Cover Girl looked like a walking bag of bones when she was rescued from a shelter-turned-death-camp in Pahrump last year. Now the cat is fat and happy and living in Texas.
“She has blossomed into this pudgy little girl,” said Cover Girl’s new owner, Sheila Smith, who runs a shelter for feral cats in suburban Austin, Texas. “She was walking through the sun room the other day, and I noticed she has one of those belly things that hangs down.”
Cover Girl is one of many success stories from what some are calling the largest cat rescue ever.
After six months and more than $600,000 spent, Utah-based Best Friends Animal Society is wrapping up its operation in Pahrump this week. The last of more than 800 cats are expected to be transported out of Nevada on Friday.
The organization has found homes or space at shelters across North America for all but about 100 of the cats, which were found in poor health at a private shelter in Pahrump in July.
When Nye County animal control officers took control of the shelter from For the Love of Cats and Kittens, or FLOCK, they found what they described as a cluster of open cat rooms on 21/2 acres of brush and dirt. The fly-ridden property was surrounded by a 12-foot fence topped with barbed wire to keep the cats from escaping.
What was originally thought to be about 400 cats turned out to be 702.
“It was easily double what we thought we were walking into,” said Best Friends spokeswoman Barbara Williamson.
Many cats were sick, near starvation, or both. Some had open sores or infected eyes. Several had lost patches of fur, leaving their unprotected skin to be burned by the sun.
“We had cats that were just a couple of inches thick. Their only width was from their pelvic bones,” said Sherry Woodard, Best Friends’ resident animal behavior consultant. “You could see their skulls.”
Woodard and a small team of workers have spent much of the past six months living in RVs parked at the site at the southern edge of Pahrump.
She said many of the cats they dealt with were feral or had been conditioned to fear human contact.
“We had hundreds of cats hissing and spitting and lunging, trying to scare us away,” Woodard said. “We have done amazing things to make them comfortable again.”
About 64 cats had to be put down or died on their own. The rest are recovering with surprising speed, Woodard said.
“When we showed up, cats were dying in front of us. Now they are becoming fat and glossy. People don’t even recognize the cats.”
Best Friends also ended up with more than 100 cats that Nye County authorities seized from the Pahrump home of former FLOCK leader Sharon Lee Allen.
The cats have been taken in by shelters that work with Best Friends or adopted by individuals. Some have gone to California, Minnesota and Texas, others to Canada.
At least eight cats were reunited with owners who thought they were dead or lost forever.
This month, 75 cats were trucked to Phoenix, where Best Friends held an adoption event. That left about 125 cats in Pahrump. Some are going to a California rescue group, and the rest are going to Best Friends’ no-kill animal sanctuary near Kanab, Utah, about 200 miles northeast of Las Vegas.
Nye County Animal Control Supervisor Tim McCarty said that if Best Friends hadn’t stepped in, the case would have had a different outcome.
“It was a blessing,” he said. “We just can’t handle 700 cats. The solution, just out of no other choice, would have been to euthanize all of them.”
Since the FLOCK shelter was shut down in Pahrump, the unincorporated town has adopted new zoning codes to prevent other private animal shelters from opening without inspection and approval.
Before the codes were strengthened, McCarty said, private property owners were free to use their land in any way they saw fit, even if that meant fencing off 21/2 acres and filling it with cats.
“I think we’re making progress,” he said. “We don’t want another FLOCK.”
No criminal charges have been filed in connection with the case, but those involved in the rescue hope some will be.
The Nye County District Attorney’s Office is reviewing the case. “I don’t see any charges being filed this week,” said District Attorney Bob Beckett. “It’s a very important case to the community and to our office, so we’re evaluating it very, very carefully.”
In the meantime, the healing goes on for the cat that has become the furry face of the Pahrump rescue.
When Cover Girl arrived at her new home in Texas, she required dental work and continuing treatment for feline leukemia, ringworm, an upper respiratory infection and skin cancer on her ears.
The adult cat weighed less than 4 pounds when she was found. Now she weighs more than 9 pounds and has started to play again. She has struck up a friendship with Frogger, a male orange tabby that Smith adopted along with 15 other cats from the Pahrump rescue.
Smith said Cover Girl is still leery of humans, but she will let Smith touch her and administer her medicine. Cover Girl seems to like having her face rubbed with a cool, wet washcloth. Smith said she wouldn’t be surprised if the once-feral cat jumped into her lap some day.
Best Friends’ Williamson is amazed.
“We didn’t think she was going to survive,” she said. “Now in Sheila’s care, here’s this little butterball.”
Contact reporter Henry Brean at firstname.lastname@example.org or (702) 383-0350.