WINSTED, CT — In a small house, just 1,400 square feet, lived five or six adults, two elementary school-age children, two dogs, a ferret, and, as many as 170 cats, perhaps more, many found living “inside walls .”
After visits from animal control and police, over the course of several days, the majority of the animals were removed.
And, the house was condemned as unlivable. The state found that due to extreme demand, the septic system had failed, and, that the parts per million ammonia count was way above safe limits: safe being 25 PPM. At the house, it was more than 60 PPM with cat urine the culprit.
Last Friday, the “tenants,” of the rented single-family house, were told to “pack up” and leave.
When asked if what has happened in the small town in the Litchfield hills was a crisis, Winchester Town Manager Josh Kelly said, “Crisis is the right word.”
“This was totally avoidable. They (the tenants in the Moore Avenue home) made choices,” Kelly said. “And this is what we are left with.”
The hoarding “crisis” in the community, part of the town of Winchester, Kelly told Patch, is costing the town financially — the dollar amount expected to be calculated in the coming weeks.
Kelly said that 16 cats, in “critical condition,” needed emergency vet care to the tune of at least $100 per cat, with one so ill it needed to be euthanized. Some 150 cats have had vet exams, got shots, flea treatments and more. It’s not free, though Kelly said that, “We’re lucky a lot of (animal) shelters have stepped up” to say they’d cover some of those costs for the cats they had taken in. “Many have agreed to help and not bill,” Kelly said.
And the hoarding situation has taken its toll in other ways, too.
“Half a dozen (town) projects have been put on hold because of this situation,” Kelly said.
Workers from a range of town departments, from public works to social services, had to pivot from their regular duties to help. Road paving had to be abandoned for a day as public works was needed to transport cats. Social services lost a full day and couldn’t deal with regular issues including poverty and homelessness, Kelly said.
“It’s a tragedy,” Kelly said, that has impacted many. “So many in this community and other communities have made a Herculean effort to respond while other needs go by the wayside.”
The hoarding crisis timeline
As was first reported by Patch, Winchester Animal Control Officer Alicia Campbell, who works for the town’s police department, was first alerted to the house the weekend, of June 18/19th for a “call about a sick cat.”
Kelly would learn about the gravity of the situation Wednesday, June 22, the same time Patch began investigating.
He said that he was told animal control was “working on it,” and that an investigation was opened. He said that between the weekend and Wednesday, there were “a lot of visits” to the house. The tenants were told they’d need to “surrender” the animals or authorities would get a warrant. The tenants agreed, Kelly said, and gave permission for the town to begin removing the animals. Before Friday, June 24, 63 cats had been placed in rescues, Kelly said. “Tremendous effort went into that,” he said.
Thursday, the day Patch reported the story, was the action day as town officials, police and the state convened.
Kelly said “one of the heroes in this story,” state Animal Control Officer Charles DellaRocco, became key, as he and other officials, including ACOs and volunteers from across the state, made plans on next steps.
“We all knew, and as (Della Rocco) said, we cannot piecemeal this, the situation is just too dire, too much,” Kelly said. He decided to use the Batcheller Elementary School to house the cats. He had Campbell contact all ACO’s statewide for help, an action first reported by Patch. He told the town’s fire marshal/housing inspector to be available.
Last Friday, two major moves were made.
With ACOs from across Connecticut who volunteered to leave their own municipalities for the day, as well as an army of 45 volunteers, some 100-plus cats began being removed from the house, many found “in the walls,” Kelly said. Public works staff transported them to the school. And town social services “came to speak with family.”
“Everything worked as smoothly as was possible give what we were dealing with,” Kelly said.
Dangerous & illegal ammonia levels, septic tank explosion
Once “most of the cats were out,” though far from all, Kelly said, the town’s housing inspector, Steven Williams, a building official brought in from a nearby town, and three officials from the Torrington Area Health District met at the Moore Avenue house.
Kelly said that there were a number of citations issued.
He said the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection was called to the house as the “septic tank had exploded in the front yard,” and a DEEP “spill report” was made. Patch has a copy of that report.
Worse still, was the discovery of ammonia contamination. Kelly said that the “legal limit” is 25 PPM of the chemical. The Moore Avenue house tested at more than 60 PPM because of cat urine.
The chemical compound ammonia is toxic. The Occupational Safety & Health Administration and other related federal agencies note that anything above 25 PPM during an 8-hour workplace shift is toxic. It’s most common for ammonia to be an issue in an industrial or manufacturing workplace, not in a small house. Overexposure to ammonia targets the eyes, skin, and respiratory system, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. People who are over-exposed to ammonia have symptoms that may include eye, nose and throat irritation, breathing difficulty, wheezing, and chest pain; pulmonary edema, skin burns, and other symptoms.
Williams officially shuttered the house and told the family to leave.
Though Patch has confirmed that local and state social welfare agencies have intervened, no official agency would speak on the record.
Will there be criminal charges?
Kelly and Winchester Police Chief William T. Fitzgerald, Jr. have confirmed that a criminal investigation is under way. Should there be criminal charges leveled against the woman and other adults who lived in the home, they would not be announced until the probe is completed. Patch was told it may be wrapped up early next week.
Re-homing cats continues, Kelly adopts kittens
Town Manager Kelly has spent the past week immersed in the crisis and getting directly involved in their care.
He hailed many as “heroes” for their efforts in saving the 170-plus cats even as of Wednesday, a dozen more were found in the house. But, after shelters, rescues, and adopters came forward, “We only have 40 to 45 cats left,” to be re-homed, Kelly said, acknowledging that even having that many cats from one house was “a lot, way too many .” Still, from more than 170 cats rescued from the house, getting down to 45 was a huge undertaking.
Kelly championed the volunteers who have been there for nearly a week 24 hours a day in two shifts.
“How people have stepped up has been truly amazing,” he said.
Every cat has been seen by a vet, and have been spayed or neutered, or will be. Some had complained that his call last week for an adoption event was ill-advised, as cats needed medical care. He pushed back on that, noting that, “At no point were we planning on just sending them out the door; they were not in the condition.”
People have applied to adopt and are still being vetted, he said.
Kelly himself has adopted two 9-week-old kittens. He’s named then Sunny and Roy. He said he’s paying for their care himself, including neutering.
“You can’t spend time caring for cats, putting drops in cats’ eyes and not be moved to do more,” he said.