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Cats seized from Richland home were kept in deplorable conditions

Thursday, December 09, 1999

By Kristen Ostendorf, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

They spent their whole lives in crates, one piled so high with feces that its occupant couldn't stand up.

Cat food cans, feces and urine, newspapers and even abandoned carriers full of excrement littered the one-story house.

  Kathy Hecker, a humane officer with Animal Friends in the Strip District, discovered about 100 cats living in deplorable conditions in a Richland woman's home. (Annie O'Neill, Post-Gazette)

Kathy Hecker, a state humane officer with Animal Friends in the Strip District, served a warrant at Elizabeth Riddle's home yesterday in Richland. Hecker said the woman had collected about 100 cats, keeping many of them in cages, sometimes several together in tiny, cube cat carriers.

"They lived in these crates," Hecker said, as she and her assistants carried some of the foul-smelling felines into the Animal Friends shelter last night. "This was their life."

Hecker is a law enforcement officer for animals. She is authorized by the state to serve search warrants and make arrests on animal-related charges.

Last night, Hecker said she plans to charge Riddle with violations of the cruelty-to-animals code and the state rabies law; she also plans to ask a judge to take custody of the animals away from Riddle.

Riddle was taken to Mercy Providence Hospital for evaluation. Her age was not available; neighbors and officials described her possibly in her 60s or 70s.

Hecker said she was tipped off there was a problem in the house after an acquaintance of Riddle's suspected there was animal overcrowding and arranged for a veterinarian to look at one of her kittens.

The vet immediately recognized signs of overcrowding and neglect in the cat.

Hecker visited the house on Georgiann Drive on Monday.

No one answered the door. However, Hecker said she saw about 10 cats peeping out of the only window not covered by cardboard. At the door, she could see five cats stuffed into a crate and other crates strewn about. Hecker couldn't see how many cats were in the house, but she said the stench of cat feces and urine was apparent at the door.

It wasn't until she returned with a search warrant yesterday that she realized the extent of the situation.

Hecker said Riddle had no phone, no running water and no mailbox. Hecker, with three volunteers, the dog warden and local police, went back and found about 100 cats. Some are pregnant, many have urine burns, ear mites, fleas and are dehydrated. Some stressed cats had gnawed on each other's tails and limbs.

Many of them were kept in crates or kitty carriers, but some were left to run around; Riddle lived in a small part of the rubbish-strewn basement.

"She said she couldn't afford to get them fixed or get them shots or anything," Hecker said.

Jim Brush, the state dog warden for Allegheny County who was there to help enforce the state rabies law, called the situation "totally deplorable."

He said he thought neighbors did not notice the problem because the houses are far enough away from each other.

"They were not really close," he said. "They were far enough away that you couldn't really smell the odor."

Neighbors said they weren't aware of the mess in the house. They said Riddle, who goes by Betty, is a good, longtime resident of the neighborhood.

Hecker said Riddle is the classic case of an animal "collector." With only a few exceptions, most of the cats are black and white. Hecker suspects Riddle came by most of the cats through interbreeding.

  Law officers and agents from Animal Friends remove cats yesterday from a Richland house. More than 100 cats were found living in poor conditions. (Annie O'Neill, Post-Gazette)

While collectors profess to love animals, they don't or can't take care of them. They are often secretive about their menageries, and they often believe that no one can take better care of their animals than them. They often deny there is a problem.

"They are seriously surprised that you would even think that they were not taking care of their animals," Hecker said.

About 85 cats were removed from the home yesterday and taken to local shelters and animal hospitals. About 15 more remain, Hecker said, some hiding in the house's ceilings. Hecker planned to return today to the house.

Veterinarians were assessing the cats' health last night and planned to test them for a variety of diseases, including feline leukemia. Although many were dehydrated, Hecker said the cats were friendly and many could be adopted as pets.

"I did not find any of them to be wild, hissy or scratchy cats," Hecker said, showing off two small scratch marks -- a good record for the number of cats.

One cat with matted fur, looking lethargic and limp, was rushed from the shelter to an emergency animal clinic.

Some of the cats will need foster homes until the legal issues are resolved. Hecker can be reached at 412-566-2103, Ext. 224.

"We want nothing more than to let these cats out of their cages," Hecker said. "They've had a horrible life and need to live the way cats live."

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