ELYRIA — Annie Hallman walked to the Salvation Army on Saturday afternoon in a slow determined gait with her shoulders hunched slightly.
The non-profit organization is where the 70-year-old frail woman frequents when she wants to get a hot meal she doesn’t have to pay for out of her meager Social Security. But unbeknownst to many others in the food line, Hallman is often seeking something else when she walks in the door of the Broad Street facility — respite from her home that has been overrun with cats.
Hallman knows her home is not perfect. It smells horribly like cat urine. The carpet on the first floor is tattered and stained. There is no heat or hot water. The front screen door is missing a window. But to Hallman, the blue two-story house on Floral Court is her home.
“I moved in this place in March 1997, and I got 16 years of payments here,” she said proudly as she smoked a cigarette, just the one she pulled out of a plastic bag she carries around as a wallet with some loose change and a cell phone.
“I don’t want to leave my house,” she said, her stringy ash-colored hair hanging past her shoulders. “Leaving it would be the last thing I would want to do.”
As Hallman spoke, six cats — young playful kittens and older, more sedentary felines — walked, ran and stretched out on her porch. As soon as she opened the broken front door, a few more scrambled from the hot living room. Another two were escaping the heat of the near 90-degree day in the overgrown grass of her backyard.
“But these cats have got to go,” she said.
It seems like a problem that should have a simple answer.
Hallman no longer wants the 15 cats — or maybe the number is closer to 20, no one has managed to count the entire litter — that has taken over her home. She can’t take care of them. Many of them are strays that take advantage of the broken door and hop right into her house. Yet she has been turned away repeatedly, she said, by animal groups who all say the same thing. They, too, have more cats than they can handle.
However, until Hallman can get the cats out of her home, the improvements she desperately needs to bring the house up to code and keep the city from condemning it as uninhabitable can’t happen.
A plan headed by Holly Huff, coordinator of the Furnace Cascade Block Watch is in place, but everything is contingent on getting rid of the cats.
“We have people who are willing to do what they can to keep this woman in her house. All we need to do is get rid of the cats,” Huff said.
City help could also come Hallman’s way. Kevin Brubaker, a city official with the Building Department, said the woman has submitted an application to the Community Development Department’s emergency home repair program for a new furnace and hot water tank.
“We’ve been monitoring the situation and are working with her,” he said. “She’s a nice lady who gotten overburdened with cats and didn’t know what to do.”
Brubaker said the city has made some calls on how to remove the cats and likewise has been unsuccessful. He said the cats are her biggest obstacle at this point.
Huff, who is a self-proclaimed dog lover, said she has even hit a brick wall.
“I have called every cat person I know, and there is no place to take cats at this time,” she said.
A call to Greg Willey, executive director of the Friendship APL of Lorain County, was not returned. The Friendship APL is the largest animal shelter in Lorain County and operates under a no-kill policy. Currently, they list more than 90 cats and kittens available for adoption on their website compared with just under 50 listed dogs and puppies available for adoption.
Huff said it’s ironic that days after Hallman showed up on her front step desperate for help with a cat problem the North Ridgeville community erupted in outrage over the shooting of five kittens by the city’s humane officer. Most people in the near-downtown neighborhood know well that Huff can make things happen. She can provide a hot meal or offer a warm place to stay with the only requirement being a sincere request from her neighbors. So seeing Hallman was no surprise to Huff.
But the woman’s dilemma has even this seasoned community activist shaking her head.
“I’m not saying someone should come in and shoot the cats, but what are you supposed to do with a bunch of cats that no one wants?” she said. “I mean, I really wish someone would give me an answer because I would like to know what to tell a woman who could lose her house because she can’t get rid of a bunch of cats.”
Too many kitties
So, just how did the cat problem at Hallman’s house get so out of control?
If you ask Hallman, who was described to the world in late October as the woman going through the trash in downtown Elyria in search of cans to supplement her income in the New York Time’s This Land piece, her cat problem started with her now-deceased son. He had three cats and would often feed them on the front porch. That habit attracted more cats to the house, and he would just put more food out as the horde grew.
When he died, Hallman took over feeding the cats.
“She is not incapable of taking care of herself,” Huff said. “It’s just that when her son passed, he left her in a terrible position, and I’m going to say some of it was a heart tug for her, too, because her son loved those cats.”
Huff said people moving out of the neighborhood would also leave cats in Hallman’s yard in the middle of the night. They probably thought the old woman could take care of them all, she said. They were not neutered, and kittens were soon born.
The cats went from the front porch to the house as her home fell in disrepair. Someone tried to break in through a dining room window, leaving the cats a way in. And, then there was the broken front door.
“She was putting food out for her cats, and it’s attracting every cat in the neighborhood,” said Hallman’s neighbor of more than 12 years David Williams. “I’m worried about her health as well. It can’t be good for her with stray cats jumping in and out of her home.”
Williams said he has done much of the work on his home with sweat equity, including the flower bed he planted in memory of his wife who died of cancer several years ago. He has had to shoo away cats from using the bathroom in the mulch.
“I love you to death and would do anything for you,” he said to Hallman as she lingered near a chain-link fence that separated the two homes. “But something has to change. In the past six months, it’s just totally gotten out of control.”
As Hallman walked away, Williams quietly talked of the smell coming from her home. It’s often strong enough to turn his stomach as he sits down for dinner.
“That poor woman needs to get rid of every single one of those cats.” He said.
A city of cats
In a lot of Elyria neighborhoods, the problem of too many cats is not isolated to one person or family that has taken on more than they can handle.
Dozens of cats simply have no home and instead roam the neighborhood from one house to another trying to scrounge up a meal or shelter.
“They don’t belong to anyone,” said 29-year-old Corinne Jaenke of Cornell Avenue. “Not feeding them does not make them go away because once they start a colony, they don’t leave. It’s home to them.”
Jaenke, who moved to the Eastern Heights area from Berea roughly a year and a half ago to be closer to her job and in a neighborhood with better property taxes, estimates there are about 15 to 20 feral and stray cats living in a six- to eight-house radius around her home.
“Some of them are so nasty and sickly,” she said. “There was just one cat that was not fixed and someone let it out. Another cat came and impregnated it, and the cats just started to multiply from there.”
It’s not surprising considering pet population statistics. The ASPCA estimates one female can have on average about 12 kittens each year if not spayed.
With those numbers in mind, Jaenke said she would like the city to fund a trap, neuter/spay and return program in the city.
“To fix all the cats we have now would cost someone like $600, which is too expensive for just one person,” she said. “It wouldn’t be that much of a burden to fix one or two.”
Huff said such programs work.
Four years ago, her street, Phillip Court, had a major cat problem with nearly two dozen cats living between there and Glendale Court. A trap, neuter/spay and return program was instituted using city funds.
“Now, we have just four cats in this neighborhood. It’s great because I can have a nice front porch and come on my porch without having to get three and four cats off my furniture first,” she said.
In 2009. Mitch Witherell headed the city’s Animal Control Committee and was instrumental in convincing Elyria Council to fund the program. Trap, neuter/spay and release programs are the most humane way to control the population, he said at the time.
Stray cats are a healthy part of the ecosystem, he said, and do a great job of controlling the rodent population that would itself grow out of control. The key, though, is to have the right number of strays.
Hallman said she would never turn the cats out for the neighborhood to deal with them completely. It wouldn’t be fair to the rest of the residents, but she wonders what’s fair to her. She wants to enjoy her home, cat-free.
“They are days I just want to walk out of here and keep going,” she said. “Then, I say to myself, ‘Where would you go, Annie? The cats will have a home and you won’t.’ ”
Contact Lisa Roberson at 329-7121 or firstname.lastname@example.org.