Aimee Rust knew her next-door neighbor's cats about as well as the woman who lived there. Rust would often see the ginger cats sunbathing or peering out from the windows of the rental property on Bellevue Street.
Those friendly interactions through the home's windows became less frequent in recent weeks. After the school year, Rust became increasingly worried about the wellbeing of the cats as Rust spent more time at home and noticed her neighbor's absence from the property.
"If she'd been coming in and out, I hadn't seen her," Rust said in a Thursday phone interview. "I hadn't seen her car in weeks. It had been about three weeks since I'd seen the cats. I remember hoping she'd moved all the way out and had taken the cats with her."
That hope was shattered Tuesday, after Rust said she noticed the home's windows were covered in flies.
Rust, who has several rescue cats and dogs of her own, said she knocked on the home's door and noticed a package had been delivered a week prior. When no one answered, Rust said she peered into the home through a window and noticed empty cat food containers.
"The blinds were all torn up from where the cats tried to get out," Rust said. "I kind of looked through the blinds, and I was trying to tell myself those weren't dead cats because it was a very smeared up window, and it was hard to be sure. And I just didn't want it to be true."
Rust said she immediately called Lafayette Animal Control, but nobody answered the phone and there wasn't an option to leave a message. She then posted about what she'd stumbled into on a Facebook group for local cat owners. People begged her to call the Lafayette Police Department to request a welfare check.
Officers arrived within 30 minutes to the home on Bellevue Street, which is sandwiched between the Saint Streets and downtown neighborhoods in Lafayette.
"They were worried that she was still in there," Rust said. "I was pretty sure that she wasn't. I thought it would have smelled a lot stronger."
Officers could visually confirm from the outside that two cats were dead inside the home, according to Rust. Officers then reached out to the landlord, the resident and Animal Control, Rust said.
Once they gained access to the home's interior later that afternoon, authorities found a total of four dead cats, Rust said.
"The ones I saw were mostly skeleton and fur," Rust said. "There was feces and urine and bodily fluids. It was disgusting. I was hoping that there would be some weak survivors. I was heartsick."
Sr. Cpl. Bridgette Dugas, spokesperson for the Lafayette Police Department, confirmed that officers responded to the home Tuesday afternoon. An incident report was not created by the agency, Dugas said.
"I am unsure of their findings because it was handled on a patrol level," Dugas wrote in a message to The Acadiana Advocate. "If (there were) findings that an actual crime took place, a report would have been generated."
Rust, an instructor at South Louisiana Community College, is no stranger to finding animals in poor living conditions. The New Orleans native rescues animals in her free time and helped with recovery missions after Hurricane Katrina ravaged her hometown in 2005.
"I've been rescuing cats for a long time, and this is just appalling," she said. "I was in New Orleans when Katrina hit, and that's the only time I've seen something this bad."
Rust said the responding officers implied to the landlord that the renter would face counts of animal cruelty. Rust said she doesn't know the names of the renter or the landlord. Neither the Police Department nor Animal Control provided that information to a reporter.
Shelley Delahoussaye, Animal Control's shelter supervisor, wrote in an email that her agency is actively working on the case. Delahoussaye said she could not comment further since the investigation is ongoing.
The Lafayette animal shelter staff has been busy prepping the facility for heavy rains forecast for the weekend, Delahoussaye said. The shelter also temporarily waived all pet adoption fees last week after the shelter took in more animals in a single day than it normally does in a week.
As word spread about the situation inside of the Bellevue home this week, Rust said some neighbors mentioned that they'd offered to care for the cats while the renter was away.
Rust said she would have done the same, even though she has several pets of her own. One of hers is a tuxedo cat named Eddie that was rescued from the home of an animal hoarder who had died two weeks before authorities discovered the body, Rust said. That situation doesn't compare to what she witnessed on Tuesday.
"These were beautiful ginger cats, all brothers, I believe," Rust said. "I just feel like I failed them, and I don't know how to forgive myself. It wasn't my fault, but I just wish I had intervened sooner."