a carpet of feces throughout the house and the feces appeared to be moving because there were so many beetles crawling across the carpet."
Toyya says she feels bad for these crazy cat ladies. "I know in my heart that they're trying to do the right thing," she says. But she insists that she is not an animal collector. Her cabinets are stocked with cat food and medication, and all her cats receive regular veterinary care. Plus, she doesn't keep all the cats she finds. "Please don't call me a collector," she emphasizes.
But many people do. David Smith, executive director of Galveston County Animal Control, says members of various animal organizations have told him that they believe Toyya is an animal collector. Calling someone a collector, or the newer term, hoarder, is the biggest insult in the animal world. "It's like calling someone the F-word," he says. Smith says he doesn't know for certain if Toyya is a hoarder or a legitimate shelter owner. "It's a gray area," he says. "There isn't an acid test."
Typically, he says, animal hoarders tend to be lonely, middle-aged women who want something to love that will love them back. "One cat loves them, so two must be better, and so three must be better, and ten must be better than that," Smith says. Soon their home is covered in feces and filled with more cats than they can afford to feed and care for.
Mercer says collectors usually have one room that is off-limits to all but a few favorite or sick animals. Often, Mercer says, hoarders are estranged from their families. "They have contact with virtually no one," Mercer says. "They see themselves on a mission and the animals as their family."
Most collectors feel that by loving the animals, they're giving them the best care possible, Mercer says. "But in many cases they're simply loving animals to death."
Veterinarian Gary Patronek, director of the Tufts Center for Animals and Public Policy, part of the Tufts University School of Veterinary Medicine outside Boston, has spent several years studying hoarders in Houston and across the country. Patronek founded the Hoarding of Animals Research Consortium. He discovered that many hoarders are very secretive. They often live in homes where they aren't able to cook and don't have running water or fresh air, Patronek says.
"They may appear to be sacrificing," Patronek says. "They live in squalor -- but that's a choice that they're consciously making. No one's forcing them to live like that."
Collectors often argue that the animals have no place else to go, says Smith. "How they justify it in court is they are saving them from awful people like me," he says. "The problem is, a lot of the animals are so diseased because of overcrowding and lack of care that it's a slow death rather than a quick and painless death they would receive in the animal shelter."
The latest trend is for hoarders to pose as legitimate animal shelters, Patronek says. Some collectors obtain 501(c)(3) nonprofit status. Patronek says hoarders often advertise on the Internet that they are no-kill shelters promising loving, lifelong care to sick, special-needs pets.
"If you hide behind something that has respectability, then you become respectable," Patronek says. "Sometimes it's the rescuers that we need to rescue these animals from."
What Toyya says differentiates her from a collector is that she adopts out animals. Smith says people have reported that Toyya isn't doing adoptions correctly and that she doesn't do them as much as she should. At her Texas City location, ten cats were adopted every month. Since she moved to La Marque, only two cats a month have been adopted. Toyya justifies the low numbers by saying that people in La Marque hate cats.