Workers seek donations to help rescued cats

March 17, 2008 5:49:39 AM PDT

Officials discovered 600 to 700 cats - many sick and dying - during a raid Thursday at the secluded 29-acre property known as Tiger Ranch. Thousands more are believed to be buried at the site in Tarentum, about 20 miles northwest of Pittsburgh.

Some 406 "very sick" cats were being treated Sunday at a temporary animal hospital in Clarion County, said Howard Nelson, director of the Philadelphia-based Pennsylvania Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, which organized the raid.

Fifty cats have died since the raid, either because they had to be euthanized or they died on their own from illnesses, he said. Fifteen were euthanized at the scene and 105 dead cats were found in freezers, Nelson said.

Roughly 100 cats remain on the property and have not yet been captured, he said.

The sanctuary's owner, Linda Bruno, also known as Linn Marie, 45, was arraigned Friday on 13 counts of animal cruelty and neglect. She was being held at the Allegheny County Jail. It was not immediately known if she had a lawyer.

The raid followed a seven-month investigation in which a former humane officer used a hidden camera to record conditions at the facility, where she volunteered.

In a statement, the PSPCA requested donations of newspaper and pet carriers - including rabbit-size carriers and medium-size dog crates - for housing the surviving cats. It asked that donations be dropped off at the Clarion County Humane Society in Shippenville.

"Folks have been heeding the call, if you will, helping us with medical supplies, newspapers, cat carriers, everything we need to handle the volume of animals we have," Nelson said.

Investigators said the cats were living in filthy conditions in multiple buildings, including one crammed with scores of cats huddled around a portable heater with no clean water and a single food bowl.

In an area one investigator called "the death room," cats with untreated diseases languished, too weak to reach their food or water bowls.

The surviving animals suffer from upper respiratory conditions, skin wounds, abscesses, dehydration, malnutrition, dental problems, eye and bladder infections and other conditions.

Animal-rescue groups from several states often turned to the Tiger Ranch, which promised lifetime care for unwanted cats that likely would have been euthanized in overcrowded shelters.

As news of the raid spread, horrified rescue groups flooded the SPCA with e-mails and posted frantic notes on Internet message boards wondering what had happened to their animals and how to get them back.

"Many, many cats from Georgia went to Tiger Ranch," said Pat Dasenbrock, who works with cat-rescue groups in Atlanta. "A driver took cats by the van load - 50 or 60 of them there - twice a month."

They traveled the 700 miles to Pittsburgh because many adoptable shelter cats in Georgia end up in gas chambers, generally regarded as an inhumane method of euthanizing animals, she said.

"We felt so good about Linda," she said. "She told us she adopted 100 cats a weekend and that there was a long list of people waiting to adopt cats up there."

Rose Rosenbaum of Hillsborough, N.J., said she took eight rescued cats to Tiger Ranch last year and found a line of others waiting to surrender cats. She said she saw a few cats with runny noses but thought the facility looked fine.

"We were surprisingly happy with what we saw," she said. "I wonder if it just got out of hand."

Debi Romano of the SaveKitty Foundation in New York said she sent 18 street cats to Tiger Ranch last year after talking to Bruno and hearing from fellow cat rescuers that cats were well cared for.

"I trusted their judgment," she said. "I live and breathe for my feral cats. I thought I was sending them to a better life."