Tiger Ranch's feline survivors get Harrison home of their own
Cats don't have much use for a hot tub.
So when Dr. Becky Morrow bought a house for a group of survivors from the Tiger Ranch cat sanctuary, she knew just what to do with the gazebo that housed one.
She put a little swinging door in a window, rigged up an enclosed ramp, secured the gazebo and voila -- kitty out building.
But on Sunday, with the air still chilly, the more than 40 felines were mostly inside, sitting in or near windows from the first floor to the attic, bathing in sunbeams.
Morrow, 38, of Arnold is a veterinarian and assistant professor at Duquesne University, where she teaches physiology and biology. She was involved in the undercover raid three years ago this month that brought down Tiger Ranch in Frazer and its operator, Lin Marie, formerly Linda Bruno.
Marie pleaded guilty to 12 counts of animal cruelty and two counts of tampering with records, stemming from the running of Tiger Ranch, where prosecutors said thousands of cats died and others lived in filth and disease. An Allegheny County judge in January 2010 sentenced Marie to 27 years probation and two years of house arrest. She also was ordered to pay $212,000 in fines and restitution and to have no contact with animals.
After the raid, about 375 cats went to a shelter in Clarion County, which was going to be closed at the end of 2009, when there were about 150 left.
Rather than see them scattered to shelters, Morrow and three others began searching for a house for the ones least likely to be adopted.
"They were our family at that point," Morrow said. "We invested too much in them. We cared too much to let them go. Plus they've been through hell. We saw where they came from. These cats literally came from hell."
About 85 cats were set loose in the two-story, three-bedroom house on New Years Eve 2009. There are now 43.
"We are sane. We're just very dedicated to these animals," Morrow said.
Morrow said she looked at 10 different houses before she bought what she calls a "diamond in the rough" in the Natrona Heights section of Harrison for $38,000 in November 2009.
One reason she chose the house is because she checked the township's laws and found no restrictions or limitations on how many animals can be kept in a home.
Morrow said township officials told her as long as the cats are not running loose outside, they wouldn't have a problem with it. And the cats are never allowed loose outdoors.
"We looked into the laws," she said. "They know we're here."
Morrow doesn't want the house's exact location revealed because she fears that Marie's supporters would seek to damage the house or harm the cats.
"We wanted to be kind of incognito," she said. "I kind of like it because it's underwhelming and it blends in."
Besides the enclosed gazebo, the house features enclosed first- and second-floor porches on the back. The cats are free to go out onto the second-floor porch whenever they like, from where they can watch the birds and squirrels in a tree.
There are baskets just right for curling up in throughout the house. Just about all of the furniture is covered in quilts for easy cleaning. A front sun porch is a favorite room. Neighborhood children sometime visit and play with the cats.
"This is what a sanctuary should look like, not Tiger Ranch," Morrow said.
The population is about evenly split between males and females. Those that weren't already fixed were spayed or neutered.
There are short-haired cats and long-haired cats; skinny cats and fat cats; small cats and big cats; cats with tails and cats without tails.
They had free run of the house until August 2010, when Lindsay Joyce, 26, moved in from Fayette County.
A veterinary technician with Animal Protectors in New Kensington, Joyce met Morrow in the Tiger Ranch raid.
Joyce lives in the home -- where she has her own cat-free area -- and sees to the cat's daily care, which includes keeping 20 water bowls filled and 28 litter boxes cleaned. Volunteers come in every Friday to help with a thorough cleaning.
"It's great," Joyce said of sharing a home with nearly four dozen cats. "They're really well behaved.
"It's great knowing where they are. As long as we're taking care of them ourselves, we know they're safe," Joyce said.
Every cat has a name. Even with some cats that look alike, Joyce said she knows who's who.
"Their little eyes all look different," she said.
Their effort is now a rescue, incorporated as Frankie's Friends Cat Rescue, named for one of the Tiger Ranch survivors that has since died.
"This is in honor of him and all the others that didn't make it," Morrow said.
Caring for the cats costs about $1,200 each month, including the mortgage on the house and utilities, plus medication. Morrow works overtime to cover the costs, and they get some donations that help.
There's work they'd like to do on the house, including installing central air conditioning. The cats like the attic, but it gets hot up there in the summer; Morrow got a couple portable air conditioners to keep it cool.
The average age of the cats is about 5 years. Morrow said their goal is to care for the cats as long as they need it.
But they're expected to have shorter-than-normal lives because of what they went through.
"It's nice to be able to come here and see we did good," Joyce said.Additional Information:
How to help
Donations to help care for the cats at Frankie's Friends Cat Rescue may be sent to P.O. Box 161, Tarentum, PA 15084.