A sanctuary that’s 600 cats’ meows

On a central California ranch, Lynea Lattanzio feeds and cares for feral and abandoned cats.

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‘C’mon babies, let’s walk!” Lynea Lattanzio, a fit 50-something woman with curly brown hair, slides open her kitchen door and five, 10, 15 cats rush through the opening like water gushing out of a pressurized spigot.

“C’mon guys,” she calls out. “Let’s go for a walk!” The flock follows her down the steps.

Ms. Lattanzio, sure enough, is herding cats. But as she crosses the lawn and opens a gate, the subtleties of cat herding emerge. Individuals run in spurts and stops, in a manner distinct from sheep. A black cat, two tabbies, and a Siamese drop out of the procession. They’re replaced by three new cats that materialize from under a tree, eager to tag along for a minute as Lattanzio strolls down to the shady banks of the Kings River, 50 yards away.

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Oxymoron or not, feline herding happens all the time here at The Cat House on the Kings, a 12-acre sanctuary for abandoned and feral cats in California’s Central Valley, near the farm town of Reedley. Over 600 cats live here along with Lattanzio, who dedicates her ranch-style home to the cause of keeping them alive and healthy in hopes of adoption.

Cats lounge in every room: on tile floors, countertops, cubbyholes that line the walls, and even in a high cabinet above the microwave. Just off the kitchen, a few sick animals convalesce in cages in the feline intensive-care unit. An enclosure outside houses cats with feline AIDS. And elsewhere on the grounds stand several sheds, fitted with cat doors and rows of feline bunk beds – and cooled, on this 99-degree afternoon, by ceiling fans or misters.

•••

“This was not in my life’s plan,” says Lattanzio, sitting at her kitchen table, a cat in her lap and several others under the table. She studied marketing and biology in college, and worked for years in real-estate development. But life is full of surprises.

Her path toward cat ranching began in 1992 as she searched for two Manx kittens for her father. She returned one day from the Humane Society with 15 kittens that she’d agreed, on impulse, to keep until someone adopted them. By the end of the year she’d fostered and adopted out 96 cats, and 150 more by the end of the following year.

“When you have [only] 100 cats, you still could get out,” she says. But arrivals outpaced departures, and by 1997 she’d reached a turning point. “I had 350, and I said, ‘Even if I quit now, they live 16 years, so I’d still have to be here.’ ” Lattanzio pauses, and asks, “Did you ever ask yourself what you were supposed to do with your life? I realized finally this was my calling.”

Some 16,000 cats have passed through The Cat House since then, most of them graduating to regular homes. Some of the 600 current residents have lived here for more than five years. Many have names. “I know my kitchen cats,” says Lattanzio, rising to point out fur balls curled on the floor. “This is Ms. Wiggles, this is Raisin, this is Cynthia, this is Bessy, this is Sunshine, this is Butch.”

“This is L.T.,” she adds, pointing at a cat with an angular crook in his tail, heading down the hallway. “See, his tail makes a left turn.”

The sheer number of felines provides a surprising window into the fundamental nature of catdom: Cats in large numbers assemble into social structures – a phenomenon most people would never expect.

The same 30 cats mingle all day in Lattanzio’s kitchen – a stable colony, she says, that revolves around a male alpha cat named Boston. Other colonies of 10 to 100 cats hang out in the garage, the living room, the intensive-care unit, the plum orchard, and the trees by the river. And each night, a clique of 65 cats coalesces around Lattanzio’s bed.

The 600-plus cats have a surprisingly small impact on the atmosphere. One notices a faint odor upon arriving at The Cat House, but it quickly fades. Lattanzio converted the entire house from carpet to linoleum and tile years ago. Every day between 5 a.m. and noon, employees sweep and mop those floors clean of hair, and the litter boxes are cleared as well.

But even so, that bedroom colony has spurred Lattanzio to a new life decision: Critical mass has been reached, and someone has got to go.

•••

East Adams Road runs for miles past plum and apricot orchards before turning sharply, narrowing to a single bumpy lane, and dead-ending. The Cat House sits 100 yards away.

Last year, The Cat House took in 1,030 kittens from the Central California Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) in Fresno – “way beyond our capacity,” says Lattanzio, a decision that “broke me [financially]” – but that pales beside the 2,000 cats that Fresno County euthanizes each month.

Observers blame Central California’s animal problem on several factors: a farm environment where animals run free, an itinerant population of migrant workers who often cannot take pets when they move, and persistent myths that animals are healthier when not neutered or spayed.

The souring economy continues to push families and pets out of their homes, and that has produced a secondary wave of migrations – not economic or political refugees creeping across borders, but abandoned cats thrown over the Cat House fence in the dark of night by owners unable or unwilling to care for them.

Some years, up to 100 cats fly over Lattanzio’s fence. The newcomers may turn up the next morning in her kitchen or join an outdoor colony and go unnoticed for days. Lattanzio points to a black cat, with one eyelid sewn permanently shut, resting by a plum tree. “I don’t have [a] black cat with [a] surgically sutured eye,” she says. “I would know that I had one. That one’s dumped.”

All day Lattanzio wears a cordless telephone and headset. The phone rings constantly. She doles out referrals for free spaying or neutering, or suggestions on how to adopt out a litter. But she can’t take new cats right now: She repeats this to callers many times each day.

With monthly bills of $2,000 for cat food and $400 for litter, plus 12 employees who help with seven hours of cleaning and feeding per day, Lattanzio is strapped for cash. Although she receives donations from as far afield as Denmark and Australia, she has shouldered most of the expenses herself over the years.

The phenomenon of homes that double as animal shelters can be a mixed blessing. For one thing, they’re subject to personal circumstances to which public-run shelters are generally immune. The deaths of people in charge of home shelters have occasionally flooded nearby facilities with hundreds of displaced animals.

But in Central California, The Cat House on the Kings has become a mainstay. “Lynea is doing a wonderful thing,” says Kelly Joos of the Valley Animal Shelter in Fresno.

“They’re a great organization,” agrees Beth Caffrey of the Central California SPCA in Fresno. “They pull animals from our shelters all the time. We all work together.”

About 20 people or groups visit The Cat House each week – to adopt, browse, or seek veterinary care. Although not every cat here is a prime candidate for adoption, Lattanzio often sends the healthier, friendlier ones out to adoption fairs, or to shelters in the San Francisco Bay Area, where rates of abandoned and feral cats are lower, shelters and rescue groups have more room, and these feline refugees are more likely to find homes. There’s an element of deal-making to the process: Lattanzio strikes agreements with shelters that she’ll give them five litters of kittens – always popular on the adoption market – for every feral cat she takes away.

“I’m like a wholesaler,” she says.

•••

As night falls, The Cat House comes alive. Catatonic cats spring into action. A Halloweenish soundtrack of bumps and creaks ripples through the house, and each of Lattanzio’s 65 roommates seems to take a turn walking on her bed. Lattanzio doesn’t sleep as well as she’d like; hence, her recent decision.

“The whole thing is theirs,” she says. “The whole house. I’m giving it to them.” From now on, the house where Lattanzio has lived for 25 years will belong to the cats. Lattanzio is vacating the bedroom that she’s shared with 65 cats, and moving into a guest house on the grounds. The sanctuary’s work will continue, but Lattanzio will finally sleep in peace, accompanied only by Pookie-Boo, a petite Manx.

“I have one,” says Lattanzio, “only one out of 600 [cats], that I will take with me to the other house.”

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