That’s how it was described to me by the officer before we arrived to pick up the six cats supposedly inside. He was right – when we pulled up out front it was easy to identify which one he was referring to. Vines had completely taken over the outside of the home. Plant-life shoved its way in windows and simply covered the ones it couldn’t penetrate. It was hard to see the walkway to the porch. It was as if Mother Nature was reclaiming her own.
The homeowner was in the hospital with no known discharge date. According to his friend, who came to let us inside, the owner was an alcoholic who had tried to detox on his own the week before and ended up collapsing, most-likely from the shock of the withdrawl. The homeowner knew his condition was serious, but he was also worried about the cats in the house that were left to fend for themselves. So he had agreed to let the SPCA come and rescue them.
The outside of the jungle house was NOTHING compared to what we saw on the inside. I noticed an animal skull mounted to the outside of the front door. Before the owner’s friend opened the door for us, he tried to express just how bad it was in the house.
“Listen, it’s horrible,” he said. “There are fleas everywhere. And the cats ain’t used to people, so they’ll most likely run and hide. Least that’s what they did when I came to feed ‘em.”
I didn’t have a clue how bad some people in my city have to live until I saw the inside of that house. When I stepped inside I was slapped across the face by the unmistakable odor of urine and feces. It was as if time had stopped. Cobwebs and layers of dust and animal hair covered everything. It was dark and dreary; the windows were covered by the vines outside, heavy curtains inside, and a film of dirt several layers thick. Clothes that obviously hadn’t been worn in years lay haphazardly across furniture and on the floor. Boxes of magazines and assorted collectibles were stacked in the middle of the front two rooms. The only piece of furniture that was not piled with boxes was a small couch in the living room, which is most-likely where the homeowner slept. Piles of feces were EVERYWHERE. Roaches scurried out of our way. The homeowner’s friend picked up a bag of cat food from a kitchen chair and shook it. I shuddered to think that it was probably infested with insects. I saw one cat on a window ledge, but when he caught a glimpse of us he flew like a bat-out-of-hell past our legs and up the stairs. Another cat scurried out of the kitchen in the same direction. We put the four cat boxes we had brought on a semi-clean area of the living-room floor and headed up the stairs.
It was worse up there. A mattress on the floor of one of the rooms was used as a makeshift litter box. There was no air conditioning, and the heat made the stench even more pervasive. It was impossible to take a step without coming into contact with animal feces. After chasing the cats with flashlights for about five wasted minutes, Jim said to me, “We need to go back to the shelter and get the traps. These cats are completely feral and we’ll never catch them otherwise.”
We trudged downstairs and out into the sunshine and fresh air. Jim called the homeowner in his hospital room to let him know that we were going to set traps and take the cats out. The homeowner was sad but understood. He was aware and embarrassed at the condition of his house, which I took to be a good sign of a dawning recognition of his living situation. He knew he couldn’t care for the cats and he gave permission for his friend to sign for them.
I looked down at the legs of my pants and realized I was COVERED in fleas. After hosing each other down with flea spray Jim and I headed back to the SPCA for traps. I thought about how horrible life for that homeowner must be. I had seen signs of a life before things had gotten bad – yellowed pictures and clippings attached to the refrigerator door. Images of happier times, perhaps? But I thought about how he now battles with addiction every day. No family. Almost no friends, except for the kind soul that we had met. How scary it must have been, pushing a cart of laundry down the street and collapsing. ALONE. The cats were his only life-line. He cared, at least in his mind, more for them than for himself. What would life be like for him after the hospital? He couldn’t possibly be allowed to return to that house. Could he?
We returned from the SPCA with two large traps and cans of cat food for bait. We set them in the living room and kitchen and hoped they would work. Unfortunately, we had run out of flea spray and had to resort to picking the second round off of ourselves by hand. Thanking the owner’s friend for his time, patience, and caring, we said we’d be back the following day to check the traps and bring more. Driving away from the jungle house I realized that the SPCA is not just teaching me about animal laws and behavior, but also about human nature and humility. This isn’t just the stuff of movies. It’s reality. Not everyone lives a comfortable life. People AND animals struggle with the basics EVERY MINUTE of EVERY DAY. They don’t struggle with which new car or gadget to buy. They struggle to find food, water, shelter. They struggle to get out of bed. They struggle to find someone, anyone, who will not scream at them, hit them, or otherwise disregard them. They HOPE to find someone who will listen. Someone to care.