First of all, this is not an Animal Hoarders Horror Story.
The cats at my mom's house were well-fed, well-loved, and taken care of. We lived in the country, and they had plenty of space. They went to the vet when they were sick. They were happy, and the ones remaining at my mother's house, still are.
But as a kid, it quickly became obvious that my house wasn't like other people's houses. Other people had two cats, maybe three tops. By the time I was in middle school, the number never dropped below twelve for us. My mom is, and always will be, a crazy cat lady. And I say that with all the love in the world, because I've become a crazy cat lady, too.
My family life has always been a little different. My parents were married before they were married to each other, giving me an older half-sister, and an older-half brother. After they divorced, I was granted a slew of wonderful step-siblings. I'm currently one of nine kids, all said and done. Though, "kids" is pushing it, since none of us live at home anymore.
But my family also included a bundle of cats. Of all shapes, sizes, and colors. While my father still lived at home, the only rule was that the cats had to be named after NASCAR drivers. We had an Earnhardt, an Irvin, an Ernie, and so many more. Finally, we broke him of this habit when I got another kitten for my tenth birthday, and I named him Cocoa. (I was ten, okay.)
Living with thirty cats was not always easy. You could not, I repeat could not, leave food or drinks unattended. The weirdest part about moving out and into my own, cat-less apartment, was that I could set my dinner on the floor, and not worry about coming back to find it half-eaten and covered in cat hair.
And lord, was there cat hair.
Going through my emo phase in high school was tough, because we had lots and lots of cats with white fur. I swear, my household alone kept lint rollers in business. Not to mention the cat food and cat litter industries. We went through a big bag of Friskies in about a week. Sometimes under.
I once fell asleep on my couch, and woke up with seven different cats sleeping on top of me. Three more were on top of the couch, probably waiting their turn to snuggle up on my chest.
My sister and I learned quickly not to leave our bedroom doors open when we left for school. Because if you've ever owned more than one cat, you know they can get territorial. Spraying is a common thing among cats, a way for them to mark territory, express that they're in heat, or to show that they're distressed. Mostly, I think my cats were being assholes when they peed in the Barbie pool.
But having so many cats also taught me invaluable lessons. I learned to be patient. Have you ever tried herding cats? It's nearly impossible. But when you have to try and keep the cats in one room, so your mom can clean in another, you learn little tricks. I learned to be careful about where I left things, not just because I could lose them so easily, but because if I didn't, they'd be ruined. I lost a lot of books, but eventually I learned. I learned how to keep a house clean, even with this amount of living creatures inside it. I learned how hard my mother worked, and it inspired me to work just as hard.
I also learned to be kind. You have to be kind and cautious to coax a cat over to you. They're very discriminating with their love, unlike a dog who will love just about anyone. You have to wait for it, as Aaron Burr would say, but if you do, the reward is very much worth it.
There is nothing sweeter than a cat snuggling up next to you while you're reading or watching TV. Purring on your chest like they're the happiest thing in the world, all because you've given them a little time and attention. People are like that, too, I've found, especially little kids.
The nicest compliment I was ever given, was when someone said to me "You just know what little kids and animals need, intuitively." I was touched, but that's a learned skill. Cats can't talk to you. They can meow at your feet, and it's up to you to decipher if that meow means "I'm hungry," or "I'm annoyed, because another cat is in the armchair and I wanna be there." Figuring out whether the two year old standing next to you is crying because they're scared or because they're just bored is a pretty useful skill, too. And the patience thing, that comes into play. I almost never get annoyed with a child now, because at least I know they aren't going to pee in my Barbie pool.
I learned how to care for small creatures. When you have thirty plus cats living in one space, you get kittens. Lots and lots of kittens. And when your cats go inside and outside, like ours did, accidents happen. We lived near a main road, and more than once, our cats fell victims to people going too fast or driving too recklessly. Sometimes, these cats were new mothers, and they left behind kittens. Our other cats would occasionally step up, and take care of the ones left behind — we had a pair of mama cats who would take shifts taking care of the babies, hopping from one box to the other to nurse and clean. But sometimes, it fell to us to care for them.
Forget the babydoll they make you take home in health class. Setting my alarm for every two hours so I could wake up and bottle feed four kittens through the night warned me off teenage pregnancy really quick.
I learned about mistakes, too.
The first set of kittens we had to bottle feed almost all died. Suddenly, one by one, and we couldn't figure out why. Research and frantic calls to the vet eventually told us that there was a lot more steps than just making sure they were fed. We mourned the ones we lost, and doubled down our efforts on the ones who were left behind. I'm happy to say they survived, and even found a good home in the end.
I learned a lot about death and goodbyes, having this many cats. We were constantly trying to find people who would want to take one of our babies and give them a good home. Sometimes, that meant saying goodbye to a kitten who had become a special favorite. My mother would hug me as I cried, and she would tell me it was better this way. That the kitten was going to be so much happier now, and I came to believe her in the end.
We had a lot of cats die over the years. Some would get sick, some would get into an accident, some would simply go outside and never come home. It was heartbreaking each and every time, but eventually, I learned that death is a part of life. We'd bury the ones we could — because sick cats will sometimes wander away from home to die, an instinct that's left behind in their biology — and we'd hold little funerals for them. My parents and step-parents were very good about making sure we were allowed to express our feelings about it. My backyard is something of a graveyard, but I like to think the souls of those animals are happy that they've been put to rest. They're usually buried in the garden, and in the spring, flowers bloom around them. There's a beauty in that.
The plus side to all of this, I became a regular cat-expert for any of my friends who adopted a cat. If a friend wanted a cat, I knew a free kitten who was just waiting for a good home. I could help them figure out if their cat needed a vet, or just some wet food and a careful eye for a few days. Because I also learned that taking care of cats is expensive, and sometimes, vets aren't an option. Especially for a struggling college student. But if you can take the steps to make sure your cat stays healthy, steps I helped my friends implement, you can make it work.
Back when I was vlogging, I held a pretend interview with my mother about her cats. I asked her what the best part of having this many pets was, and her answer was immediate. "The companionship. You're never alone." And that's the thing. Growing up, I was never alone, even when my parents were working long hours, or my friends lived too far away to come play, or my siblings and I were fighting. I always had someone who would snuggle up and watch a movie with me. I always had someone to love, and someone who loved me. The fact that they had whiskers doesn't make that love any less real. I always had someone who would listen to me, on the good days and the bad.
And now, I have two cats of my own. From my mother's house, of course. One of them has only one eye, which is another lesson having so many cats taught me. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Every cat we had was different, special in their own way. We had fat cats, and skinny cats, and cats with gorgeous markings, and cats that kinda looked like they'd ran into the wall a few times. Some of them are cross-eyed. Some of them had bad bouts with illness, and never quite looked the same, but were still just as sweet after they felt better. And a lot of our sick cats did end up getting better. Which taught me the most important lesson of all — to hope. Hope for the best, work hard to make the most of your life, and always, always save some love for the little things in life. Especially if they have whiskers.