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As the early morning sun creeps across the desert horizon on little cat feet, the mayor of Meow City steps out of his travel trailer and reports to work.
"You guys ready for breakfast?" asks Greg LaTraille, the only human resident of his "retirement community for senior cats."
With low, motorlike mewing breaking the rural Scottsdale stillness, the populace of two garage-size cat pens answers in the affirmative.
"If they've got something to say, you'll hear it," explains LaTraille, wading through a swirling shag carpet of multicolored feline fur. "Otherwise, they keep quiet. They're not politicians."
Woe to the census taker assigned to count heads in Meow City, a cat compound located at the end of a dirt trail off Dynamite Road. Although LaTraille can personally greet all the cats by name, even he doesn't know exactly how many mouths he's feeding. "Let's just say 'a lot,'" he answers, before coming up with a guesstimate of 120.
The retired publisher of a now-defunct local business magazine, the 68year-old LaTraille has been talking to the animals for close to a decade. How well most of the 120odd felines are able to hear their master's voice is open to debate--the majority of Meow City's residents are aged pets who'veoutlived their owners. They've also outlived Meow City's founder, anelderly widow who left the cats in LaTraille's care when she died late lastyear.
A cross between an animal shelter and a private zoo, the feline rest home grew out of founder Trudy Hay's concern for older cats who faced bleak futures after their owners died or became too ill to care for them. Working through a network of nurses, real estate agents, rest-home employees and other cat-world contacts, the wealthy cat fancier eventually amassed so many animals that the menagerie outgrew herhome in McCormick Ranch.
In the mid-'80s, she relocated to a multiacre desert spread in northeast Scottsdale, where, with LaTraille's assistance, she established the well-kept cat colony. In her will, Hay made financial provisions for the cats' care and stipulated that LaTraille could continue living at the ranch until the property was sold.
"This is a little different from most animal sanctuaries," explains LaTraille as he opens a can of Whiskas Bits o' Beef, one of 24 cans of cat food his guests devour every day. In fact, the feed bill at Meow City runs to $1,000 a month. "These guys are just a little too old to adopt out. Cats are just like people. When they get older, some of them don't take care of themselves as well as they used to."
Like humans, several of Meow City's geriatric mousers have aged more gracefully than others. In fact, a number ofLaTraille's livelier charges are so well-preserved, they might be mistaken for cat calendar models who've pounced in for a spot of slumming.
But others, with their missing teeth, mangled tails and assorted absentee body parts, look like something the cat dragged in.
"Yeah, a few of these guys do look like they're on their last legs," concedes LaTraille, eyeballing one of several residents that might consider changing itsname to Cyclops. Petting a disheveled animal in the throes of a lifelong bad furday, he adds, "Some of them are soold, they're into life No. 95 or something."
With advanced age--several cats are pushing 20--come the feline health problems that have turned LaTraille into something of a desert Doctor Dolittle.
"Sometimes I feel like I'm running a MASH unit out here," says LaTraille. In addition to arranging shots and neutering for new arrivals, he regularly doses ailing charges with eyedrops, ointments, vitamins, antibiotics and lots of plain old TLC.
In spite of LaTraille's best bedside manner, he still loses two or three patients a month, primarily to old age. Most of the time, he doesn't discover the corpses until he makes his morning rounds.
"Unless two cats happened to be close," LaTraille reports, "most of the time the other cats just step right over the body--just like people do in the New York subway."
At Meow City, cats receive a decent--ifunspectacular--burial. LaTraille tucksthe body into a two-gallon Ziploc Gripper Zipper bag and buries it in a plot of the desert east of the pens. "There's no big ceremony," he explains. "I don't bring in the pope or anything."
With the exception of cats that are put to sleep on the advice of LaTraille's veterinarian, no creature on Earth need fear for its life at Meow City.
"I don't kill anything out here," explains LaTraille, an equal-opportunity animal lover who most recently matched wits with "Mickey Rat," a pack rat that'd been playing havoc with cat supplies in Meow City's storage shed. Last week, LaTraille finally captured the beady-eyed rodent in a cruelty-free trap and released it in the desert.
"Even the snakes have got a right to live," says LaTraille. "It just works out better for all of us if they do it a little farther away from Meow City."
Judging from the contented-looking denizens slinking around the climate-controlled playhouse in thecenter of the enclosed compound, lifeat Meow City is the cat's you-know-what.
Following morning mess, LaTraille makes his rounds, taking care to address each cat personally once a day. Every other day, each resident receives a few minutes of one-on-one playtime, during which LaTraille checks teeth, eyes and ears for signs of disease.