Under the Sun

La Gattara Cat Cafe's Founder Talks Cat Rescue in the COVID Era

Galileo says hello.
Galileo says hello. Missy Pruitt-Chastain

The sky was beautiful that night, Missy Pruitt-Chastain recalled. There were so many stars out.

She’d spent the day rescuing 133 cats from a filthy, crowded Peoria home. She pointed out the glittery heavens to the woman from Ark Cat Sanctuary, a Flagstaff based cat rescue helping Pruitt-Chastain save the felines. “So she named most of the kitties we saved after the skies,” Pruitt-Chastain said. “There was Galileo. And his brother Copernicus. And a very talkative white-and-black she named Milky Way.”

Pruitt-Chastain figures she’s been rescuing cats since she was a kid. “More than 20 years,” she said. She owns a cat cafe called La Gattara that was in the middle of relocating before the pandemic. For now, she’s focused on the nonprofit cat rescue she founded, also called La Gattara.

An apartment manager who fosters for La Gattara tipped off Pruitt-Chastain to the Peoria situation. “They’d evicted this family of five for having too many cats,” she said. “It was a situation where you walk in and look around and you can’t believe what you’re seeing. At first we thought there were maybe 75 cats. Then we’d find them hiding in drawers and cabinets and behind the water heater and inside the bed frame. There were deceased kittens and stillborn kittens. I went home with migraines every night.”

Counting the unborn kittens — 10 or 12 of the females were pregnant — Pruitt-Chastain estimates there were upward of 170 cats in that apartment. She posted photographs on Facebook of dirty walls, overflowing cat boxes, cat shit on the stovetop. But it was the videos of cats looking scared and embarrassed that put things in motion.

“One rescue reposted the videos, and then another,” she said. “And then individual people started getting involved.” Pretty soon, people were offering to email friends who could help or donating bags of cat food.

“It’s super cheesy to say it, but it was so, like, touching that everyone was banding together. Rescue people can be catty and mean, talking about one another or whatever. This was a case where people set aside their opinions and just helped the cats.”

She didn’t mean to imply that all rescue people were unkind, Pruitt-Chastain insisted. “There’s a lot of support among rescuers. And in the cat world, you really need that. Because you can get to this point where you just say, ‘I’m going to save all the cats and the heck with people.’ We do keep an eye on one another.”

That support will come in handy, Pruitt-Chastain said, because the pandemic is about to make the cat rescue game even trickier. Once the state’s eviction ban is lifted, many people who remain unemployed won’t be able to pay rent. “And then, those who have too many dogs or cats will be coming out of the woodwork. They’ll become homeless and leave behind their animals, and we’ll have to rescue them.”

Pruitt-Chastain said the pandemic has already had an effect on animal rescues, which depend on volunteer work and donations. People who’ve been laid off in the pandemic can’t afford to send a check now; still more are sheltering at home and not willing to help in person.

“And then it’s a struggle for us to get cats spayed and neutered, because the vets are all booked up right now,” she continued. “Before COVID, you’d get a cat spayed the day after you brought her in. Now it’s like three weeks. It means we have to hold onto cats longer before we can adopt them out.”

Pandemic or not, animal hoarding isn’t a new thing. Sometimes it’s worse than others. She thinks often about a rescue she did last February in Mesa.

“It was a lady who was probably about 70 years old,” Pruitt-Chastain said with a sigh. “She’d been dead for three weeks. There were dead dogs on the couch, dead cats, the house was so unbearable that a hazmat team had to come clean before we could go in. The lady hadn’t spoken to anyone in like 10 years. The thing people forget is that animal hoarding is usually about mental illness. We need to learn to keep closer tabs on our mentally ill.”

Meanwhile, there are cats that need Pruitt-Chastain’s help. “We’ve adopted 10 of the Peoria kitties so far,” she reported. “Now we need to get the others spayed, neutered, microchipped, vaccinated. All the stars really aligned around us rescuing them. But now the work really begins.”
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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela