When I moved in with my friend Molly, her husband, four kids, three dogs and three cats, I had no idea how everything would work out for me. I wasn’t that big on kids, but I’d always loved cats in spite of, or perhaps because of the fact that my mother hated them.
Molly’s cats were really kittens at the time; Gizmo was almost two, George was one and fluffy Tigger about six months. It was great having three cats to mess around with and I worked at teaching scaredy-cat Georgie not to run away from humans. He was responding slowly and he and I became quite attached.
One day, when the second-grade teacher followed the kids home carrying a calico kitty, we suddenly had four cats. Sassy took awhile to get used to our three boy cats, showing off her claws and her hissing skills as often as possible. The kids called her “scratchy cat” but I just called her “Claws.” The fact that we could receive deep facial lacerations just from petting her didn’t stop us from loving her, well, sass. One day the first grader was with us in Molly’s room while Mom was getting changed.
She asked, “Why is Sassy so scratchy all the time?” I told her, “She’s come to a new place she doesn’t know and until she gets used to us, she’ll be a little scared.” She pondered this and then asked, “Why is she scared? Is it because Mommy’s naked?” Poor kitty must’ve been traumatized.
Sassy lived up to her name, and I was the one recruited to go out in the snowstorm, wading through thigh-high snowdrifts, to rescue Ms. Sassy from the neighbor’s tomcat, who she definitely didn’t want to be rescued from. I returned to the house, covered in snow and calico fur, with Sassy in tow and none too happy (either of us). She went to the Vet the next day to be spayed.
Not too long after, when it became time for Molly’s Dad to move in with us, Molly and her husband found a house outside of town with two-and-a-half acres. They built a barn for the cats to play in and the kids to break their arms in (well, only the youngest boy, who liked to believe he was Superman. But did he have to do it on my watch? No one likes to make that phone call to the parents moaning, “I broke your kid.” Molly’s husband still hasn’t forgiven me.)
The cats didn’t like the move too much, but once they came out from the cupboard under the sink, they loved all the space they had. Bedrooms as far as the eye could see, and then…that barn. They even got used to the horses eventually.
We had so much space, we actually contacted the local Humane Society and told them, “Bring us your tired, your hungry and your pregnant” and next thing we knew we were birthin’ babies. I couldn’t keep my lips off them, and as soon as Mom had squished them out and licked them clean, I had to kiss their wormy round bellies. Molly and I became so addicted to our babies that we kept taking in those pregnant Moms. It became quite clear to us that people didn’t understand cats at all. They didn’t spay or neuter them and then tossed them out when they got pregnant. We only hoped they did better with their teenage daughters.
Most of the time we sent Mom and kittens back to the Humane Society, but sometimes we fell so in love with them we had to keep them. We also discovered that people didn’t seem to want black cats, and the Humane Society won’t adopt any out around Halloween, so we ended up with tons of black cats. Well, about seven actually.
I always had my boys as my special cats. First was gorgeous Bengal cat Rajah who was smart and handsome and loved his Mommy. When I was outside, he followed me around everywhere, but one day he disappeared and my heart never recovered. Then came Serengeti who was mainly white with gray and brown splotches and loved to have his eyes kissed. He came home so sick one day and it turned out that one of our neighbors poisoned him with antifreeze. I still haven’t gotten over it. Today, there is Beethoven, who tries to turn door handles to get into rooms, because dammit, he knows how those doors work, he just can’t get them to do it. All three of them were being given away free at the local feed store, which is one thing I love about living in a rural area. Unfortunately, it also means that the cats are breeding with abandon and a large number of them are killed by humans or other animals. People also tend to come outside of town and dump their unwanted animals in our fields and at the side of the road.
Most of the neighbors don’t mind our few cats that roam the neighborhood, because most cats love to catch mice. I think the only place that mice still thrive locally is in our kitchen, where they’ve learned to keep out of claws’ reach and the cats pretty much ignore them. We have so many pets, it’s possible they think the mice under the stove are just more pets and don’t even realize they’re the enemy. (The dogs, however, like to chomp on the mice like they’re chewing gum. The cats, I think, prefer grasshoppers, and one of the black cats, Mariah, will catch them and bring them in to Diva, who doesn’t go outside. Diva’s favorite time of the year is grasshopper season.)
Out in the country we’ve discovered some pet sanctuaries and have taken in some physically damaged cats that no one else wanted. Diva has neurological damage from an illness she had as a kitten, but apparently no one told her. She’s full of energy and zooms all around like the other cats, not realizing that her back end is flying around like a car in a skid. Diva is all white with a gray streak on the top of her head, so she looks like a crazed bunny rabbit when she runs. She actually hops down the stairs and we laugh at her when she bops around, but it’s mostly jealousy of her zest for life, and the pure joy she exhibits as she tears around. Most of the other cats have their specific rooms or areas they mainly stay in, but not Diva. She and Mariah both own the entire house and everyone in it.
Our other “crippled” cat is Legolas. His legs are on backwards and his entire skeleton is deformed. Generally Mother Nature (or Mother cat) takes care of these situations, which are usually a result of too much inbreeding, but somehow Legolas dodged that bullet. We found him at an animal sanctuary, living in an outdoor enclosure with dozens of other cats. Someone had taken him there as a kitten, not certain what to do with him. His back legs bend like a human’s instead of like a cat’s; his knees are at the front of the bend instead of the back, which means he walks on his knees. He doesn’t seem to know that he’s different though, and he zooms around so fast it’s hard to keep up with him. The people at the sanctuary called him “Legs” which seemed a little insensitive to me. That would be like calling someone with a mangled nose “Schnozz,” so we named him Legolas, which might seem rude at first, but he was actually named after elf personnel from the Tolkien Trilogy. He’s still a little funny around people, although he’ll yell at us if he wants attention. One day when Grr-T (our grumpy cat) was accidentally closed inside a closet, Legolas actually hollered at me until I came to let her out. Smart elf!
We had eighteen permanent cats for awhile, and then, when Molly’s sister moved cross country, she left us her orange fluffy clone-of-Tigger Jill. She’s been under the bed a week now, but apparently comes out sometimes to be petted and to chow down. We now have two Jills, but we can make that work.
Meanwhile, Molly’s father moved in with us. We tucked him and his pipe smoke down in the basement (we allow him out for meals as long as he leaves his pipe downstairs) and he won’t allow the cats in his room. He’s a dog man and snubs the cats, which isn’t lost on them. Sometimes they mill around his breakfast bowl and one distracts him while the other drinks the milk out of his high-fiber cereal. I could swear they’re giggling as he chases them off.
We have had as many as twenty-five cats at a time, and even though we’re always hoping to lower the numbers, we can never bear to part with any. We keep food in the garage for the neighborhood feral cats, who only became that way because their families moved off and left them. We try to catch them so they can be spayed and neutered but so far, no joy.
Our house may not be the sweetest-smelling in the neighborhood and we may be thinking of buying major stock in the kitty litter industry, but cats know they’re always welcome here.
Molly’s kids are in high school now -- no one warned me about teenagers (my mother always told me it was just me), the husband has moved on, the three original dogs are gone and four more have taken their place. But the cat thing has worked out so well and I love every one we’ve ever raised and every round belly I’ve ever smooched.
I just think it’s time to end this small-time tomfoolery and hit the big time. Sure, we could handle fifty cats or even a hundred. As long as I can remember all their names, there aren’t too many.
Maybe we can give them all pipes and shoo them into Grampa’s room.