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Dead cats trigger volunteer effort to rescue older Valrico couple from hazards of hoarding

VALRICO — It got so out of control.

Cheryl Smith and John Ellis started rescuing a few stray cats at their Valrico home, hoping to give them better lives. Smith, 70, even went without food some days so her cats could eat, but never had them spayed or neutered.

Before long, the couple had so many cats they couldn’t keep up.

Both born and raised in Birmingham, Ala., Smith and Ellis have lived together in the home since 1998 after Smith moved to Florida to help her ailing mother. Ellis, Smith’s partner since 1980 and a disabled Army veteran, came to Valrico to help Smith after her mother died in 2003.

One day in November, a neighbor finally called animal control. Authorities found 63 dead cats in a freezer at the couple’s home plus dozens more buried in the back yard.

The carcasses were just the tip of the iceberg. The couple’s home had fallen into such disrepair — Ellis, 66, also serves as caregiver for Smith, who has severe scoliosis — that living there was dangerous.

Now, with the help of county authorities, neighbors and a company that specializes in the work, the home has undergone a cleanup and repair valued at more than $25,000.

"This environment is going to kill them if they keep living here," Laura Koppel, president of Spaulding Decon, said in mid December as the extreme cleanup company prepared to start the job.

Every year, Spaulding Decon, based in Tampa with nine offices nationwide, chooses one household for a free cleanup and makeover from hundreds of applications. Officers with Hillsborough County Code Enforcement reached out to Koppel and submitted an application on behalf of Smith and Ellis.

Ellis said he’s confident he can maintain the home now that he’s no longer in over his head.

"I don’t know that I ever admitted I needed help," Ellis said, "but I should have."

Up to 5 percent of the U.S. population suffers from hoarding disorder, according to Karah Moody, a Riverview-based licensed mental health counselor, who has not met the couple but was speaking generally. Hoarding can stem from a number of conditions, such as anxiety, depression, attention-deficit disorder and obsessive compulsive disorder, she said.

The urge to hoard, Moody said, is often triggered by a traumatic life event that turns into a compulsive need for things or animals.

Koppel said she often selects an older individual or couple who are financially and physically unable to help themselves for her company’s annual giveaway.

"I knew I could turn this house around in five days, so it was a natural choice for us," said Koppel, who started her company in 2005 because she loved the satisfaction of transforming a nightmare "before" into a beautiful "after."

Every inch of every door and window was covered with rat and roach feces. Pest control workers tore down walls to get to the infestation of bed bugs, roaches, spiders and ants inside. Surfaces were streaked with nicotine stains, and digging up three layers of carpet revealed base flooring saturated with cat urine.

Pile after pile of stuff crowded every corner of the house and spilled out into the back yard and empty pool. Air conditioning filters were so crammed with cat hair that nothing could get through.

Ellis was sleeping on a stained mattress that looked straight out of a crime scene; Smith slept in a ratty armchair because of the scoliosis that keeps her bent at the waist and unable to work as a registered nurse.

Koppel’s 10-person crew worked Dec. 18 through Dec. 22 to sort everything in the house into piles to keep, donate or throw away. By day two of the cleanup, 50 cubic yards of trash had been removed.

"We’re going to clean this house the same way we would decontaminate a meth lab," said Koppel, which includes a pressure wash on the inside before other crews install new drywall, paint and floors, and bring in donated furniture.

She instructed crew members to set aside a lamp and a cabinet full of military memorabilia as they went through Ellis and Smith’s bedroom.

"That plastic bag may mean the world to someone," she said.

"I’m going to be elated when the house is finished," said Smith, who was "absolutely grateful" to be chosen for the giveaway and for Koppel’s guidance.

"You couldn’t ask for a better woman," Smith said as Koppel inspected an antique cedar chest with Ellis.

More than $25,000 worth of products, services and labor were donated by local businesses that Spaulding Decon works with, including Alvarez Plumbing and Air and Aramsco Industrial.

Volunteers from the neighborhood came out to help, too.

Koppel said she is often shocked by the conditions people are willing to live in, but she urged others not to pass judgment.

"You never know the struggle each person has," she said.

Contact Libby Baldwin at [email protected] Follow her at @LibBaldwin

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Dead cats trigger volunteer effort to rescue older Valrico couple from hazards of hoarding