Humane specialists tackle Harrisburg cat house

Humane specialists tackled a troubled property suspected of cat hoarding on Friday. The homeowner was taken into custody and police said animal cruelty charges are imminent.

Wearing masks and hazmat suits, humane specialists armed themselves with cat cages, traps and a big net. Crews with the Harrisburg Area Humane Society and the American Humane Association entered the Manada Street home of 55-year-old Donna Layton Friday morning.

What was expected to be an extreme case with a reported 80 cats, Amy Kaunas, director of the Harrisburg Area Humane Society, said that was not the case.

“One to two dozen at the most,” she said. “There was some evidence of fresh activity of some cats.”

Humane officials said ammonia levels were low, despite the strong odor.

Kaunas said a handful of deceased cats were removed from inside the home. Layton was questioned inside the Harrisburg Police Department’s mobile command center. Around 11 a.m., police arrested Layton stemming from an arrest warrant filed on Monday, a misdemeanor charge for her fourth codes violation.

Police Captain Colin Cleary said Layton was “very cooperative” every step of the way. He would not speak on the mental health of Layton. Cleary said the cats were not hers.

“She has told us she has been feeding the cats out of the goodness of her heart and she doesn’t want them to go hungry,” said Cleary. “And, she wanted to take care of them.”

Many neighbors have said cats surrounding Layton’s property have been an issue for nearly three years. Prior abc27 reports with next-door neighbor Gloria Skorija showed complaints filed in 2011 and 2012. Before this week, media outlets reported the neighbor’s complaints as early as late April.

Director of Codes Dave Patton spoke on-camera about the situation. When asked why the situation was not attended to sooner, he responded: “We just couldn’t come in just kicking the door down.”

Patton told abc27 on Monday the city could not impede Layton’s Fourth Amendment rights and that he and the Codes Department needed to “Follow the letter of the law.”

According to court documents, the latest citation against Layton was filed Dec. 20. The arrest warrant was filed on Monday of this week.

On June 6, 2013 the city deemed Layton’s home “Unfit for Human Dwelling.” Neighbors said they notified the city Layton moved into a trailer. According to several residents along the 200 block of Manada Street, a new trailer was pulled onto the property last week.

Patton said it is against city code to live in a trailer, but he was unaware of her living situation.

“We weren’t aware she was living in a trailer,” he said. “It was all hearsay.”

Patton said he knocked on the door of the trailer, but she never answered. On Monday, he told abc27 that he made contact with Layton earlier this year and she refused help to deal with the cats.

Neighbors said they were fed up with the city reaction so they notified media this week. While Patton said he had knowledge of the situation, Mayor Eric Papenfuse said he was unaware until media reports, including an abc27 stories on Monday and Tuesday, that there was a “public safety hazard.”

The mayor said it was not until the situation reached a boiling point earlier this week that was he finally informed.

“Yes, but I have never spoken to a neighbor or received a direct complaint or knew anything about the extent of this problem until actually I saw the media reports,” he said.

There was no explanation for the lapse of communication other than to reiterate he acted swiftly when notified. Papenfuse met with upset residents Tuesday night and promised action. He said a room with 17 people from various public safety, city and animal agencies developed a strategy to attack the problem.

During his visit of Layton’s property on Tuesday, the mayor said “no one should have to live next to this.” Police Chief Tom Carter noted the odor of feline urine was pungent and nearly got sick.

Patton said Layton must notify the city when she plans to step foot inside the home. He said she must get an exterminator to fumigate the home he said was infested with fleas.

The mayor said he made good on a promise to remedy the situation. During his news conference, a black cat sprinted behind him. The mayor noted the trapping process would be continuous.

Hearing that had Skorija happy to see her feline foes be taken care of.

“They’re going to leave traps and continue to catch the cats, so yeah, I’m happy,” she said.

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