The voicemail is chilling not only for the explicit threat the person on the other end makes, but for her chipper tone as she casually threatens the lives of the people working at a west Michigan animal shelter.
“So anyway,” the caller says at the end of the unhinged message, “I’ll blow this number up and I’ll blow your location up as well. Hope you have a wonderful day!”
It’s one of three bomb threats the shelter has received since TikTok influencer Chloe Mitchell began the saga of what she calls “the $900 cat.”
Mitchell adopted a kitten from Michigan’s Noah Project, a small no-kill shelter, in early March. Staff say she didn’t balk at the adoption fee and they thought she was happy with the sweet kitty she took home, but the next day Noah Project’s phones began ringing incessantly with callers heaping abuse on the shelter’s volunteers and staff.
Apparently in the throes of adopter’s remorse, Mitchell uploaded a video to TikTok, the popular Chinese social media app, and raged about the adoption to her three million followers, screaming into the camera as she accused the shelter of identifying her as an easy mark and making a tidy profit off the kitten’s adoption fee.
Sickly kittens and sizable veterinary bills
Mitchell originally came to the shelter, camera in tow, asking specifically for a cat named Heart. The influencer filmed her visit and gushed to her viewers that she’d fallen in love with Heart, a mixed-breed kitten with Savannah heritage.
Shelter staff explained the kitten was from one of two litters that were brought in with serious ailments after a woman purchased a pair of queens from a breeder.
The former breeder cats went into heat and had babies, predictably, and the situation quickly grew out of control. When the woman realized she couldn’t care for the cats and their many ailing babies, she brought them to the Noah Project, which took on the Herculean task of caring for kittens that had problems ranging from anemia to developmental deformities like swimmer’s leg, also known as deformed leg syndrome.
Noah Project staff had to rush three of the kittens to an emergency veterinary hospital. Another required a leg amputation. Two kittens died, and the remaining babies had to be nursed back to health over three months, with special diets, medication and care on top of the normal costs associated with spaying/neutering, micro-chipping and vaccines.
Taking on that many sick kittens would stretch the resources of any animal shelter, let alone a small rescue, and the Noah Project set the adoption fees at $900 per kitten to help recoup the considerable costs.
Whipping an army of followers into a frenzy
Mitchell wasn’t phased by the fee, shelter staff said, but things quickly turned sour when she went home and posted the dramatic video, sparking the ire of her followers.
After that first video racked up almost six million views and almost 28,000 comments, Mitchell turned the experience into her own miniature “season” of online television, making half a dozen monetized videos in which she accuses the non-profit of lying to her about Heart’s breed and scamming her with the adoption fee.
Collectively, the videos have more than 30 million views, and Mitchell’s increasingly pitched rhetoric has whipped her three million followers into a frenzy.
In the video above, Mitchell acts out an alleged conversation with the shelter and confuses coat pattern for breed, saying “Feline experts have approached me online to say that she is in fact not an African Savannah and is more of a tabby-looking animal.”
“And they’ve stayed that I did get wrongfully charged that $900 in your shelter, which isn’t looking to re-home animals [but] make a profit off of them, and that’s not okay… I was taken advantage of, and that really sucks, I gave you my money for a reason that you were being truthful about her breed.”
Prompted by Mitchell’s insistence that the shelter was “scamming” adopters, her followers turned vigilante, review-bombing the Noah Project on Google and harassing its staff by phone. The shelter, which has been named the best rescue in west Michigan by its local newspaper several years in a row among other plaudits, saw its five-star Google review rating evaporate as negative reviews piled up, and the angry calls keep coming in. (“Unethical scammer! …shady, greedy business!” one of Mitchell’s followers wrote, while others dubbed Noah Project a “retail rescue” that “prioritizes profits over placing animals in a loving home.”)
The experience has been bewildering for shelter volunteers who aren’t accustomed to being the target of international ire.
“One woman [who answers phones at the shelter] doesn’t want to come back this week because it was so bad for her,” said Mashele Garrett-Arndt, Noah Project’s director. “It’s hard to explain to someone in their 60s or 70s. They don’t understand how [followers] can be so loyal to a person in a video. They don’t understand how people can be so cruel.”
Volunteers and staffers have taken the brunt of the abuse from Mitchell’s followers. Several don’t feel comfortable returning to the shelter because of the threats, Garrett-Arndt said.
The callers have said “they hope we die. They hope that we suffer and lose our jobs, they hope our families suffer. Horrible, horrible things,” she said.
As a result of the abuse and the threats, the Noah Project went to the local police, who are now keeping watch over the shelter. They’ve also hired private security, installed cameras covering the property, and have taken to scheduling staff to man the building overnight to watch the premises.
In an effort to end the squabble, Garrett-Arndt reached out and offered to refund Mitchell’s adoption fee, but said the influencer will no longer return the shelter’s calls.
Despite that offer, there’s no end in sight to the drama: Mitchell repeated her accusations that the shelter was trying to “profit” from her in an interview last week with MLive, a website that serves readers of a dozen newspapers across the state, and did an interview with the local Fox affiliate, WXMI, for a news segment that aired Monday.
Mitchell claims the shelter never mentioned the medical issues as the reason why the adoption fee was higher than usual, and says shelter staff told her Heart was “a super rare African Savannah” as rationale for the fee. She suggested she’ll continue her campaign to shame Noah Project until the shelter “proves” Heart is a Savannah, a mix of a wild serval and domestic cat.
“All of this will go away if they send me the certified paperwork ensuring she [is] in fact an African Savannah and I was rightfully charged $900,” the TikToker told WXMI.
But in her initial video Mitchell admitted she didn’t know what a Savannah cat was, and in another video she says she doesn’t care if Heart is a particular breed.
“I trusted you and I gave you my money for a reason, believing that you were being truthful with me about her breed, which didn’t matter to me at all, because I just love this animal,” she says in the video.
The constant stream of new videos about the situation and the behavior of Mitchell’s enraged followers has had a dramatic impact on the rescue.
“It has just been consuming our lives for the past four weeks,” one staffer told WXMI.
No one gets into animal rescue to make money, despite Mitchell’s claims that Project Noah’s staff are using animals in some sort of get rich quick scheme, and Garrett-Arndt told MLive she’d gladly open the shelter’s books to Mitchell or anyone else with concerns to show exactly how much was spent on vet bills and the other expenses involved in saving the sickly kittens and their mothers.
Pleading poverty and punching down
In her first video taking issue with Heart’s adoption fee, Mitchell pleads poverty and suggests the shelter saw her as an easy mark.
“I could just not eat,” she says with a theatrical expression, complaining that the fee is “two thirds of a Yorkie” and a quarter the price of a Louis Vuitton bag.
“I spent $900 on a fuzzy scratch ball that’s going to puke all over my furniture,” she says.
But Mitchell is not the typical college student working a part-time job and eating Ramen noodles to stretch her budget. As a volleyball player at Michigan’s Aquinas College in Grand Rapids, she’s well known as the first collegiate athlete to profit from the NCAA’s new NIL (name and image likeness) deal, which pays college athletes when their names and likenesses are used in broadcasts, promotional materials, video games and other revenue-generating activities tied to their sports.
Mitchell went on to found a company that guides other athletes on NIL deals, and she makes a considerable amount of money on TikTok. Creators on the platform who have three million followers can expect to earn about $15,000 a month from viewership alone, and articles going back to 2021 state Mitchell receives lucrative sponsorships on her videos.
“Five-figure deals are her baseline” for sponsored posts, a story on MLive notes, saying Mitchell was earning up to $20,000 per sponsored post at the time, when she had fewer followers than she does now.
If Mitchell scores a conservative two sponsored posts per month, that could put her earnings at $55,000 a month from TikTok alone, not including money earned from her NIL deal. Very few college students earn that kind of cash, yet Mitchell claimed the $900 adoption fee was “life-changing money.” In addition, she refers to her new pet almost exclusively as “the $900 cat.”
She dismissed the idea that she was creating problems for the Noah Project, telling WXMI that she doesn’t think she’s responsible for what her followers do.
“I never asked for the internet to go call them or to leave Google reviews in my defense whatsoever,” she said. “I’m not asking to be defended, I’m just asking to be heard.”
With 30 million views on her videos about “the $900 cat” saga, she’s been heard. The shelter? Not so much.
“To call people scammers, that’s a huge thing,” Garrett-Arndt told PITB. “You don’t just say someone scammed you. For her to say that about Noah Project, that hit hard for everyone.”
Garrett-Arndt said Noah Project’s social media staffer is hard at work trying to rectify the one-star reviews Mitchell’s followers left on the shelter’s Google listing, and said it’s taken considerable time to combat the damage to the shelter’s reputation.
Time spent dealing with negative reviews, filing police reports and reassuring spooked volunteers means less time dealing with the rescue’s primary mission — saving animals.
Garrett-Arndt said she consulted an attorney about taking to TikTok to tell the shelter’s story, and the attorney warned her that doing so could provoke an even stronger reaction from Mitchell, who has an enormous megaphone.
She said she doesn’t want to anger Mitchell for fear of what the influencer could do in the future, but believes the whole saga was manufactured for the benefit of the influencer’s TikTok account and followers. When the story blew up, she ran with it and wouldn’t return calls from the shelter in an attempt to fix the situation.
“She needed content, so it’s like ‘Let’s go get a cat,’ and then it got out of hand,” Garrett-Arndt said. “She has three million followers, but we have to stand our ground. The truth will come out.”
In the meantime, Mitchell — perhaps with an eye toward creating more viral content — says she’s getting a DNA test for Heart and has threatened to contact the other adopters who took home cats from the same two litters.
“Five other people paid the $900 adoption fee and not one of those people had an issue with it,” Garrett-Arndt said of adopters who took home the other kittens from the sickly litters.
The offer of a refund still stands, and staff at the Noah Project hope there’s an end to the madness.
“Why wouldn’t she come back to us? We’ll refund her,” Garrett-Arndt told PITB. “If you’re that unhappy about the $900, bring the cat back. Adopt another cat so we don’t have to [deal with] this and we don’t get dragged through the mud.”