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A sanctuary that’s 600 cats’ meows

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

By / July 31, 2008



Reedley, Calif.

‘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.

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“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.

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.

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“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.

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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.

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