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.
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.
Holding up an emaciated bundle of fur that looks like it's just been through shock treatment, LaTraille asks, "Do you wanna take this guy home with you? I didn't think so. People want kittens, they don't want the Sun City crowd. That's why I'm here."
Still, some skeptics insist that, in spite of good intentions, LaTraille is doing the cats a great disservice.
"I think the quality of life is more important than the quantity," says one observer who requests anonymity. "Obviously, not everyone agrees with that feeling, though. My concern is for the cats. A lot of us wonder what's going to happen out there if something were to happen to Greg."
Last November, everyone involved got a sneak preview of that scenario when LaTraille was involved in a serious car wreck that left him incapacitated for a month. "'Take care of the cats,'" LaTraille remembers telling his daughter when he finally regained consciousness in the hospital. Using medical and biographical information in LaTraille's cat files, volunteers were able to keep Meow City running smoothly until his recovery.
But would volunteers have continued making the long haul out to East Dynamite Road indefinitely? And if not, what do you do with more than 100 displaced cats?
In the past few weeks, the mayor of Meow City has been giving that subject a lot of thought himself. Trudy Hay's financial bequest, which funds Meow City, is almost depleted. And Hay's estate recently sold the Dynamite Road property that LaTraille and his cats have called home for the past decade.
Because the new owner is in no hurry to move in, LaTraille probably won't have to relocate his cat colony until early 1997. Still, he seems almost alarmingly optimistic about the daunting prospect of finding new digs for himself and ten dozen cats.
LaTraille says he's working on several relocation angles--a grown daughter has reportedly offered to help him buy some land--and laughs off the notion that he's finally earned a vacation.
"To tell the truth, I can't remember taking a vacation, even before I got involved with cats," he says. "I'm not a vacation person. I think the last one I took was right after WWII."
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But some associates worry about LaTraille and wonder whether he is slowly straying into a "collector" mindset himself.
"Yeah, I've heard that before," says LaTraille, chuckling. "'The guy's got cats! He's gotta be nuts! Get the net!'
"I have a regular schedule, I have things to do and I get a reasonable amount of exercise," he explains. "It's a way of life, and it keeps me occupied. Usually when someone my age retires, they wind up having a coronary out there on the golf course.
"I'm not into that.