Welba and Maria Arms faithfully drove across Ceres each evening for the past three years to supply food and water to a small colony of feral cats that inhabited the wooded area between Home Depot and Rancho San Miguel Market on Hatch Road. They were first drawn to care for the cats as long time shoppers of Raley's.
Their devotion led to grief last Sunday evening when they found five adult cats and four kittens dead, all probably from being poisoned.
"I feel terrible," said Maria Arms. "If this person can do this to an animal what else could they do? We are so angry."
"I have quite a bit invested mentally with these kitties," Welba Arms said. "When I saw their faces when I showed up with food they came up to me like a long lost friend. It hurts, it hurts a lot."
Maria Arms is convinced that the cats were intentionally poisoned.
About six months ago the 77-year-old Ceres resident posted a sign in the area in an attempt to recruit others to help feed the cats on days he wasn't feeling up to it. Instead of getting help, Arms received an ominous call from a man who said he was watching the cat feeding and noted "feral cats don't deserve to live and I'm going to kill them." The caller threatened he would poison the cats, indicating he would lace tuna with Round-Up.
Arms replied, "You're kidding," there was an awkward silence and then Arms hung up.
When the cats failed to respond at feeding time on Friday, Arms suspected foul play. On a return visit over the weekend, the smell of dead animals could be detected in the commercial parking lot.
Ceres Police took a report but have found no clues to make an arrest nor prosecute a case of animal cruelty, which is a felony.
"We take it pretty seriously. If we had a good suspect that would be one thing but we really don't have proof they were poisoned," said Sgt. Trenton Johnson of Ceres Police. "Is it pretty suspicious? Yeah."
Animal Control Services was asked to investigate as well. But since the cats were buried after a few days of decomposition, the bodies could not be exhumed to find what chemical or substances killed them.
A Home Depot store security surveillance tape showed "people coming and going but doesn't show them doing anything," said Sgt. Johnson.
The disturbing call itself made to Arms provided no evidence as there was no caller ID.
Upset about the possible crime, Modesto cat welfare advocates Paul and Susan Robinson are offering a $500 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the perpetrator.
"I was told their claws were extended and their mouths are wide open and have been told by a veterinarian that it's indicative of seizures," said Robinson. "If that's the case, they may have been poisoned with strychnine which is used to kill squirrels and I under it's a very painful death."
The Robinsons are hoping a reward shakes loose a tip from the public. They may be reached at 529-8616.
The Arms are now convinced that the slow dwindling of cats — they started out caring for about 20 feral cats three years ago — is due to a cat killer. Welba Arms said he noticed that pans left under bushes filled with food had been filled up with water or urine. She reported pans of food routinely flipped over.
The couple suspects the poisoning occurred on May 2 or May 3. It's possible, they say, that the cat killer either is a customer or a worker of the store.
Karen Mosser, a member of Cat Network of Stanislaus County, a local group that works to trap, sterilize and release the animals back to the wild, said she is upset that the Stanislaus County District Attorney's office has failed to prosecute animal cruelty cases.
"People get away with cat killing," said Mosser. "The city of Modesto has a law on books. We just have to get them to enforce it. It does upset me. Most people who can commit crimes against people start out with animals. You need to get these people."
Mosser said that Jimmy Lee Dykes, the Alabama man who killed a school bus driver in January and kidnapped a boy, had previously beaten a dog with a pipe but authorities did nothing.
"You have to be a little crazy to do something like this (poisoning cats)."