Usually when my sister sends me an email, it’s a link to something she thought was funny, or a picture of one her pets wearing some kind of costume. Nothing prepared me for the troubling message I got yesterday.
In the subject line, I read “Caboodle Ranch”. Some of you may have seen this place on TV news segments, or may even have donated to it. The Caboodle Ranch is a 30-acre non-profit rescue site for abandoned cats, located near the small town of Lee, Florida. The Ranch was founded in 2003/2004 by a man named Craig Grant. From what I’ve read about him, including information on the Caboodle Ranch’s official site, Grant didn't start out as a cat lover. But a few years ago, when his son gave him his pregnant cat to care for, Grant had an awakening. He grew so attached to the cat and her offspring, and so horrified when neighbors tried to hurt some of them, that he decided to devote his life to rescuing stray and abandoned felines. He found a plot of land in rural Florida (originally 5 acres), and desperately saved money for it. When he could afford it, he left behind all of his worldly possessions and began his new life on what he soon dubbed the Caboodle Ranch.
From information and pictures on its official website, as well as other images I’ve seen of it, and articles I’ve read about it, the Ranch mostly seems to be land that an estimated 700 rescued cats can roam around on. But there are also areas where they can drink fresh water, plenty of chairs for sunbathing, and cute little miniature houses set up to look like a picturesque village (one is even painted to look like a Wal-Mart) that they can go inside. In addition to these structures, there’s an air-conditioned trailer where sick cats are kept and treated, and a separate building and screened-in outdoor area for FIV-positive cats*.
Although a sizeable portion of them were simply dumped at the Ranch, most of the cats there were formally given to Grant or one of his volunteer staff members, along with a one-time fee of $150 to go towards food, care, etc., for the Ranch’s feline population. These cats are spayed or neutered, if they weren’t already, and allowed to roam free on the Ranch, which seems to be regularly monitored and cleaned several times a day. Once given to the Ranch, a cat cannot be adopted; the Ranch’s site instead asks that you adopt from a shelter, to help an animal at risk of being euthanized.
For my sister and me, as well as for cat-lovers around the world, the Caboodle Ranch was a sort of dream idea. I found Grant’s story so inspiring, and it’s clear that with the amount of cats that have been abandoned there, such a shelter is needed. What makes it so wonderful, too, is this: In many no-kill shelters, cats that go unadopted will live out their lives in a cage. Those at the Ranch are free to move around, climb, and interact with others.
My sister and I don’t have many dreams in common, but one was to visit and volunteer at the Caboodle Ranch one day. Another, deep in our hearts, is to find the means and the courage to take on a similar responsibility ourselves, helping abandoned animals by creating a haven for them. For now, we do what we can, donating to charities when we're able to, and trying to help any animal in need that we come across.
So when I saw that email, I figured my sister had sent me maybe a series of cute pictures from the Ranch, which you can see on their official site – or maybe she was going to tell me that, during an upcoming trip to Florida she’s planning with her husband and some friends, she was going to finally get to visit that sacred-to-us place. When I opened the email, though, this is what I read:
Such bad news, I just got an email from the aspca they just rescued 700+ cats from the caboodle ranch in FL due to neglect and abuse :( they said they are all sick and even found some dead, and some in shallow graves.
My mouth dropped open in shock.
It may seem inevitable to some people that taking care of 700 cats would turn out to be just too much for one man to do alone. But Craig Grant had a steady team of volunteers working with him, and, according to the Ranch’s website, when it came to severe health problems, a local veterinarian he consulted with and sent cats to. Unlike the way some people have portrayed him, Grant is not some crazy old cat hoarder guy: His operation seemed organized, and there was certainly enough space for the cats to move around freely.
When you watch videos of the Ranch, including this hilarious story about it from The Colbert Report, the cats seem happy and well-taken-care-of, and the facilities look clean. In addition, in all of the (unbiased, because not on the official Ranch site) accounts I’ve read over the years of visits and/or volunteer experiences there , people have always left feeling impressed and moved by what they saw. The only remotely troubling thing (given the current controversy) I’ve read in one or two testimonials is that they weren’t allowed access to some buildings or areas.
So what happened?
According to information I got from the Caboodle Ranch’s website, as well as cat-related forums, last year, a woman from PETA infiltrated the Ranch, working undercover as a volunteer. During that time, she apparently took some disturbing photos and video of sick cats, dirty facilities, and shallow graves, which she then turned in to PETA. (You can see the pictures and footage here, though be warned - they contain disturbing images.) Although the Caboodle Ranch has always claimed that the ASPCA and other organizations have inspected their locale and approved it, this time things were different.
Members of the ASPCA, PETA, and local law enforcement arrived on the morning of February 26, allegedly before the litter boxes could be cleaned and other things made ready for the day (which is also the context in which the Ranch claims the PETA spy took those photos and images). Craig Grant was arrested at gunpoint, and the cats were rounded up and taken away. According to the ASPCA’s site, these animals were brought to veterinarians, and those who are healthy are now being held in shelters throughout the area while Grant awaits trial (the cats are considered “evidence”). After that, they’ll be put up for adoption. The sick cats who were found, were euthanized.
It’s hard to tell what really happened here. On the one hand, maybe the Ranch just did get out of hand. Without veterinary or prior animal care experience, maybe Grant really didn’t know what was best for the cats. But as a fan of the Caboodle Ranch’s blog, I find that hard to believe. The way Grant referred to the cats, the images and stories shared, didn’t add up to someone who was overwhelmed or neglecting the animals; in fact, the operation seemed very well-run and very concerned with the cats’ well-being.
In terms of the sick cats, Grant has talked about returning many of them to health, with volunteers, or, in extreme cases, with the help of a local veterinarian. In this video, from the popular French animal-lovers' show 3 Millions d’Amis, we see Grant in the trailer for sick cats, where we hear that he would regularly spend the night monitoring the ailing animals, sleeping among them. I realize that it doesn’t take much but self-delusion to play doctor or God to beings that are in your care. But Grant’s apt gestures remind me very much of vets and vet techs I’ve known – and I’ve known many.
My mother worked in veterinary medicine for nearly 25 years, and my siblings and I spent countless hours hanging out behind the scenes in clinics. I’ve seen major and minor surgeries, check-ups, and even euthanasia performed on a variety of animals, and I’ve come to know the way responsible animal caretakers behave. One thing in the video of Grant in the sick room especially struck me: One of the cats needed fluids. Grant himself deftly inserts the needle where it needs to go, as the sick cat calmly lets him do so. When I was a teenager, one of my family’s cats, Guido, went into kidney failure. Kidney problems are sadly common among cats, and in Guido’s case, it could have meant needing to be put to sleep. But with the knowledge she had, and access to animal medical supplies, my mother put Guido on fluids. With utter devotion, she would take him up on our kitchen table every day, hook the IV bag to the hanging lamp, and wait. After a week or two of regular sessions like this, Guido’s kidneys started working again, and he was able to go off the fluids and live a normal, healthy life for several more years. It was touching to see Grant care for an animal he may not have had a lot of personal interaction with before, the same way my mother determinedly kept alive our beloved pet.
There is some suspicion about PETA’s involvement in the raid on the Ranch. Various animal lovers’ online forums, like this one, point out their dislike of the organization, whose methods are considered radical and attention-getting. Conveniently, some (including the Caboodle Ranch’s blog) say, PETA is currently fighting the proposed Animal Care Act, which would allow shelters to give animals to private, no-kill rescue organizations. PETA fears that the latter kind of organizations aren't well-regulated and could be places where animals would face abuse and neglect. Some think that raiding the Caboodle Ranch could have been a sort of very showy means of making a statement.
Others have pointed out the fact that apparently many people in the town of Lee didn’t like the idea of so many cats being around (though the Ranch is surrounded by a fence, some cats could, of course, climb or jump over it). The Mayor is up for reelection soon, so this could be a coup for him, as well. The Caboodle Ranch’s blog has reported that one of their neighbors has been seen shooting any cats who weren’t taken away during the raid.
Another detail that’s been remarked on is, not only were the cats removed from the Ranch, but all of the little houses that were made for them were destroyed. This seems like an unnecessary gesture, and on some forums people think that it, if nothing else, shows that there’s more to the situation than meets the eye. Did Grant make enemies who ultimately brought him down? Were the animal protection organizations involved acting irrationally?
Though I’ve done a lot of reading and video-watching about the Ranch, it’s really hard to say. I find it very hard to believe Grant is guilty of neglect. I think that, as an eccentric person, he may just be misunderstood. For example, one of the photos taken by PETA’s spy apparently shows a cat skull lying somewhere on the property. According to this animal forum thread from 2010 (see Magic Mood Jeep's long comment), Grant and his volunteers claim that this is a well-known sight, and was the skull of one of Grant’s favorite cats, whose remains he didn't want to disturb. If this is true (and judging by the way Grant and his volunteers talk about the cats on the Ranch’s site and blog, I believe it is), it’s strange and possibly a small health hazard (though with the bugs and carrion birds of Florida, I can’t imagine anything besides the bones stayed around for long), but don’t all pet-lovers sometimes have odd things we do when it comes to our animals, and our grief at losing them?
I want to believe that the Caboodle Ranch provided a great life for the rescued cats who lived there. I know that, realistically, having that many cats will inevitably mean some will be involved in fights, perhaps get sick and go unnoticed, or have other problems. But overall, it seemed a Paradise-like fate for unwanted felines, especially compared to the alternative.
Because whatever you believe, the most troubling part of the story is what will now happen to the confiscated cats. Some will probably be adopted into loving homes. But those who aren’t will either end up living out their days in a very different environment than the relatively free place they knew, or they’ll simply be euthanized. The situation begs a question that several people on forums have asked: Is it better for a cat to be in a place where it might be somewhat neglected, but at least is free and has some chance of access to basic care, as well as a regular food and water supply – or should an animal, through no fault of its own, be forever caged – or killed – simply because of bad human decision-making?
The bad decision-making I’m referring to isn’t Craig Grant’s possibly unrealistic ambition to have a shelter for hundreds of cats. Nor is it the possible over-zealous behavior of the ASPCA, PETA, animal control, and local law enforcement involved in the case. The bad decision-making starts with every person who owns an animal and doesn’t have it spayed or neutered, every person who buys a kitten because it’s cute, then feels they can just get rid of it when it grows up. These are the true guilty parties in the case, no matter whose side you’re on.
*FIV is what you might be thinking: Feline Immunodeficiency Virus. FIV is transmitted more or less the same way HIV is – through contact with bodily fluids -- but since cats have more of a tendency to bite and scratch each other than humans do, it’s easier for cats to catch. It can’t be caught by humans or other animals, just as cats can’t get HIV. FIV cats, like humans with HIV, can live normal, fulfilling lives, but have to have special care. They are generally adopted into homes where they’re the only cat, or where all the other cats are already FIV-positive. There are many charities that adopt out FIV cats. If you’re interested, an internet search will give you places that do this in your area.
If you believe Craig Grant is innocent, you can show your support by signing this online petition to free him, re-open the Ranch, and obtain a formal apology from the organizations involved in the raid.