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 explains to the lady that the city wants her to get rid of nearly 100 cats. She says she can't take any more because she's trying to protect the ones she already has. She tells the lady that just that afternoon, she filed a lawsuit in Galveston County Civil Court against the city. If she has to, she says, she'll fight all the way to the Supreme Court.
In May, Toyya asked La Marque city council if she could stay until her prepaid lease is up in October. She wrote the city manager a letter saying her old building was foreclosed upon and she had only two weeks to find a new shelter. Sixteen landlords turned her away, even though she offered them $10,000 cash. When she finally rented the old dentist's office in La Marque, she kept quiet. "I purposely did not contact the city when I had to find emergency refuge last October because I was down to three days to find a building," she wrote. "If I could not find one, my cats were in danger of being seized." She wrote that she was afraid city officials would have denied her "emergency location."
Toyya emphasized that she does not want to stay in this "terrible trashy neighborhood." She says any complaints made to the city against her were out of personal malice. She insists neighbors are retaliating because they believe she reported that they were running extension cords between houses to share electricity -- and she swears she didn't.
Toyya wrote that she would kill herself before giving up the fight. She said she would contact the media, hire attorneys and "do extreme things if I have to."
She wrote that she was so outraged when Texas City officials told her she couldn't operate at her old location that she didn't leave the house for a month "for fear I'd go to prison for life if I acted out my anger." She closed the letter saying, "There comes a point where you just can't be nice anymore."
Toyya borrowed $5,000 and hired Galveston attorney Anthony Griffin. Griffin is the African-American attorney who once represented the Ku Klux Klan when the state wanted its membership list. Griffin gained national attention when he successfully argued another American Civil Liberties Union case against the Santa Fe School District before the Supreme Court. The high court outlawed mandatory prayer at high school football games.
Toyya's case is one of simple semantics, Griffin says. The city says Toyya is violating the kennel ordinance. But she isn't a kennel, so the law doesn't apply to her. But the ordinance defines a kennel as more than four animals, so technically, by the city's definition, The Momma Cat is a kennel.
But Griffin insists they are using a far too broad interpretation of the word kennel. Unlike a kennel, Toyya doesn't take money to temporarily board pets. She operates a shelter, he says. She has a state license. State law trumps city law, game over.
"Legally, she has every right to be there," her attorney says. "There's nothing else for her to do. They should leave her alone. You can't make people jump through hoops that simply don't exist."
La Marque's city attorney entered into evidence the letter Toyya wrote the city manager. The city argues the letter illustrates that she knew she was violating the law. Since La Marque is a "home rule" city, it can have laws that are more stringent than state law.
The city attorney pointed out in a civil court hearing that Toyya isn't entirely complying with state law, either. Dr. Dana Beckham, the regional animal control veterinarian for the Texas Department of Health, recently placed the shelter on probation for two violations of the health code. Shelters are supposed to separate animals by sex; Toyya's doesn't. Her veterinarian reported to Beckham that not all the cats have been fixed. The shelter is also required to have an advisory committee composed of a veterinarian, a local government official, an animal welfare activist and a person involved in the daily operation of the shelter. The shelter has a board, but not an advisory committee.
Beckham says Toyya has one year to remedy these violations. Otherwise, she will not be allowed to renew her state registration next year.
One of the shelter's most generous volunteers has been Pat West, a psychiatric nurse who recently moved from Galveston to Miami, Oklahoma. When Toyya's latest round of legal problems began, 58-year-old Pat and her daughter, Jennifer Smith, suggested to Toyya that she follow them to Oklahoma. There, they could help her run a shelter and keep it clean.
Pat says that several of her friends and co-workers are willing to clean and volunteer at the shelter if it relocates. A local pet store owner offered to lend cages to transport the cats. "We're gonna figure out some way to get her here," Pat says. "If I had the money to just give her, I would.
Since Pat works on the psychiatric ward and used to be a professional counselor, Toyya was afraid she would have her committed. Pat says she doesn't think Toyya's crazy at all, just fiercely dedicated. She wants to bring Toyya to a place that is more accepting of her shelter. And she wants better living conditions for Toyya. They're going to look only at places that have "real bathrooms that have real showers and a real place to live," Pat says. "That's pathetic. She deserves better than that."