By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
Whenever possible, cats retain their original names upon moving to Meow City. That explains why there's a ministampede every time LaTraille hollers what is currently the sanctuary's most common moniker.
"Can you imagine anyone naming a cat 'Precious'?!" LaTraille says, grimacing.
"Well, we've got four!"
If the cat arrives sans name, LaTraille turns creative. "Shea" was named after theValley boulevard where he was captured, while the aptly named "Smokey" is still recovering from abrush fire. And the black-and-white kittywho answers to"Kiss" bears masklike facial markings that make him a dead ringer forrocker Gene Simmons.
"Sometimes the people come in here with the cat's entire history; other times, I've got no idea what the cat's background is at all," explains "Mayor" LaTraille. "A realtor or a relative who finds the cat in the house after someone dies or goes to a rest home, they might not know the cat's story. But believe me, they've all got one."
This one has a mutant toe. That one was sealed inside a wall. ("Yeah, I'd like to know more of the details on that one myself," confesses LaTraille.) And over here is a cat from a Japanese household, which explains the chalkboard where LaTraille has written simple foreign phrases phonetically to help him communicate with the cat.
"A cat that can't speak English," says LaTraille, laughing. "He'll learn, though. He's gotta. All these guys live in the same community, and they've got to get along. If they don't, we're all in real trouble."
Greg LaTraille started on his way to becoming best friend to man's second-best friend during a stint as editor of the Phoenix Zoo magazine back in the '80s. For that he can thank those irresponsible pet owners who frequently abandoned unwanted domestic animals at the zoo in the middle of the night.
"I remember coming to work one day and actually finding a dog tied to the front gate," recalls LaTraille, shaking his head. "People were always tossing cats over the wall and doing crazy things like that. Apparently, they thought that, because this was a zoo, someone would take care of the animals. Well, it doesn't work that way."
By the time the softhearted LaTraille left the zoo post a year later, though, he'd collected at least a dozen mewing mementos of the job.
LaTraille's furry souvenirs soon had company.
While sitting in the vet's office one day, LaTraille struck up a conversation with Meow City founder Trudy Hay. Explaining that she was in the process of transferring several hundred cats from her home in McCormick Ranch to a rural spread in Scottsdale, Hay offered LaTraille a job. Would he serve as live-in caretaker of her new cat sanctuary in return for free lodging in a guest house on the property?
Although raking cat litter on a daily basis isn't everyone's idea of a dream retirement, LaTraille saw the opportunity as vocational catnip.
Divorced since the '70s, he welcomed the chance to do something nice and quiet. "In contrast to earlier years, this is very nice," he says enigmatically.
Although he downplays his role in shaping the operation that he named, LaTraille apparently deserves much of the credit for preventing Meow City from going to the dogs. By the time LaTraille arrived, Hay, an obsessive recluse, had somehow managed to accumulate more than 350 cats. Says one acquaintance, "She knew all the cats by name; she counted them. If one disappeared, she knew about it. It got to be just too much for her. ... It wasn't the best situation."
Combining modesty with diplomacy, LaTraille now concedes that he helped "organize" a situation that threatened to get out of hand.
"I started keeping medical records on the cats, seeing that they saw the vet regularly, stuff like that," he explains.
You won't find Meow City on any map. Don't look for it in the phone book, either. Although phone lines finally came to the sparsely populated area last year, LaTraille still hasn't gotten around to having a line installed, opting instead for an unlisted cellular.
For starters, he's not actively looking for new boarders. Nor is he particularly eager to get rid of any of the ones he already has. Because it is something less than an animal rescue organization, but considerably more than one of the dreaded "cat lady" houses, Meow City is a rare bird in cat circles. And everyone knows how well cats and birds get along.
LaTraille's attention to cleanliness and care has earned him high marks from many members of the Valley's cat community. "He's doing a super job out there," says Karin Britten of Sun Cities Animal Rescue, one of 20-some organizations around the Valley that help find homes for strays.
Others, however, are troubled by LaTraille's reluctance to give up any of the cats for adoption; they question the wisdom of basing so many cats' welfare on a single person's efforts.
LaTraille shrugs off charges that he's simply a cat "collector"--a disparaging term usually reserved for the addled cat lovers who periodically turn up in news stories about evictions from filthy homes.