For Michelle Mucha, the death of a cat she found with a gunshot wound near her South Philadelphia home over the weekend is just the latest in a string of deaths she says have been plaguing the cat colony she oversees for six months now.
Mucha, who moved to the 500 block of Winton Street in 2012, said she started to take care of stray cats on the block when she noticed there were several in the area.
Now, after some neighbor disputes and a string of deaths of some 15 cats, Mucha says she thinks something suspicious is underfoot in her neighborhood. She said the cat that she found shot to death on Saturday is the 16th from the colony to die since September. Animals of other species, including opossum and birds, have also been found dead in the area.
"It's unconscionable that 20 animals have to die," Mucha said.
The Pennsylvania SPCA is investigating the cat's shooting death and has offered a $1,000 reward for information leading to an arrest and conviction of whoever is responsible for shooting the animal.
But Mucha said that level of response from the PSPCA came too late for more than a dozen other cats from the colony that have died over the last several months under what she believes are suspicious circumstances. She thinks the cats died as a result of being poisoned, she said -- but the PSPCA, which performed toxicology testing on two of the cats postmortem, said their veterinarians found no evidence of that.
After one of the cats, Bubba, died late last year, Mucha started an online campaign, #JusticeforBubba, in hopes of getting more attention for the cats' deaths. She said she doesn't believe Bubba died as a result of disease or other natural causes, as the PSPCA has ruled, because she rescued one of his kittens, whom she named Ho Tep, and that cat is healthy.
The PSPCA did investigate Bubba's death, both Mucha and a PSPCA spokeswoman confirmed. The spokeswoman, Gillian Kocher, said PSPCA veterinarians did not find poison in the cat's system.
PSPCA officials disputed Mucha's claim that the toxicology samples were inaccurate because the animal's body was kept in a freezer for several weeks before the necropsy -- an autopsy on the animal -- was performed. Kocher said that although the body was held in a freezer for four weeks, that is "standard operating procedure and does not have an effect on the toxicology." She said both blood and liver samples were sent for testing and came back negative for poison.
Kocher said that in her organization's investigation into the cats' deaths, however, a neighbor told investigators that a block captain admitted to putting out rat poison to rid the area of raccoons and opossums -- but she said that officials don't believe it was done with the intent to harm the cats.
"This use of poison is not illegal if it was not intended to harm domestic animals," Kocher wrote in an email. "Raccoons and opossums are considered vermin."
Claudia L. Casavecchia, a veterinarian at Society Hill Veterinary Hospital who treated a kitten from the Winton Street colony, said more education is needed in the community about the use of substances like rat poison in residential areas -- especially where there are cat colonies. Casavecchia said the poison can be a danger not only to the feral cats, but also to other domestic animals, and that the city should do more to educate neighbors about how to handle vermin.
Kocher said now that there's a clear case of cruelty in the shooting of the cat that Mucha found dead over the weekend, the PSPCA's humane law enforcement officers will work to find and hold accountable whoever is responsible for the animal's violent death.
"It was very clear that the cat had been shot. That is a very clear-cut sign of animal cruelty, and obviously we know that at least in this case -- it could be unrelated, it could be related [to the other deaths]," Kocher said. She said the $1,000 reward may be increased in the next several days in an effort to garner tips and solve the case.
The PSPCA did not investigate the deaths of the other cats from the colony that died because they were notified of them too late. Mucha said she initially had been working with the Animal Care and Control Team before she contacted the PSPCA about the deaths.
Mucha has been devastated by the deaths of so many cats in her colony, which she said has about nine animals left now. She said the cats there are well cared for, and that she had a carpenter build shelters for them by her house and feeds them each day.
She said she is hopeful, though, that now that the PSPCA is investigating the shooting death of the cat she found Saturday, the organization will be able to help raise awareness and stop the deaths in her neighborhood.
"How many animals have to die before we declare this a war?" she asked.