What sheriff's deputies feared would be a horrific case of animal cruelty instead was a heartwarming story of two local women who spent their lives rescuing unwanted dogs and cats.
Sheila and Renee (not their real names) share their house with 112 cats and a dog. When Sheila was at her veterinarian's office with one of her cats that had a skin condition, the vet, who knew of the number of cats she owned, called the sheriff's office concerned for the welfare of the animals.
Fearing the worst, the sheriff's office prepared a search warrant, and called on Gila County's animal control, and health department, and the Payson and Phoenix humane societies to assist with removing the cats.
"If the conditions are good, we won't do anything," Gila County Sheriff's Office Sgt. Craig Smith said.
Smith, Dennis McCarthy of the Gila County Attorney's Office, and a local veterinarian surveyed the home Wednesday to determine whether to remove any of the cats.
More than a dozen trucks were stationed nearby, ready to take the cats to shelters.
Instead, they found a clean, healthy sanctuary for the animals.
"All the sheriff's office can say is that we commend them for the work they are doing," Smith said. "There are a lot of cats and that's a lot of work. As far as we are concerned we are not pursuing any criminal charges. They are doing a heck of a job."
"This is a good story," the veterinarian said. "It's obvious they clean it every day."
Sheila and Renee have spent the past 25 years rescuing throwaway animals -- the ones rejected by the humane society. They ran a nonprofit animal rescue organization in Phoenix called Paw Paw until they decided to retire in February 2004 and moved to the Rim country with what remained of their inventory of old, ill and otherwise "unadoptable" pets.
"People want kittens and puppies," Sheila said. "They don't want a cat that won't use a litter box or is old or ailing.
"These are the cats no one wanted and all we wanted to do was let them live out the rest of their natural lives in comfort."
Inside the spotless house, there is only a faint odor of cat litter which is a special, non-toxic brand the women get from the Valley. Each cat has staked out its own spot to nap in the bright sunshine and the home is spotless.
"It's a sanctuary for strictly unadoptables," Sheila said.
Sheila talks about her grueling routine cleaning for three hours before she goes to her day job and six hours when she comes home.
"When I get up in the morning, I make their food and while they are eating, I do a couple loads of laundry and scoop their litter boxes and clean and fill their water dishes and clean up any messes," she said.
"Some of them are unadoptable because they won't use a litter box.
"Then I go to work and when I come home, I go through the same routine again and then I sweep and mop everything."
Both women have other full-time jobs, which help pay for the cats' food and medical care.
"My dad added it up one day and I have spent thousands of dollars of my own money over the years," Sheila said.
Many of the cats were traumatized and lived horrific lives until finding a home with Sheila and Renee.
"A normal rescue agency wouldn't take what we took," Sheila said. "We took the extreme cases. If it was horrendous then they called us."
Nicholas, a black and white cat, was one such case.
"When we got Nicholas, he was 10-weeks-old and nearly dead," she said. "He did not wake up for almost 10 weeks and a couple of times he had to have nitro tabs to stimulate his heart. Then he had a period of seizure disorders which he eventually outgrew. He has had dental problems over the years where his baby teeth wouldn't fall out and he had surgery for that twice. He never should have lived."
Angus, another cat, is now 14 years old and was given less than two years to live when Sheila took him in.
"When I got him he had some kind of liver disorder and they told me he wouldn't live two years and that was 12 years ago,"she said. "Angus is getting very close to the end of his life. They told me it would be nothing but medical bills, but he was never sick."
Looking at her now, no one would ever suspect that Jitterbug was once at death's door.
"Jitterbug was once so thin you could put your fingers together on her back," Sheila said.
Buffy, another horror story, is now a happy 13-year-old cat.
"Buffy was owned by college kids in Tempe who were doing an experiment to see how long they could go without feeding him until he starved. A girl who went to their apartment reported them to the humane society."
Sheila calls Buffy a he/she. His genitals were removed because of his prior mistreatment.
"Buffy had chronic kidney problems and he had surgery," Sheila said. "They had to remove his penis and put in a plastic urethra."
Sheila said the cats are continually tested for infectious diseases; their health and welfare are priorities.
Sheila says she understands why the sheriff's office had to investigate -- most of her animals came from situations like what deputies feared they might find.
"We are retired now from our rescue organization," she said. "We just want to allow these cats to live out the rest of their natural lives in a nice environment."
The women don't want anyone to know where they live because they are not taking new animals.
"People used to drop off litters in front of our home," Sheila said. "We just want to care for the animals we have now."