What Do You Do When You Inherit +/- 18 Cats?!
as featured on Care2.com April 27th, 2012
(the unabridged version)
am not that woman. Even if every cat in Queens says I am.
I'm definitely not that crazy cat woman running around with cases of
food and traps, driving miles every day to feed colonies of feral cats. Absolutely not. My mother (Dottie) was the one feeding every cat in
Queens to the point that her yard has more cats than acorns (my cousin Lesli
calls it "your kitty garden").
Mom wasn't that woman either, but she inherited all these hungry cats when an elderly neighbor, who had been feeding the neighborhood cats for years but unable to spay or neuter*, passed away. All those cats then followed the invisible soup kitchen sign that only cats can see, and moved into my mother's yard.
I got the benefit of seeing their adorable faces when I visited,
and the occasional cartoon idea, but they weren't my cats.... my
life.... my onus. I had two cats, see. The
end. Just enough to drain my pocket book, just too much for my asthma -
Until the awful day in May of 2009 when my mom died. OMG. No one can imagine the nightmare, the pressure, the crush of responsibility, on top of losing my mother, to inherit somewhere in the neighborhood of 18-22 cats: two indoor girls, Jackie & Sandra (aka The Piranha Sisters) that Aunt Betty thankfully took home with her, and +/-18 ferals in the yard (Ruby, Cindy, Opal, Bangs, Snake, Hahn, Smudge, Garnet, Peach, Jack A., Jack C., Slug, Sandy, Penny and Pearls. Those are the regulars that we see every day. The +/- are Tom, The Alamo, Black Shuck and a handful of others that are, as my grandmother used to say, "sometimey".
And not just cats! After a 2.5 year illness, my mother's house was a wreck. And I don't mean messy or dirty. The house just turned 100 years old. It was decrepit. It had good bones and great potential, but the kitchen floor was so worn you could see through parts of it to the basement. There were these 50-year old things my mother called "linoleum rugs" on every floor that she thought were vintage gems and wouldn't pull up even though there was no discernible pattern on them anymore. Pieces of tin paneling in the upstairs bathroom were standing at a 35º angle to the wall, forcing you to lean to one side while you pee, omg. Finally, never to be topped, was the unmitigated catastrophe of the half-finished ground-floor bathroom, intended to ease my poor mother's life in her infirmity, halted in the middle by a spiteful contractor and held up in Buildings Department for more than a year (my poor mother died waiting for that bathroom to be done, a thorn that will stick forever in my side, but that's a story for another forum). There were bare sheet rock walls, exposed electrical wires and an entire floor of 1" hexagonal tiles, glued down but never grouted, that would trip you if you even looked at them crosswise. If finished, a brand new ground floor bathroom would add great value to the house. Half finished, it was worse than useless.
And Opal had just had kittens.
It was just a Hindenburg zeppelin. You couldn't just clean it up and rent it. For all the same reasons, I couldn't live in it. Nor sell it. No one in their right mind would buy this pit. The only interest I might have gotten would be from developers who would tear it down and build something new. Which would have been fine with me (and any sane person in my shoes would have pocketed the money and run away to the Caymans). Except:
What about the cats? My mother's dying wish was that they be taken care of. Her yard is their home. Most of them were born there. It's the only place they know. They've eaten every meal of their lives on her back step. They've never had to fend for themselves. Some of them have never been out of the yard (except Jack A. on garbage day. He walks out front, crisscrossing the street from bin to bin on garbage pick-up day scavenging, bless him. He's very resourceful. He's also the great, great, great, grandcat of Cow who used to do the same thing - to my unending horror. But I digress).
Their "habitat," if you can call it that, has already shrunk (with the encroaching development) from all the connecting backyards on our block a few years ago, to only five. The house directly next door to mine went to developers last year, and what was previously a single family home identical to mine with a yard full of tulips is now a 4-storey building that extends all the way to the back fence.
A sale of my house (which is the heart and hearth of their turf) to anyone would cost these cats their way of life. Sale to a developer, and the bedlam of demolition would drive them out into the street where they would encounter... who knows what. A shattering ordeal at best. +/- 18 tragedies at worst.
I see their sweet faces out there, the grass up to their noses on a summer day, or sprinting to the cover of Sissy's deck in January snow. I'm not that crazy cat lady. And with chronic asthma, a freelance artist's income ($0) and the sands racing through the hourglass of my life (leaving zero time for the art which is my calling), I am the least suitable person on earth to inherit this menagerie. But neither am I the monster that's going to blow up their world and toss them out to a cruel, unknown fate in the street.
It was like inheriting a Rubik's Cube. What do you do with a money guzzling house, 18 cats, asthma, and zero income? With her two pensions and social security, my mother could sustain a big, dusty old house and all those cats. I can sometimes count the dollars I make in a month on my fingers and toes. Where was I going to get $3800 every month, starting today?! Yea, Mom left something, but it wasn't enough to care for 18 cats and the sinking Titanic.
Within a few deflating phone calls I was completely disabused of any notions I had of cat relocation. Every agency you think would be the one to handle a feral cat relocation, doesn't. Adoption is impossible. They're feral. Or, to be perfectly accurate, they're just feral enough to be unadoptable. Just tame enough to be dependent. A disastrous combination for them.
Top of the do-list was that they had to stop having babies. +/- 18 cats of childbearing age could not be allowed to grow to whatever exponential number they had the potential for if left to decide the matter themselves. Not on my budget, anyway. I had a local TNR** group come out and help me trap, neuter and spay all the cats (well not all the cats - we can't catch Bangs). And I bought them a few insulated shelters for the harsh days of winter. That was an unknown number of new problems prevented. But not an answer to the question of how we were all going to eat.
I slept very little in those initial months after Mom died. All I did, 24-hours a day (when I wasn't killing my back clearing out the house, or dissolving in puddles of tears), is stare into space and turn this Rubik's Cube around and around and around and around in my mind. The sides never lined up. I was sick with anxiety. If I slept at all, I dreamed of cats. Kittens. Cats having kittens. Kittens having kittens. Me having kittens. And all of us living in my yard.
When my father died in October and his aide offered me his kitten, Bochiche, I almost slapped her.
I could take a tenant and just tell them the yard belongs to the cats. But what if I got a bad one? Anyone I've ever known with rental properties eventually got a deadbeat tenant who didn't pay their rent. My friend Tom had a guy who wouldn't pay the rent and was a drug dealer. He had guns and pit bulls and people pulling up in cars at every hour. It can take 8-10 months to evict a bad tenant. Are you kidding me? One month of that and I'd be bankrupt. That is out of the question.
The only time the sides of the Rubik's Cube almost lined up was with the idea of vacation rentals. As in renting the house for short periods to tourists. This idea, if it worked, would solve most, if not all, of my problems: I don't have to sell in a bad market. I don't have to gamble on a tenant. The house makes an income. The cats keep their yard. All options stay open. I can change gears at any time. The house is available within a month at most if I need to chuck it all and move in. Vacationers need less, and will pay more. A renovation for this purpose could be done very quickly, and cost much less. It really seemed feasible. Which is to say, completely mental (I mean, who does this? Keep a falling down house to maintain 18 feral yard cats?)... but feasible.
After a true nervous breakdown of indecision, I took the leap. I took the bit of money Mom left and put it into a simple renovation. I did, no joke, about 50 years worth of work in 11 months. It took way longer and a near heart attack more money than it should have, but Dottie Jane's NYC Vacation Rental opened for business in June 2010. It is NYC's first cat-centric vacation rental house. Our mission: No Cat Left Behind. I designed a super cute website, listed on 3 vacation rental databases, and got 4 bookings in the first month. And a student film crew who used the house as a set for their year end project!
About halfway through the renovation, when I was almost broke, and still without a relocation plan for the cats, I started writing letters to cat food companies asking for donations. Here's what happens when you ask cat food companies for donations of food for homeless cats:
I wrote every cat food company in the country. BIG companies, you
know the ones, to whom a year's supply of cat food to me would be a grain of
sand on their Malibu Beach. From 5 of the 6 major cat food companies, not
even the courtesy of reply! From the 6th I got a $2.00 coupon!
(That is two dollars in case you thought it was a typo.) If I
wasn't so poor, I would have sent it back to them (with a token of thanks from
my kitty garden).
Just one group - one in all the many that I wrote, and the smallest - found the love in their hearts to give me a donation of cat food to pull us through the worst of the crisis. They generously gave me a $1000, one-time donation of cat food, wet and dry, and even delivered it right to the door. The only condition they placed on the gift was that I swear to never say who gave it lest they be inundated with demands. I swore. And I won't ever tell. I am so grateful for that gift. That cat food lasted almost a year. Without it, I don't know how I would have fed those cats.
Dottie Jane's has since had 48 guests, and earned multiple 5-star ratings on TripAdvisor.com. I am routinely complimented on the stylish renovation and the heartfelt mission. And the cats, all +/- 18 of them, have not yet missed a meal. They can be seen out back at any time of day, enjoying the sun, peeking out of their insulated shelters, having a snack, or chasing leaves. It's a beautiful thing.
But there are constant threats from the development all around us. NYC developers give little thought to animal welfare where rental income can be found. A few of our cats have gone missing. Garnet turned up with a broken leg. Little Cindy is always sick. I worry about them constantly. And I’m physically exhausted. I live on pills and puffers, with even less time than before to devote to the art and The Pride Cartoon which are my life's true calling. And while the Spring, Summer and Fall seasons have been booked solid, the Winters are consistently barren. From November through March I chew my nails to the quick and grind my wheels in an endless, sleepless loop of worry: Where is the money going to come from? How will I pay the mortgage? Will I ever be able to work? What am I going to do with all these cats?! ... omg... all these cats....
For now, I'm making it work. But this is not a viable long-term solution. The day is quickly approaching when I will just not be able to do this anymore. These cats need to be rescued. I need to be rescued. They need to be relocated to a sanctuary that's safe for cats with people of means who can protect and give them a better life. In the meantime, they need to eat. I am asking the animal-loving public to take pity on a poor artist and her +/- 18 inherited feral cats, and donate to their upkeep. A link to their PitchInBox is below. All help is hugely appreciated, and every dime goes directly into the mouths of the needy cats for whom it is intended (or to their vets).
And all suggestions are welcome for how/where to relocate this bunch. If you have an idea, don't hesitate to write me.
(PS: really... I'm NOT that crazy cat lady!)
* There were no free or low cost TNR programs then, so any cats that needed spaying and neutering were done on your own dime or not at all.
** TNR = trap, neuter and return, the most humane method for dealing with cat over-population.