By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
By Jeff Balke
Used to be, Toyya didn't even like cats. The story of how the cats came into her life is almost as strange as the life she leads now. Ten years ago, Toyya was 29 years old, working as an office manager at the Kawasho Steel Corporation. She was a shopaholic who wore $300 suits and flowery Laura Ashley dresses. "I wasn't always crazy," she says.
She started getting headaches, and her muscles felt stiff and sore. Some days her arms and legs were numb; other days she couldn't move. "Even air hurt my skin," she says. She was diagnosed with transverse myelitis, a neurological disorder caused by a lesion on her spinal cord. The disorder interrupts communication between nerves and the body; she was in constant pain and couldn't move.
Three years of pain therapy didn't yield any improvement. She had a bowl full of medication, but no matter how many pills she took, she still hurt.
She was about to swallow a bottle of poison when a cat started clawing the window. Toyya hated cats. She told the cat to go away, but the cat kept screaming and scratching the window. The cat looked like it was in more pain than she was, so Toyya opened the window. The cat came inside, dropped five kittens and then jumped out the window. Toyya decided to stay alive to care for the kittens. "I was the mama cat," she says.
Toyya moved in with her sister. She says her sister wouldn't let her keep the kittens inside. One by one they disappeared. "To this day, I believe she called animal control," Toyya says.
Later, living in her own apartment, Toyya took three free kittens from a neighbor. She maxed out 14 credit cards and made car payments late, preferring to pay the vet bills for sick stray cats. She started doing unofficial adoptions and rescue work. Soon, she was sleeping under a blanket of 25 cats.
After losing her original five kittens, Toyya began caring for the pets of critically ill people. When they died, she gave their pets a permanent home.
She told her next landlord she didn't have any pets. Neighbors saw cats sunning in the windows and turned her in. She was evicted. She moved again and lied again and was caught again. "I was on the run with cats," Toyya says.
When the ambulance took Carol Ann Weaver to the hospital, her Siamese-Burmese cat, Blue, escaped from the house and followed it. It was a week before Carol Ann's son told her the cat was missing. By then, the 12-year-old cat with bowel problems was at the pound. "I knew they wouldn't keep Blue very long," Carol Ann says. It was Memorial Day weekend, she was stuck in the hospital, and she couldn't find anyone to retrieve her cat. Carol Ann read a newspaper ad Toyya had placed that said she cared for sick people's pets. She called and asked Toyya for help.
Toyya picked up the cat, took it for regular enemas and kept it until Carol Ann was able to care for it again. "If it wasn't for Toyya, I would never have gotten Blue back," Carol Ann says.
About the same time last year, Robert Wolfe called Toyya. The 62-year-old offshore oil-rig cook had heart problems and bone cancer and needed help caring for his pets. Toyya handled everything. "When it got to where I couldn't take care of my cat at all, she brought him to her house," Robert says. The 20-year-old cat, Mongo, was diagnosed with feline AIDS; Toyya cared for it until it died of old age. "She's absolutely great," Robert says. "She did a lot for me. Not many people would."
Every Sunday, Toyya visits Hilda Larson and her five tabby cats. The 72-year-old widow had a stroke in February. Since March, Toyya has been coming over to feed the cats, change the litter box and chat. Toyya placed an ottoman in front of the litter box and hung the scooper on the wall. That way Hilda can sit and scoop excrement into the nearby trash can without worrying about falling. Toyya also gave Hilda automatic food and water dishes. That way, if something happens to Hilda, the cats will still be fed and watered.
Once a week, Toyya also visits a lady in Texas City's Sea Breeze nursing home. The woman had 25 cats seized by animal control. Toyya trapped most of them and took them to live at the shelter. Five remain under the woman's former house. Toyya takes them food. Because the lady didn't have any relatives, Toyya says, she became her legal guardian.
Every month, Toyya does pet therapy at the nursing home. She wants to set up sleepovers with patients and cats. She would also like the nursing home to adopt a few cats to live in the courtyard.
For years, she's talked about starting a program to place cats diagnosed with feline AIDS with HIV-positive patients. But so far, she says, confidentiality issues have stood in the way.
Toyya has worked with more than 40 cats with feline AIDS -- her personal cat, Gabriel, tested positive. His blood count was low. She believes that her love is what healed him. She wants to someday open another shelter dedicated entirely to cats with FIV. If she had the space in her shelter, they would have a separate wing. Currently, she intermingles feline AIDS cats with healthy cats. Feline AIDS is contagious through bites, scratches and blood fights. But Toyya doesn't think her FIV-positive cats will infect others, because they're calm and gentle.