The spacious home of Susan Sohljoo and her mother Jane Reichwein feels a lot emptier these days.

That's because their family was unexpectedly divided.

"Family" for these two included 11 grown cats, four 4-month-old kittens and several independent ferals who claimed the outdoor grounds of the ladies' Arrowhead Lake Avenue home as their own. If a cat wasn't purring contently as it laid sleepily on their laps, it was likely playing with a feline friend in a room the cat lovers had transformed into a veritable kitty castle. There, the beloved pets relaxed atop perches, sharpened their claws on scratching posts or frolicked freely across the carpet.

But that all changed on a very unlucky Friday, July 13 when a police officer knocked on their front door with a city "inspection/abatement" warrant.

"I told him I needed to close the door for a moment to let my mother know what was going on, but he put his foot in the door to prevent it," Sohljoo recalled.

Then, in a flash, the lives of the two women and their furry menagerie were turned completely upside down. First, according to Sohljoo, she demanded to read the warrant, a request which she says was not allowed. Next, an estimated "six or seven" animal control officers, including Supervisor Tony Genovesi, forced open the locked front wrought-iron gate.

"By now my mother had come out to the den. A lot of confusion ensued with everyone talking at once."

Sohljoo told the police officer that she wouldn't allow someone to walk into her home and take away her pets. Her comment apparently provoked a firmer response from the officer.

"My arms were wrenched behind my back, I was placed in handcuffs and dragged out of my home without even being allowed to put my shoes on," according to the slender Sohljoo.

As Sohljoo, an unemployed graphic artist, sat handcuffed in a patrol car, Sohljoo's frail 81-year-old mother became hysterical.

"She was on the verge of a stroke," Sohljoo said. "She was so upset. You would have thought they [animal control officers] were on a drug bust."

Alleged violations
But the most upsetting part of the event was about to begin. Although the women say they hadn't yet read the warrant, they would later learn the document cited a number of violations: welfare neglect/cruelty, animal zoning violations, public nuisances including odor, unsanitary conditions and animal waste violations and unhealthful living conditions for the animals.

The women adamantly claim none of the allegations is true, except the zoning issue. They acknowledge that they had more cats than allowed. However, they contend the kittens shouldn't have been counted due to their ages.

Earlier, on July 2, Sohljoo says she and her mother found a notice taped to their front gate notifying them of an anonymous complaint. Subsequently, an animal control officer met with the women, a meeting that Sohljoo said was cordial and relatively low-key.

But on July 11, according to Sohljoo, a follow up meeting with the animal control officer and Genovesi did not fare as well.

Genovesi, she said, was especially stern and "at that point we asked them to leave."

"I can't believe this city would be so cruel and heartless," Sohljoo said. "They're making us into crazy old ladies that hoard animals. We're not."

In fact, a letter signed by Dr. Ron W. Bachman -- their cats' veterinarian -- attests to their love of all things cat.

"Ms. Sohljoo has always been one of the most attentive cat owners I know," Dr. Bachman wrote. "She loves her cats immensely and would do anything to treat and care for them."

But one by one, the animal control officers rounded up 13 cats and kittens, leaving two adults.

The cats were transported to the Hesperia Animal Shelter. Soon, Sohljoo and Hesperia Animal Services were negotiating an arrangement in which she could get her animals back -- if she moved away from Hesperia.

"She is moving the animals out of the city," said Scott Priester, director of Hesperia's Development Services department that oversees Hesperia Animal Services.

"I'm going to move back to Ohio," Sohljoo confirmed.

As days went by, Sohljoo became extremely worried about her cats' welfare, so she arranged for the city to move her pets to the Victor Valley Animal Hospital, where Dr. Bachman practices veterinary medicine.

"I'm deathly worried," Sohljoo said before the cats were moved.

But at $20 a day per cat, Sohljoo's bill, which she has already begun paying, comes to $5,400 for the month-long stay.

But that's just the tip of the cat's tail. After the incident, Sohljoo also received a bill for $1,500 from the city for costs associated with the warrant service and initial boarding at the shelter.

"That is our procedure," Priester said. "The violating parties are sent an invoice for the cost of complying with that."

Necropsy results
When the cats were initially housed at the Hesperia Animal Shelter, the four kittens died. Sohljoo says that each kitten was healthy before being taken by the animal control officers, and each had its shots.

"They were adorable little kittens. Now they're dead."

So she paid her vet an additional $1,100 to perform necropsies on the bodies of two of the kittens, which the animal shelter provided at her request. The results surprised Sohljoo. There was no sign of distemper, a common disease in animal shelters. Rather, the kittens whose bodies Dr. Bachman studied in his laboratory had died from a severe bacterial infection, she said.

"You just don't see kittens dying of this -- healthy one day and dead the next. It's just more of a mystery."

Each day brings new challenges, new mysteries and new frustrations for Sohljoo and her mother. In a matter of weeks, Sohljoo must leave her elderly mother and find a new home in Ohio, or else she and her cats won't be reunited. The unknown is challenging and frightening. And there's also an emptiness.

"We eat, but nothing satisfies us. Nothing tastes good," Sohljoo said. "Our whole routine is gone. Our whole lifestyle is gone. We drag ourselves around just trying to get through the day."