To the uninitiated, managing a feral colony may sound like something that slightly demented cat fanciers do in the privacy of their own homes — until animal-control officers show up to haul away scores of starving and diseased critters.
But there's a world of difference between the two. A managed colony can be a feral cat's only hope for a relatively stable, safe existence. Keeping scores of cats in your house is known as hoarding — which, more often than not, turns into animal cruelty.
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Researchers are still trying to fathom the impulse that turns some animal lovers into hoarders. Some think it's related to obsessive-compulsive and anxiety disorders that compel people to collect all sorts of junk. Others say it can be triggered by a number of different psychological factors, with varying degrees of consequences. "It's one of the most misunderstood areas of our relationship with animals," a prominent professor of animal ecology told Westword a few years ago ("Pet Peeve," September 30, 2004).
Hoarders often begin as animal rescuers but soon become overwhelmed. Last year a foreclosure in Teller County forced the relocation of three horses, six dogs — and sixty cats. Adoption agencies found that the cats had been well cared for until the owner lost her house. Another cat lover in Battlement Mesa decided she could no longer handle the 86 cats in her two-bedroom apartment and called authorities for help.
Yet in many cases, the hoarding isn't discovered until it turns deadly. In 2007, Aurora officers had to wear firefighting equipment just to negotiate the stench while removing more than a hundred dead or sick cats from a house and garage. The owner had left the premises two weeks earlier, saying she was going on vacation.
Colorado's most famous hoarder was Lu Anne Strickland, wife of former state senate president Ted Strickland. In 1989, authorities found more than 100 cats living in a feces- and urine-bedecked home in Westminster, but no criminal charges were filed. Two years later, after Strickland moved her animal-rescue efforts to Strasburg, investigators found several animal corpses, buried and unburied, around the property. Hundreds of dogs and cats were removed — most healthy, some not. Strickland received a deferred judgment for a misdemeanor charge and later resumed her rescue activities.