Kitty Litter

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

Responding to Sally's complaint that the shelter was overcrowded and animals appeared to be sick and starving, the district investigator asked Toyya to clean the shelter and recommended she reduce the number of animals to 50.

"The more animals you have in a crowded situation, the more difficult it is," Kee says. "When an animal comes there, they're usually going to be there the rest of their lives. That's a problem for that particular shelter -- they just stay there until they may die naturally."

One of Toyya's most vocal critics is the woman she criticizes the most: Wydell Dixon, owner of the foster-pet program Whiskerville. Whenever Toyya comes under fire, she tries to redirect it toward Wydell. There are twice as many cats living at Whiskerville; Toyya argues she's a victim of selective discrimination since Texas City allows Whiskerville to operate.

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.

At one point, the women considered teaming up, but now they call officials, trying to close each other down. Toyya criticizes Wydell for giving cats abortions. Wydell criticizes Toyya for intermingling healthy cats with cats who have feline AIDS.

Wydell thinks it's abhorrent that Toyya asks for donations to support herself as well as the cats. Wydell says Toyya doesn't have an active adoption program, which Wydell argues makes her a collector. She thinks Toyya tried to "do right by cats" but now she needs to find a different career path.

"The woman has some very deep problems," Wydell says. "Somebody else with some authority is going to have to do something about her."

Robert Gervais, city attorney for Texas City, says there were internal debates as to whether it was legal for Toyya to have that many cats. But he didn't file charges against her. When she moved out of town, the issue was resolved.

La Marque city ordinance classifies any facility with more than four cats as a kennel. The problem is, the Galveston County Health District won't issue Toyya a kennel permit. Last spring, the district determined that she does not run a kennel and told her to register with the state. Which she did.

Still, the city recently filed misdemeanor charges against both Toyya and her landlord in municipal court. If convicted, the charges carry a $2,000-a-day fine. A pretrial municipal court hearing is set for mid-July. City officials threatened that if Toyya doesn't comply with the law, animal control will come in Janet Reno-style and forcibly take the cats to the city pound.

If the city takes her cats, they might as well kill her, she says. "They will be putting me in my grave." Lately her eyes have been shaking, her chest hurts and her muscles ache. The symptoms of her disorder are slowly returning.

"If they kill me," she says, "it will make my story more interesting."

There's shit on the walls and piles of wet poop in the corner. "It's nasty," she says. "I've been cleaning for four hours."

Toyya asks people to donate Iams cat food. "Nobody can afford Iams," she says. The cats are always changing food, so they constantly have diarrhea. Toyya sets a clean litter box on the floor, but before she can fill it a cat poops in it. She cleans the box again, and another cat poops in it. She picks up the box and cleans it in the next room. A cat poops on the floor. She cleans that up. Before she puts the box back, another cat shits in the same spot.

This is what she does all day. She cleans and cleans and cleans. She sponges shit off the walls and bags wet newspapers. Once a week, she mixes bleach and water and washes down the walls to comply with state shelter rules. No matter how much she cleans, the place smells like cat pee.

The cats spray the fan and pee on her answering machine. Her computer is in the closet because she's afraid the cats will pee on it. She sent her attorney a fax informing him she could not return his calls because the cats peed on her telephone and it doesn't work anymore.

Mary Frances Hinkie knocks on the door mid-afternoon. She's one of Toyya's most loyal supporters and volunteers. In the past, she helped scrub the shelter, but she prefers to take Toyya to lunch or shopping. "If I want to blow all my money on cats, it ain't nobody's business," she says. She politely sets on the sidewalk the cleaning supplies and new mattresses she brought. She knocks on the door, then steps several feet away to stand in the shade. The 71-year-old refuses to adopt any of the cats because she's afraid they'll outlive her.

Toyya tells Mary Frances she can't leave the shelter today because a girl made an after-school appointment to adopt a kitten. Toyya gave nine kittens baths that morning. She waits all afternoon, but the girl never shows up.

A woman stops by the shelter and tries to hand Toyya a sick stray kitten she found outside her trailer. The lady says she'd love to keep it, but she has asthma and her dogs are torturing it. It's hard for Toyya to say no to new cats. But she has too many.

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