HIGH POINT - The first cat out of the Highpoint Boulevard home was dead.
SPCA of Florida staffers had come to Hernando County from Lakeland on Friday morning to remove dozens of cats from a house overrun with the animals and littered with feces and debris.
The dead cat, small and black, was the only dead feline removed from the home Friday, said veterinarian Kim Domokos. But the SPCA crew expects to find more dead cats in the building's walls and beneath debris as the house is cleaned in coming days.
Neighbors and news crews gathered around the property as the cats were removed from the home one by one, put in cages and placed on the ground outside. The cats meowed and cried in the sunshine, and workers covered their cages with towels.
By noon the cats were fed a wet food, and didn't have to fight to get to the bowl.
"It's sad; happy; I'm probably trying to suppress a little anger ... it was a lot worse than I thought it would be," said Nancy Whitney-Conway, who has led an effort to get help for the High Point cats. "But I'm very happy for the ones that are getting help."
The SPCA of Lakeland removed about 40 cats early Friday. They were the most social and friendly of the 65 cats expected to be living in the house. Some of the cats had upper respiratory problems, diarrhea, hyperthyrodism and malnutrition.
"A lot of the kittens are walking right up to us, even purring," Domokos said. "Most of them seem adoptable and surprisingly healthy. They're going to find good homes."
The team of seven SPCA staffers wore masks and shoe covers, and sprayed their legs with Lysol after exiting the house.
The cats eventually were taken to Lakeland for medical care, and could be adopted out as early as Sunday.
The SPCA, which now has control of the cats, will continue checking back the house to feed and water the remaining cats until all of them are removed.
Hernando County Commissioner Diane Rowden became involved with the cat problem last week, and met with homeowner Kristine Pacek, who owned the house, and sheriff's officials Friday morning outside of the High Point gates. Pacek agreed to sign over ownership to the SPCA, Rowden said.
"She was actually very polite, calm and very appreciative," Rowden said, adding Pacek and her boyfriend "want some closure to this."
Rowden said she spoke with Adam Lamb, SPCA of Florida's director of animal care and medical services on Thursday afternoon.
"(Lamb) was ready to do it the next day and I said, 'Wow, in that case let me keep working,'" Rowden said.
High Point residents have complained about odor, flies, fleas and stray cats coming from 8265 Highpoint Blvd. for the past three years, neighbors say.
Jim Woolcock, president of the board of directors of High Point's neighborhood association, told Hernando Today his organization has "very little enforcement power." High Point has a two-pet policy, he said, but the association only can write infractions and impose fines.
Hernando County Animal Control had assessed the cats, and because they were in somewhat healthy condition and had food and water, could not remove the animals from the home.
Pacek, who has not returned telephone phone calls, recently received $7,800 worth of citations for the animals, and was given an ultimatum: Remove the cats or face a criminal investigation.
Rowden said the citations will be dismissed after the SPCA signs off that all cats have been taken out of the house.
As for Whitney-Conway, her work isn't done.
"We want to work with our High Point homeowners board because they have not been at all helpful with this ... change their bylaws, be more vigilant on things like this, and help the neighbors,"
And Rowden said the High Point house has renewed a conversation on trap-neuter-release (TNR) programs that she thinks is needed for controlling the feral cat population.
"The SPCA of Florida is willing to help us," Rowden said. "This is the way you start controlling these populations and get the sizes down. You've got to start somewhere."