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World & Nation

In one tony Houston neighborhood, a house of cats. Just cats

Tucked amid the townhouses in a high-end shopping district, the brick building draws scant attention. Its lawn is neat, its stairs swept. Occasionally, hissing erupts inside. But that’s to be expected. All the residents are cats.

The home with the four-legged occupants and chic ZIP Code belongs to Save a Purrfect Cat Rescue, a pet adoption nonprofit. The group’s facilities are based on the notion that cats are happiest in human environments. Nearly every detail, from the daybeds to the paintings on the walls, would fit inside a tasteful human home.

It’s an unusual bit of real estate by any measure. The owner, former Houstonian Patti Thomas, lives in Ghana. Her best friend, an expert cat rescuer, leads a clutch of volunteers in Houston, operating a showroom where fosters cats are presented to would-be adopters. At key moments each day, select volunteers tend the nearby house of cats. Snubbed by adopters for their quirks or ailments, the dozen or so cats in this building will likely never find homes.

Which is why Thomas gave them hers.

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Inside Thomas’ old home, clean floorboards gleam in the sun. A TV screens “Hogan’s Heroes.” And bookshelves bear snoozing cats.

“Cats are 3-D,” one volunteer explains. “Dogs and cats both like to move horizontally, but cats also elevate.”

He points to a giant artificial tree trunk, where an orange tabby sleeps on one bough. “This is Newman,” the volunteer says. “And this,” he adds, motioning toward a sleek Bengal cat whose paw touches Newman’s back, “is Princess. She’s in love.”

A cat named Newman is pictured inside the feline residence owned by Patti Thomas on Sunday, Dec. 16,
A cat named Newman inside the feline residence owned by Patti Thomas in Houston.
(Loren Elliott / For The Times)

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What kind of human, with real estate worth more than $600,000, gives it up to cats? If you’re not a cat lover, it’s tempting to come up with a profile: Someone unsuccessful at friendship or love; someone blind to all the humans who are hungry and homeless. That profile would be wrong.

Raised in Illinois farm country, Patti Thomas, 71, is tall and talkative, with the air of a pioneer woman able to vanquish any obstacle on the trail. In a sense, she has.

As a student at the University of Chicago in the 1960s, she met Len Thomas, her future husband, and followed him to the Peace Corps in Ghana. After heading to New York and New Orleans to complete their studies, they returned to Ghana, where Len worked as a physician in a hospital and Patti did doctoral research in parasitology. There, they adopted their first pet, a fierce street kitten who caught flies between its paws. Finally returning to New Orleans, the couple happily raised two children and continued their social service work.

Then in 2005, just before Hurricane Katrina descended, Len was diagnosed with a terminal brain tumor. Fleeing to Houston, the family found shelter with Cambodian refugees whom they had sponsored years before. When Len died, Thomas’ daughter, then earning a statistics PhD at Rice University, persuaded her bereft mother to buy a small vintage building near the campus. Thomas soon was smitten with the new home. “I will never give this place to developers,” she said.

Soon Thomas discovered another neighborhood attraction: a wildly energetic woman named Brenda Fraley. A ringer for actress Julianne Moore, Fraley was a former Los Angeles marketing executive who rescued greyhounds. In 2001, after being diagnosed with breast cancer, Fraley moved with her husband to Houston for successful treatment. After noticing the feral cats who seemed to overrun her neighborhood, she began trapping, neutering and hauling them to adoption shows. Her new friend Thomas tagged along.

But cats, to be relaxed and most adoptable, need comfort, not the confines of a pet store. A humane adoption center, Fraley thought, should look like a house. In 2010, she rented her own space to show cats. With paint, soft sofas and endless mopping, it looked — and smelled — like a human home.

Brenda Fraley, the leader of Save A Purrfect Cat Rescue, sits for a portrait with cats named Cookie
Brenda Fraley, the leader of Save a Purrfect Cat Rescue, sits with cats named Cookie, left, and Newman in the feline residence in Houston.
(Loren Elliott / For The Times)

Thomas, meanwhile, had returned to Ghana and community work. But she still owned her old home, plus a nearby rental property. Finances secure, she offered Fraley her now-empty former home as a way station for hard-to-place cats. When it was clear no adopters were pending for many of them, Thomas made a decision. She gave her home to the cats. To ward off animal dumpers, the friends kept the address confidential.

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Then, in 2015, Thomas went further: She gave Save a Purrfect Cat Rescue her rental property as a permanent showroom, with Fraley as manager. While both properties remained legally in Thomas’ name — and still looked like human habitations — they were now, almost wholly, occupied by cats.

“Best thing I’ve ever done,” Thomas says. “Somebody might say if I’m going to donate a house, why not to Habitat for Humanity or something? But destitute or homeless humans have more agency to solve their own problems than cats do.”

In a perfect world, neutering, vaccinating and returning feral cats to the streets would empty most shelters. But in Texas, more unwanted animals are killed than in any other state, according to Best Friends Utah, the nation’s biggest no-kill animal sanctuary.

In light of this trend, the gentle spaces that Thomas and Fraley offer abandoned cats are unusual, if not groundbreaking, for Texas, says Holly Sizemore, the program director for Best Friends Utah. While other shelters offer communal cat rooms and cafe-shelter partnerships, Sizemore says, the group’s spaces in Houston may be the only ones specifically designed so cats and humans feel at home. Thomas estimates the nonprofit has found homes for 1,500 cats since it started in 2010.

Like the house of cats, the adoption center looks nothing like a shelter. Instead of institutional paint and easy-wash floors, it’s color-coordinated in a ’50s-style teal and brown, with matching carpet. A leather couch faces a fireplace; a basket of cat magazines stands nearby. In the kitchen, a turquoise coffee machine shares counter space with an immense, crouching tuxedo cat named Millie. One the walls preposterous portraits depict cats in Elizabethan garb. The air is fresh and redolent of lavender thanks to constant mopping by volunteers.

Volunteer Yesim Ari plays with cats named Marshall (front) and Sinatra at the Save A Purrfect Cat Re
Volunteer Yesim Ari plays with cats named Marshall, front, and Sinatra at the Save a Purrfect Cat Rescue adoption center in Houston.
(Loren Elliott / For The Times)

Thomas’ investment in these spaces strikes a chord for Rice business professor Duane Windsor, who studies heroism. “This is a person the literature would identify as a ‘moral leader,’” he says. “By providing a home for less-adoptable cats, she’s championing animals. By creating an innovative marketplace to connect adopters with cats, she’s helping people and animals. Because humans are better off with a pet.”

On a recent late afternoon in Thomas’ old house. Pumpkin, a gorgeous marmalade tabby, peers outside the window. She likes to roll voluptuously on a daybed when a certain volunteer approaches, and then when he tries to pet her, bite him. The cat can’t help it.

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Under a cocoa-colored blanket on the sofa, a bump slides slowly, finally emerging as a tuxedo cat who darts under the couch. It’s Bailey, nearly always hiding.

Near the roof of the cat tree is Princess, the one the volunteer said is in love. That would be with Newman. She shrinks from people, but taps Newman on the shoulder. He ignores her; he prefers humans. But due to his occasional habit of peeing on pants legs, Newman, too, may find his love unrequited.

None of these cats, it is plain, qualifies as a perfect human companion. Then again, not many humans qualify either. In Thomas’ house, however, perfection is not required. The residents are welcome to savor the sunlight, smooth floors and “Hogan’s Heroes,” just as they are. With help from a human well acquainted with loss, displacement and love, here it’s enough to just be a cat.

Kolker is a special correspondent.


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