When her fiancé died tragically, Tracie Steger had two options: She could turn away from the dream they had shared, or she could carry on alone.
She chose to proceed with their vision, creating a safe house for unwanted cats and kittens. And she did it in her fiancé’s memory.
Without him, the task proved daunting and overwhelming at times. And she cried tears of deep loss whenever she allowed herself the luxury of visiting his memory. But equally poignant were the feelings of accomplishment each time she saved a cat or kitten from death.
Steger and Billy McGahey had met when she was at her lowest, suffering from a debilitating disease that nearly killed her. “Billy loved me when I was at my worst,” Steger said, her voice vibrating between pitches as she struggled to control her emotions.
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Two years have not softened her pain.
McGahey’s life was taken by Spice, the synthetic chemical marijuana that since has been banned, Steger said. “He had smoked it that day,” she remembered, retelling details of that night in 2012. She watched McGahey kill himself in a moment of horrific confusion.
The man who pulled the trigger at point-blank range, aimed at his own temple, wasn’t McGahey, Steger said. She described the next few seconds in grave detail, how his gaze found hers as he lay dying on the floor. His expression wasn’t asking her for forgiveness. “It was like he didn’t know what had just happened,” she said.
The details have fogged somewhat. But the heartache lives on.
Steger immersed herself in what was left. The walls in her home, under foreclosure, were painted by McGahey — puffy white against a bold blue sky.
And as she moved out items to comply with foreclosure deadlines, she paused to reflect on her life with McGahey. “It’s difficult for me to leave it,” she said.
Her finances forced Steger to find another place to house the cats — as many as 100 at a given time. She and McGahey had plans to move their rescue operation to land where cat houses could be built and the felines would have room to roam.
With her partner gone, Steger continued pushing to make their plan a reality.
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It came to fruition about one week ago when Paw Warriors moved to its new home off County Line Road.
Paw Warriors developed a relationship with the Humane Society of Tampa Bay, where Steger brings as many as 20 cats each Sunday evening for surgery on Mondays, the organization’s “community day.”
“They spay and neuter as many as 100 cats each Monday,” Steger said. “I am one of their main trappers.”
Steger is studying to be a veterinary technician and uses her skills to rehabilitate injured cats and kittens, and to provide recovery after surgery.
“We are like the television show MASH,” she said. “We are at the front lines. And we MASH everything. We don’t do everything perfect but we get it done.”
Her goal is to prevent feral cats from reproducing, overwhelming the community with strays, through the process known as “trap, neuter and release.” She also works to minimize the sufferings of other unwanted felines, taking in injured cats and providing a safe place for them to recover and perhaps to find a home.
As with most animal rescues, Paw Warriors wasn’t created with an endless bank account and depends on donations and volunteers.
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Known by some as the Cat Lady, Steger has a connection to “her” cats and can tell each one’s story. They are deserving of a loving second chance, she said.
Steger’s neighbors might have seen her on evening walks around the block with 40 or more felines alongside her. She does it to give them exercise and social interaction.
Paw Warriors has provided Steger the therapy she needed to overcome a multitude of challenges in her life. It has been a lifeline — not only for the cats she rescues, but to help her cope with McGahey’s death.
Now in its new location on 361 Spring Time St., Paw Warriors constantly seeks assistance. Besides financial donations, Paw Warriors needs volunteers to help care for the cats.
Steger hopes to organize a group of Warriors for Autism, encouraging children with the condition to become what she calls “Junior Warriors.” She already has changed some young lives.
For information on how to help Paw Warriors or to adopt a cat, contact Steger at (352) 442-4647. Visit the website at www.paw warriors.com.