Kitty Litter

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

Toyya Braskey took two tranquilizers her first night dancing topless at Heartbreakers. She doesn't remember being there, she says, but she made $700. As she danced on subsequent nights, men asked her what she was thinking. They wanted to know what fantasy or porn movie was playing in her mind.

Actually, she was calculating her vet bills and how many lap dances it would take to pay them off. Toyya owns The Momma Cat, a shelter for sick or injured cats. She lives in and operates the shelter out of an old dentist's office and says without it the cats would all be dead. She keeps alive the unfixed feral cat with thick jowls and a missing eye and says another shelter wouldn't. She gives insulin to diabetic cats and buys chemotherapy for kittens.

Toyya doesn't believe in cages. As she walks around the shelter, dozens of cats rush toward her. Cats gaze sleepily from bunk beds covered in crib mattresses. More are curled on the floor, dozing in standard pet beds. A few have bald patches. In late May, there was a mite outbreak and 22 cats lost their hair.

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.
Toyya doesn't think feline AIDS cats like Fat Scottie (top) will infect other shelter cats.
Daniel Kramer
Toyya doesn't think feline AIDS cats like Fat Scottie (top) will infect other shelter cats.
Toyya recently received a $10,000 donation. She gave $100 to a church.
Daniel Kramer
Toyya recently received a $10,000 donation. She gave $100 to a church.
Mary Frances Hinkie is one of Toyya's most loyal supporters.
Daniel Kramer
Mary Frances Hinkie is one of Toyya's most loyal supporters.

Sitting on a shelf is Tabby. Toyya paid $1,000 to rebuild the cat's jaw after it was trampled by horses. Sitting beside Tabby is an orange cat named Stubby. Kids wrapped rubber bands around Stubby's tail. It rotted, so Toyya had it amputated.

Last October, the 39-year-old shelter owner received a $10,000 donation. She stopped stripping and relocated her state-registered shelter to La Marque.

In May, the city told her she had to get rid of 96 cats.


From several feet away the shelter smells like the gorilla room at the zoo. Inside the old dentist's office hangs a picture of Jesus holding a cat and various cat-lover plaques with sayings such as "Dogs have masters, Cats have staff." Toyya sleeps in a twin bed in the shelter's small office. She shares it with eight sick cats with sticky closed eyes. There's a small kitchen with a toaster oven, a microwave and a dorm-sized fridge. There's no shower, so she bathes in a plastic tub. "Even I admit that's a little crazy," she says.

If a make-a-wish television show stopped by her shelter, she'd ask for a shopping spree at The Gap because all her clothes smell like cat pee. "They're saturated," she says. "They've been washed so many times the cat urine is just in the fabric." She picks cat hairs out of her lipstick and mascara.

"I'm tired of this. It has been disgusting -- I'm not gonna lie," she says. "I feel like I'm gonna end up with leprosy or something."

Toyya constantly changes her hair color. Sometimes she's blond on Monday and brunette by Wednesday. She's tall and thin and it's easy to believe her when she says she made good money dancing. Some days she works in the shelter wearing surgical scrubs and a stethoscope around her neck. Other days she scrubs cat shit dressed in tight jeans, a fitted, stylish shirt and white sneakers. She speaks in a sweet, black-and-white-television-mom voice. She says she could never be a veterinarian because she would be nasty to people who wanted to put pets to sleep.

She rarely answers the phone or returns calls. She blows off lunch dates. She repeatedly tells reporters that she doesn't trust anyone and accused one journalist of being a spy or private detective hired by people out to get her. She tells reporters that if they write anything negative about the shelter they will be putting 100 cats in their graves.

When told that people say nice things about her, she says she's surprised. She says they haven't seen her bad side -- yet. Often acting on the spur of the moment, Toyya writes long, threatening letters and leaves angry voice-mail messages. A skyrocketing utility bill convinced her someone is stealing her water.

Toyya says she doesn't talk to most of her family members and refuses to give their names or numbers. She says she and her siblings have a wave-when-they-pass-on-the-street type of relationship. Her mother and stepfather tell her she's never going to make any money running the shelter. They encourage her to do something else with her life. After Toyya reprimanded her nephew for being mean to a dog, Toyya's sister told her to apologize. Toyya refused. The boy called her a crazy cat lady. Toyya demanded an apology she never received -- so she hasn't spoken to her sister in more than a year.

She says she got married in her teens to get out of the house, then quickly divorced. She hasn't had a boyfriend in years. She doesn't think she could ever live with a roommate or a husband again. Toyya says she never used birth control and never got pregnant. Her doctor told her she might not be able to have kids. She says she used to feel empty because she didn't have a baby. Now the cats are her children.

Everything she does is for the cats; the cats eat before she does. Fillings fell out of her teeth, but she didn't replace them. She has a leaky heart valve, but she doesn't take her medication or get cardiograms every six months as her cardiologist recommends.

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.


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.

"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.

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.

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.

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.

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."

Pat's inquired with Oklahoma health department officials about what the rules are. Once she hears back, she'll start looking with a realtor. When Pat's home in Galveston sells, she will have more money to invest in the new shelter.

Toyya cried for a week at the idea of leaving Texas. She's never lived outside the Houston-Galveston area. Her attorney told her to stay and fight. But right now, leaving seems like the best plan. Even if the city lets her stay, she doesn't have the money to pay rent after October. She recently received a $1,000 donation, but donations that big don't come along very often.

The idea of knowing only two people in Oklahoma -- Pat and her daughter -- frightens her. But they promised to help move all the cats. And the cats, after all, are what matter to her most.

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