Cat conundrum over private sanctuary - Albuquerque Journal

Cat conundrum over private sanctuary

Pat has been a cat lady in every sense of the archetype for a long as anybody can remember, and maybe the cats, wily creatures that they are, in her East Mountains neighborhood got wind of that and started showing up.

That’s how her cat sanctuary began, she explains.

“They started arriving a number of years ago,” she said.

“They just came over the fence, over the gate. They acted like they wanted help, and so I helped them. If they want to leave, they can. This isn’t a prison.”

It’s also not a nonprofit or a publicized cat rescue.

She asks for no donations, no volunteers, seeks no one to adopt her feral felines – and wants no visitors.

“I use what I have from my retirement,” the very private Pat said. “I do right by them. I studied zoology. I’m not stupid.”

For years, the 79-year-old woman has maintained outdoor pens for her cat crowd, each pen relatively comfy, spacious and safe from coyotes, hawks and owls, predators known for snatching unsuspecting kitties regularly in this woodsy community off NM 337.

She declines to reveal how many cats she has at the moment, coyly saying only that she has “a number.”

That number, according to Bernalillo County officials, is 20. But it’s been higher than that at times.

A pen on private property off NM 337 is among several pens that house feral cats. Although the pens appear rustic and worn, Bernalillo County officials say they are insulated and clean and do not violate animal humane ordinances.The photo was taken in December by a Bernalillo County animal care officer. (Courtesy of Judy Crane)

Cats are separated by gender so as not to create even more cats. Pat is against spaying and neutering them, saying it’s not her “calling” to do so.

Pat cares for her cats with the aid of a live-in “helper” and a son. Water in winter is warmed and changed twice a day. Food is ample. The pens, though they are outside, are insulated and covered, hard to see from the road, hard to see from nearly any vantage point, cloistered within the groves of trees on her two acres, far enough away from neighbors.

Perhaps not far enough.

Judy Crane, who lives in the neighborhood, said that in 2016 while out for a walk she was assailed with the undeniable stench of cat urine. Peering through Pat’s chain-link fence, she caught a glimpse of a kitten in a pen and heard it meow.

She called Bernalillo County Animal Care and Resource Center to report her concerns.

Thus began their feud, neighbor against neighbor, both with their own ideas of how best to care for cats.

The two women have never spoken to each other at any great length. Crane, who has cats of her own, said Pat refuses to speak to her or to any of the concerned neighbors.

Pat said that’s because their first encounter involved an immediate call to authorities rather than a chat, cat lover to cat lover.

“Had she bothered to talk to me, I could have told her that I had just gone through six weeks of getting over the flu and we had had a cold snap that froze everything in the litter boxes so we couldn’t clean them,” she said. “The day she came by, things were thawing and that’s why she smelled what she did. Usually there is no smell.”

Crane disputes that, too.

In November, the cat fight clawed its way onto NextDoor, with most people siding with Crane and clamoring for Pat’s cats to go, sight unseen. Even a well-known veterinarian weighed in, calling the pens “inhumane,” though he’s never visited Pat’s cat sanctuary.

Crane said she is concerned that it’s unnatural and cruel for cats to be cooped up no matter how big the pens are.

“It’s like chaining a dog in the backyard,” she said.

But Bernalillo County Animal Care officials disagree. Officers regularly check in with Pat and her cats and have deemed her facilities humane and safe. There is no record of any citations or complaints of animal abuse lodged against her.

So well kept is her cat sanctuary, that the county is expected to issue her a multiple cat permit in a matter of days.

“These cats are fine, I’m told,” Bernalillo County Commissioner Charlene Pyskoty said. “It’s a shame this has caused so much concern but there is not much we can do if there are no violations. I wish there was a way to get both sides together to talk out their concerns.”

The neighborhood cat fight has gone on so long that both sides appear dug in. Crane is considering pushing to refine the animal ordinance to prohibit keeping cats in pens, something she’s already been warned will likely be nearly impossible.

Crane also wonders whether Pat would agree to allow willing neighbors to build larger, airier, screened-in extensions to the pens called catios. Other neighbors on NextDoor have also inquired how they can help Pat and her cats.

And perhaps somehow Pat can be convinced to spay and neuter her clowder of cats.

But Pat wants Crane and the others to stop prying, stop gossiping, stop opining on things they know nothing about. Her cats are warm, well fed, safe, nurtured, loved, she said.

They are her life. They are none of anybody’s business.

“All I want is to simply take care of homeless cats,” she said. “I’m checked on and inspected by the county. Everything is fine. There’s no need to be worried. My cats are happy.”

It’s good to have neighbors who care so much about creatures great and small. But these neighbors can’t agree how best to do that. Until they are willing to talk it over, the feud festers on, the claws remain out, the fences up.

UpFront is a front-page news and opinion column. Reach Joline at 730-2793,

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