Kitty Litter

Toyya Braskey lives with 100 cats. They are her life. Now the city says they have to go.

"It's an atrocity that these cats are put down simply because of a positive test," she says. "It's senseless killing."

Toyya has been killing brown spiders all morning. On her purple bedspread a gray kitten is wrapped in Toyya's scrubs. Its eyes are dilated, its paw is swollen, and it gasps for air. She took five kittens to the vet yesterday with spider bites. She gave the kitten antibiotics, but if it isn't better by three o'clock, she's going to take it to the vet, who may put it to sleep. "I'm trying to give it a chance," she says.

The cats eat before Toyya does.
Daniel Kramer
The cats eat before Toyya does.
No matter how much she cleans, the shelter smells like cat pee.
Daniel Kramer
No matter how much she cleans, the shelter smells like cat pee.

She's debating which is kinder: letting it die quickly at the vet clinic or naturally with its mother. Having a needle stuck in its heart would be terrifying, she says. But it can't breathe, and that seems more painful. She says she loses volunteers because she refuses to euthanize animals without first trying to save them.

"She's the type of person that cannot let sick cats just die," says one of her regular donors, Wayne Houghtaling.

She also loses volunteers because it's hard to stomach the shelter's stench. Marilyn Barren, a Santa Fe homemaker, took several carloads of newspapers to donate to the shelter. But the overwhelming odor made her eyes burn and her stomach turn.

"You don't get a lot of volunteers that stay there very long," says Dr. Helen Kee, a shelter supporter and former executive director of the Bay Area SPCA. "It's not a place where you spend a lot of time playing with the cats. You have to keep them clean."

Toyya ran out of cat litter that morning. Across the street at the H-E-B, she buys two 25-pound bags of Sani-Sorb all-natural cat litter. She doesn't use scented, scoopable litter; she prefers recyclable, organic products, such as donated newspapers. Mostly cats poop on the floor.

She stops at Sonic, and orders a 42-ounce Dr Pepper. By the time she finishes eating her chicken finger basket and feeding the leftovers to neighborhood strays, the spider-bite kitten is dead. With a stethoscope, she makes sure its heart has stopped. She says a prayer and tells it to be with Jesus. Later, she takes the corpse to the veterinarian for disposal. Before The Momma Cat was a licensed shelter, Toyya buried cats in the backyard. She placed a note on each cat's corpse that read Be with mommy in spirit forever.

Chris Samuels has lived in the house behind The Momma Cat for 40 years. He says there hasn't been a stray cat in the neighborhood in the last decade. Now, cats live under his house and perch on his porch. Even though he doesn't own a pet, his home is filled with fleas.

When Toyya washes litter boxes in her front yard, cat pee runs into the street. The neighborhood smells like a truck-stop restroom, he says. "Ever been in a neighborhood when the trash truck comes through?" he asks. "It stinks."

Chris's employer, Annie Burton, confronted Toyya on behalf of the neighborhood. Annie, the owner of Mr. Nice Bar-B-Que, says Toyya's cats dig through the restaurant's Dumpster every day. "They're out there every evening at closing time," she says. "She says they're not her cats, but we didn't have cats in the neighborhood before she moved in."

Annie believes the shelter cats attract other cats. Toyya says the meat in the Dumpster is what draws strays. "Hungry cats have to eat," she says. If Annie doesn't want cats in her Dumpster, she should close the lid, Toyya says.

This isn't the first time Toyya's neighbors have complained. Four years ago, she unofficially opened the shelter in her Texas City home. Neighbors called the Galveston County Health District, complained of the odor and reported there were too many cats. Toyya handwrote long letters to the county inspector detailing confrontations with her neighbors that lasted until 3 a.m.

Because of zoning violations, Toyya relocated to a brick-front strip mall one block off Texas City's main drag. In November 2000, the county issued her a kennel permit. She boarded occasional pets and ran a thrift store to support the shelter cats. Galveston County Animal Control's Smith says Toyya's landlord asked him to forcibly remove the cats. "We just don't kick in doors here and steal people's animals," Smith says. "That's illegal."

But even people who don't live or work near the shelter have complained to officials. "She's not a person who should be running a shelter," says Sally Bleakley, a retired medical librarian who lives in Port Bolivar. Last summer, Sally read an article about The Momma Cat that spurred her to visit the shelter to donate $25, old towels and blankets. "The place looked abandoned," she says. "I knocked and knocked and knocked and knocked. I tried for about ten or 15 minutes to raise somebody and couldn't."

Sally wrote a letter to the local newspaper asking if the reporter who wrote the glowing isn't-this-a-great-selfless-service-Toyya-is-doing article had even bothered to go to the shelter. She sent copies of the letter to local shelters and health department officials in an effort to shut The Momma Cat down.

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