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Cats gone, stench lingers

Neighbors still hide from the smell left by nearly 200 cats taken from a Tarpon Springs home.

By ELENA LESLEY, Times Staff Writer
Published January 16, 2008


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TARPON SPRINGS - Even from across the street, you can smell the sour odor wafting from 759 Seminole Blvd.

Neighbors say the stench has driven them from their yards and forced them to abandon their swimming pools.

In December, Pinellas Animal Services removed 196 cats from the unassuming gray house.

But their legacy remains.

"I can't enjoy my home. I can't sit by my pool. There's a flea infestation," said neighbor Kim Norris. "I smell that stench everywhere."

Though the house has been condemned because of its unsanitary condition, the owners are working with the city and a private company to make the property habitable again.

"Our intention is to get the house cleaned up, certified by the city and move back in," said owner Carl Barlow Jr., who has lived there with his wife, Marsha, and their daughter.

Some neighbors disapprove of that plan, claiming the feline footprint is too extensive.

"The house needs to be torn down," said David Lero, who lives next door and said he worries about the potential health effects. "Once there's cat urine and feces in that concrete, there's no way to get it out."

Whatever the final outcome, neighbors say something needs to be done. Soon.

Those who live near the house say this has been going on for years.

Norris moved in eight years ago and said there was a smell even then, though it wasn't as intense. She said the owners would scatter cat food on the driveway, drawing hundreds of strays. Soon, hungry cats started sneaking through her doggy door.

Lero, who has lived in his house for five years, began trapping cats - he caught about 25 in all - to contain the growing menagerie.

"At first, I let it go," he said. "You've got to live with people."

But when fleas began invading his property and a special covering failed to keep the smell out of his screened-in pool, Lero, like others, began to complain.

"I've been fighting tooth and nail," he said, adding that he felt the city hadn't acted soon enough.

The city's code enforcement started citing the house in 2004 for problems such as broken windows, damage to the garage door and "the cat issue," said Lt. Barb Templeton, spokeswoman for the Tarpon Springs Police Department. She emphasized there were not as many cats then.

Fines on the house total $35,060, not all of which has been paid, she said. But according to code enforcement databases, the Barlows were in compliance in August 2007, Templeton said.

Though the stench grew increasingly worse, neighbors said they had no idea the Barlows were harboring nearly 200 cats.

They "swore to me that they only had three cats," Lero said.

And it's true neighbors saw fewer cats coming and going from the property, Norris added. They just didn't realize it was because all the cats were living inside.

Then, on Dec. 5, Tarpon Springs police received an anonymous call asking that someone "check on the welfare" of the residents at 759 Seminole Blvd. Though no one answered the door when an officer turned up at the house, he detected an odor and recommended a followup.

The next day, Animal Services responded and asked the city for help, Templeton said.

What they found was disturbing.

Amid the clutter, cats roamed everywhere. A 6- to 8-inch layer of cat feces covered nearly the entire house, said Laura Spaulding of Spaulding Decon, the Lutz company that put together an estimate for cleaning the house.

"It's intense," said Spaulding, a veteran of crime-scene and pack rat cleanup. "It's the worst we've ever seen."

Animal Services spent days setting traps and hauling out cats, said Dr. Welch Agnew, assistant director of veterinary services for Pinellas Animal Services. Most were feral and in bad shape.

"They were malnourished, diseased, had injuries," he said. "Missing eyes, abscesses."

Forty-nine ended up at the Humane Society of Pinellas and the rest were brought to Animal Services. Of the second group, Agnew said, only two were adopted and the others were euthanized.

Despite the extensive damage to the house, Spaulding said she is confident it can be cleaned. She said the Barlows are reviewing the estimate.

If the Barlows are unable to pay for the cleanup, that responsibility will go to the city, said spokeswoman Judy Staley. The city would then place a lien against the house for the cost of the cleanup.

Meanwhile, neighbors say, if no one steps up soon enough, they may consider a lawsuit against the city.

Elena Lesley can be reached at elesley@sptimes.com or 727 445-4167.

[Last modified January 16, 2008, 00:33:47]


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