By now, you should be aware that I recently got involved in a hoarding case, about 40 cats in an apartment in the Bronx. If you aren’t read this. Okay, now you’re caught up…
I’d like to share this a note from the current caretaker, a selfless woman who has given these cats a chance. I wanted to share her thoughts and show how much she, and the original “owner” cared for these cats..
I first met Liz in 2005, when a mutual friend introduced us because she had kittens and I wanted kittens, two to be exact, after a particularly bad break-up. At that time she had an apartment full of cats, but they all seemed healthy and well fed, and her home was clean and bright. There were cases of high-grade holistic cat food stacked up in the hallway, and several bags of natural litter. I could tell we were on the same page as far as cat care. The term “hoarder” had not yet become a “thing”, I just thought she was lucky that she could have so many cats. I remember she walked me back to the subway after I picked out 2 kittens — I promised that they would be well cared for and loved, and that I would send her pictures and updates regularly, and I did.
One day in March 2011 we were emailing, and I said something about always being late because of my cats (I had four at that time), and she said – “tell me about it, and now I have to pad one side of my bra so I don’t look lopsided because of this big mass I have on the other side”. I called Pat (our mutual friend) and together we got Liz to go to the doctor. They did a biopsy right then and there, that’s how large the tumor was already, and the next day they told her she had breast cancer.
The next week she was sent to Sloan-Kettering for testing. That was the first time I had seen her since I adopted my kittens. I knew enough about her to know that her parents were gone and she was estranged from her sister, and had very little contact with the few cousins, aunt, and uncle that lived in the New York City vicinity. I just told her that she was not alone and I spent the entire day with her, going from test to test, scan to scan; I don’t think we left the hospital until 8 p.m.
The cancer had already spread to her spine and lung, so she did not have any surgery. She was started on chemo. I went with her every week, and then took her out to lunch, and after we would usually go for a walk and shopping at the health food stores she loved…I only missed one week, when I had the flu. During those months of chemo, and lunches, and walking, and shopping, we bonded. She told me all about her life; needless to say, we became very close and dear friends.
During her workup for the breast cancer they found that she had early stage endometrial cancer as well, and she needed to have a hysterectomy. I had wanted to help her with the cats before that, she had several that had never been fixed. At some point after I first met her, or maybe it had already happened, she lost her job and could not find another. She was severely depressed. She had cats that she could not afford to have vetted, and so they started to reproduce, and she had kittens that were growing up and reproducing as well. It must have been a nightmare for her.
She never conveyed any of this to me in the emails, but of course she didn’t yet know me that well. When we became closer during the spa days (we called chemo “spa” to keep it positive), I kept asking her to please let me help get the cats to the Humane Society — now she had Medicaid and they have a free spay/neuter program for people on Medicaid. She didn’t want me to come to her apartment, she was so ashamed of how she lived.
After the surgery she let me come home with her, because she knew she would need help with the cats. Upon entering her apartment I saw the ravages of six years of depression and poverty. The landlord had not done repairs in many years, and would let tenants slide for not paying rent. Liz was one of those tenants, not paying rent because she had no money. She was unable to use the kitchen or bathroom sinks because the pipes underneath were broken. She used the bathtub to wash dishes and clean vegetables. She had the basics of a working refrigerator, stove, tub, and toilet so was able to somehow manage, but life was obviously not easy. The walls and floors were in disrepair and she had very little furniture–only a desk, a bed, a small dresser and some shelves. In addition, the air was toxic and thick from the ammonia odor from the cats. She had been living with it for so long that she did not realize how bad.
Liz continued to do well, so well that I kept joking with her that she would have to fake illness for people to believe she had anything wrong with her. In May of this year the doctor wrote in her chart “Excellent response to treatment!” Six weeks later they found metastatic lesions in her brain, however, and that was the beginning of the end.
I have traveled from Brooklyn to the Bronx every day since June to take care of the cats, and to help her as well when she was home. Once she was hospitalized, bedridden and unable to use the phone, every afternoon I went to Sloan-Kettering to see her and left at night to go to the Bronx to take care of the cats. I was with her when her breathing became labored, and she went into respiratory distress, and then slipped into unconsciousness. I spent the night by her side, but left the next morning to take care of the cats. The nurse said she was doing well and was stable. She looked very peaceful. I was going to come back later, but she passed away a few hours after I left, I think she wanted it that way. Her family did not come.
Liz Frank died 10/27/12, after an 18-month battle with breast cancer, the day before Hurricane Sandy hit us. She left behind over 40 cats and a dear friend
Liz was not the easiest person to deal with, she could be very stubborn and very critical, and she was in denial about many things. She pushed just about everyone away, save for the very few that had shown her some kindness. Her life was filled with difficulties, sexual abuse, abandonment, clinical depression, poverty, a “family” that was not there. She did not have it easy.
But she had beautiful things inside of her too. She had a kindness and gentleness that forgave her stubbornness and critical-ness, and she had a great sense of humor. She was creative and very smart, with a photographic memory. She was a talented artist. She was a strict vegan. She (obviously) adored cats, but she loved all animals, and seems to have had a special place in her heart for butterflies. They are all over her home.
Liz was only 5’1″ tall and 106 lb, but she was very strong. She endured so much for so long. She was needle phobic, very needle phobic. Going to the hospital for IV chemotherapy every week was, to say the least, difficult. But she did it. She was not afraid of dying; she told me so towards the end, when she knew she was.
She was also a hoarder, the part of her that I had to finally admit, as difficult as that was. A little hoarder who collected cats to fill the void of friends and family. These cats were her mother, her father, her brothers, her sisters, and her children; and although she was unable to take care of them properly, she loved them with all her heart.
I am not condoning hoarding, this is a tragedy; and now so many little lives have been affected, including my own. Hoarding is a very complicated issue. I walk through her neighborhood in the Bronx, and see so many strays. Some start to follow me, talk to me, and if I have some food with me I give it to them. It is so hard to walk away, but I know I cannot do anything. I say a prayer and keep walking, and wonder if I lived in such a neighborhood if I could have become the hoarder myself.
Liz started out as a rescuer and caregiver, not just collecting but loving each of them. Some she picked up on the street, some were left on her doorstep, and some were born in her apartment. Once she rescued two kittens from a building where the super decided to leave them in the basement without food or water so they would kill mice and rats. Kittens.
Humans are tribal beings, we are not meant to be alone. If I have learned anything from all of this, it is to embrace and appreciate my family and friends always, to be there for them, and to reach out to them when I am in need. I knew that Liz would not ask for my help, but I saw that she was in desperate need and I gave as much as she would allow. Little by little this unfolded.
As for the cats, when I took over their care in June I changed the type of litter and cleaning products, and the neighbors are no longer complaining. I have been feeding them high grade food that she could not afford when she had no money, and I have been adding extra nutrients, Red Desert Clay, wheatgrass, colloidal silver, DMG, chia seeds, probiotics, and more. I have improved their health, but there are still health issues that need to be addressed, and vetting that I cannot afford to provide unless there is an acute or emergency situation.
I did not know how many cats Liz actually had until I had been caring for them alone for several weeks while she was in the hospital. At first I could not count more than 17 or 18; but as time passed, and they became more and more comfortable with me, little by little they came out of hiding. Many of them did not look healthy to me, but I did not have money for vetting of that many animals. It was overwhelming.
I have spent close to $8000 of my own money, and I don’t have or make a lot of money so this has pretty much wiped me out. I don’t regret it, it was money well spent, because we have finally found wonderful, dedicated, caring, no-kill rescuers. I knew there was help somewhere, it was just a matter of time-money-patience-dedication, not to mention my good friend Janet Sullivan who introduced me to the no-kill movement two years ago, when I rescued one of my three cats from an abusive situation. She found them for me. Thank you, dear friend.
My life has been put on hold. I haven’t taken care of myself since June. I missed my mother’s 75th birthday. I missed my friends’ birthdays. I missed my own birthday. I missed Thanksgiving. I missed Christmas and New Years. I am so exhausted. I fall asleep on the subway all the time, miss my stop, get off, go to the other side, and miss my stop again because I am so tired that I fall asleep again. I shower once a week if I am lucky, if I can find the time.
I have well-meaning friends that cannot understand, why not just call Animal Control and get back my life? I would not be able to live with myself if I did that, I knew there had to be another way. They wonder where I get the strength, the stamina, the patience, the time. This is insanity! I have to say, I think if I were not living this I would probably think the same. When I am in my Brooklyn apartment, looking at the mess of my room that I have no time to clean, feeling the pressure of trying to get all of my work done so that I can get back up to the Bronx at a reasonable hour, wondering what I have forgotten, stressing out over every little thing, it is not easy.
But once I am in the Bronx, and I open the door to apartment 21, the stress fades and the love that is on the other side of that door makes it all worth it, it really does, and it is something that I am not sure I can explain, it is something that you would have to experience. It is a love that has changed me, and I know that one day I will not go back there, and as much as I want my life back, I will miss that love, that amazing, unconditional love. I have never felt closer to God.
Please help Liz get her life back and know these cats are gonna be okay, by donating to The Bronx Cats here.