Désirée Deatherage used to spend her nights partying at Miami Beach clubs. A Playboy Bunny in the 1970s, she now spends all night, every night, feeding feral cat colonies in dicey neighborhoods in Miami-Dade and Broward.
Together, the two counties harbor an estimated one million street cats.
She’s been doing it for eight years, as well as rescuing dogs.
Wherever she stops her pickup, loaded with food and water, cats materialize from nowhere. She pours out mounds of kibble, pops dozens of cans, and baby talks to them: “Mama! Papa!’’
They run to her, meowing, and wind themselves around her legs. Many have “tipped’’ ears, the calling card of the “TNR’’ movement: trap, neuter, release (or return). She knows exactly how many should be in each colony, which ones have been sick and injured, which ones she has TNR’d herself.
If raccoons, foxes and Muscovy ducks show up, she feeds them, too — well aware that even some animal welfare advocates and environmentalists frown upon what she’s doing.
“Animals are my life,’’ she says.
At the other end of the county, Mirta Maltes, a federal law enforcement officer at Everglades National Park, spends every spare minute — and $300 a month on gas — rescuing in the Homestead/Florida City area. It’s a favorite dumping ground for city dwellers who seem to think that in farm country, domesticated pets will be able to fend for themselves.
Instead, says Maltes, they reproduce litter after litter, contract fatal diseases like parvo virus, distemper and heartworms, starve, or get hit by cars on what she calls “Dead Dog Road:’’ Southwest 217th Street.
She scours streets, parking lots, abandoned houses and fields for strays, catching them if she can, feeding them if she can’t, sometimes scooping up litters of newborns.
On a recent rainy afternoon, she left a bowl of kibble for a dog hanging around a plant nursery, a bowl for a dog under a banana plantation’s utility trailer, another for a tiny terrier on a farm road, and a pan for three wary retriever mixes encamped in a woody hammock. None would let her get close.
She went home at nightfall covered with mud. A houseful of rescued animals awaited.
“It becomes like an obsession,’’ Maltes says. “I cannot look away.’’
Maltes does the field work for My Animals Rock, run by attorney Kathy Cremer. Cremer spends most of her time on social media trying to place animals and raise money, and transporting dogs for her network of foster homes. Sometimes she’ll do urban pickups herself.
Knowing that Miami-Dade euthanizes 90 percent of the adult cats and 43 percent of dogs brought to its shelter is what drives rescuers like Deatherage and Maltes to keep as many as they can from ending up there. Animal Services depends heavily on rescue groups to take animals before they succumb to the realities of overcrowding.
The department works with about 50 rescue groups, but there are dozens of individuals, like Maltes and Deatherage, who bypass the shelter, preferring to rescue from the streets.
Their constant challenge is finding a place to put what they pick up. Maltes is plugged into a foster-home network; Deatherage has a cat-customized “safe house’’ in Broward. Sometimes they have to take a sick or injured animal to a vet hospital and pay for boarding as well as treatment.
Deatherage pays for food and vet care with donations to her Purrfect Paws Rescue and the proceeds of a home refinance.
Police officers and security guards tell her where to find cats. She feeds wherever cats congregate: car dealerships, vacant lots and parking lots, derelict houses, restaurants, gas stations, convenience stores, even a Jewish community center.
She begins at dusk, wraps up before dawn, fills the water jugs for the next night, cleans the truck and gets some sleep. Afternoons, she goes to the pet store and buys more food.
When skeptics tell Deatherage that she’s not making a dent in the street population, she counters: “But I am making a difference for this cat or dog. I love them so much, I can’t explain it.’’