Hello. My name is Julianne, and I’m a packrat. Okay, maybe a hoarder. A border hoarder. I’m able to throw things away, but it takes focused resolve and a commitment to not pull things from the Goodwill pile before they can make it out the door. And I do get rid of things. Junk. But not nearly enough of it. My bookshelves are not just crammed with books, and books stacked on top of books, but in front of the books are crowds of knicknacks. Greeting cards I can’t bear to throw away, executive toys I haven’t played with since the seventies, more clocks than anyone could need, collections of stones inscribed with inspiring words like “faith” and “peace,” a faux Roman coin I bought in a souvenir shop in Carlisle…junk. I tell myself that the only reason the path through my office is so narrow is that my daughter and grandsons are temporarily housed in my guest room and my stored belongings needed to go somewhere. I watch hoarder shows on cable and tell myself that at least there IS a path through my office and I keep it sanitary.
I have a friend who acknowledges her shopping/hoarding problem only because she has rooms she can’t enter because they’re too full of stuff she bought but never opened. Stacks of that stuff have fallen against the inside of the door. I tell myself I’m not a hoarder. Just a packrat. I come by it naturally; my dad was constitutionally incapable of throwing anything away. After he passed, it was discovered he had about a dozen BB guns stashed here and there for no particular reason. They were found amid the books, magazines, old slides, model airplanes, model cars, shot glasses…
He kept them clean and more or less organized, so you see…packrat, not hoarder.
Scariest among the hoarders are the people who have too many cats or dogs. Folks with fifty or a hundred or a couple hundred animals. Sometimes living in such horrible, filthy conditions they have to be rescued from the people who thought they were the rescuers. I see these folks pop up on Animal Planet often. Among normal people there’s a fascination with cat owners who don’t see they are so overwhelmed by the urge to nurture they can’t see the harm they’re doing. I know the urge, and I’ve struggled with it myself. Taking in cats can be a slippery slope. Every homeless animal makes me want to take him or her home. People who know I’m a sucker for cats and kittens always think of me first when they encounter a stray or a pet they can’t keep. But I have to turn them away, because I know exactly my cat limit. It’s 2.5.
Well, yeah, it’s incredibly hard to find that half a cat, so I waffle between two and three. I currently stand at two, am mulling taking on one more kitten, but am resisting the urge by imagining the extra cat hair, litter box, vet bills, and especially the pissing wars that can break out when personalities clash. Over the past thirty years of cat and dog ownership as an adult, these are things I know well.
Tasha was the first cat my husband and I took in after moving to Tennessee. She was a young adult shorthair tortie who appeared one day and stayed with us for a few years.
In the late eighties my husband brought home three abandoned littermates. Four cats was plainly too many. We found a home for one of them. Later Tasha disappeared; I like to think she was taken in by someone in the new condos behind us, the way we’d done. We were then left with Spot and Star. Star, a calico, disappeared almost immediately after we moved in ’93. Spot was, of course, a striped shorthair tabby. (What else does one name a striped cat but Spot?) So for the next seven years we held steady at one cat. All was under control.
But then my daughter brought home an orange-and-white stray Ragamuffin kitten, about six weeks old. He looked like a fluffy creme-sicle. Silas was the best cat buddy I’ve ever had. I knew the instant I saw him he was special, though he’d been rejected, dejected, neglected, infected, and infested in just about every way possible. The vet wasn’t certain he would live, but he did, and he turned out to be filled with relentless life. I nicknamed him Zoom Kitty, because as a kitten he had two speeds: all engines full, and asleep. He lived up to all the wonderful things you hear about Ragamuffins. All was well, with two cats, until Spot passed away at the age of thirteen. and Silas lost his second mommy. He was ten months old.
The following year my husband brought home a six-week-old female who had come into the bus yard riding in the engine compartment of a pickup truck. We named her Aeryn, and later I identified her as possibly a Siberian mix of some sort. She looked very much like a Siberian. (Thank you, Animal Planet and Cats 101.)
Then, while I was away on a research trip to Scotland in ’03, I phoned home and received news of a new kitten that had followed my daughter home. It had only been three months since we’d acquired Aeryn, but one more cat didn’t seem out of line. Marley was a blonde medium-hair, who as a kitten closely resembled Bill the Cat from Bloom County. He grew into a pretty guy (a pretty fat guy), but at first he looked very much like the sort of kitten one would get from a homeless teenager who couldn’t take care of him. Which is what my daughter had done.
That was when we tipped to half a cat too many.
Straight away Marley’s presence brought trouble. Not his fault, but when my daughter brought him into the household she neglected to take him to the vet. When I returned from Scotland, I assumed she had. For the next several weeks she kept giving him baths to get rid of fleas, which puzzled me because I’d assumed some topical flea killer would have been part of the vet visit. What I finally discovered was that there had been no vet visit, and Marley had brought in fleas and tapeworms.
It took three weeks. Four sets of medications for three cats and two dogs, two bug bombings, the yard sprayed (twice), topical flea killer for everyone (twice), and two hundred dollars later, we were finally free of tapeworms and fleas. From then on, no unvetted cats for me.
The difference between two cats and three is much more than the difference between one and two. The third cat seems to double the hair, the expense, and the behavioral issues. Marley was mellow enough, but the pissing wars weren’t pretty. At one point the kitchen stove became disputed territory, and I assure you there is no stench more appalling than burning cat piss. Also, Marley liked to chase Aeryn around the house as if he’d forgotten he was fixed, and we discovered Aeryn was epileptic. Stress triggered her seizures. We’d always known she had a screw loose, and now we knew why.
So…we were learning that though having two cats might seem to leave room for another, three cats was just a teensy bit too much.
But then my daughter began bringing home every stray kitten that crossed her path. I had to tell her to find another place for them. I was at my limit, and when a friend of mine died, leaving behind her eleven-year-old cat named Smoky Blue, I had to dig in my heels. As much as I would have loved to save every kitten on the planet, space and resources are always finite. Even the ASPCA knows that. Smoky went to another friend.
But two months later Silas died of heart failure, a problem common in Ragdolls and Ragamuffins. Meanwhile, Smoky was being handed from one adoptive family to another, unable to get along with other cats. A few months after Silas died, yet a third friend of mine told me she was going to be forced to take Smoky to a shelter because she couldn’t keep him and nobody wanted an eleven-year-old cat with bad habits. I volunteered to take him, though that put me back at half a cat too many.
Smoky was a cat and a half. He really should have been an only cat, but there was no choice in our house but to get along with the other residents. But Smoky was also in poor health. After a year and a half of chronic barfing, inappropriate peeing, hair loss, weight loss, and general crankiness, we learned he was suffering from kidney failure. We put him on an expensive prescription cat food and consulted with the vet regarding end-of-life strategy. His condition improved, we put down pee pads in the one spot he chose to visit (the doorway into my office), and closed him into my office at night to reduce the competition for territory and expensive prescription cat food.
The other thing with Smoky was that he’d been declawed. I hate that euphemism, declawed. One should say “The cat was scratching the sofa, so we took him down and had his front toes cut off.” I learned that many of Smoky’s least desirable behaviors are common in declawed cats. They can’t scratch, so instead they bite. They can’t jump and climb. They can’t balance. They’re crippled in ways humans often don’t understand, and it makes the cat cranky. All we could do was keep Smoky safe and fed.
Then my mother-in-law had to move in with some cousins who were allergic to cats, and she had to get rid of her beloved Maine Coon, Muffin. My husband asked if we could take the cat. I hoped another accommodation could be made, but when it became plain my MIL would have to lose the cat forever, I agreed to take her. We were up to four adult cats now, and none of them going anywhere.
Muffin was a five year old only cat, and poorly socialized. When she came to us it took a full month to get her to come out from under the bed in the guest room. The first time I found her sitting on top of the bed, and she let me tippytoe in and take her onto my lap, it was a major victory. I’d never in my life seen a cat purr and growl at the same time. She left after a minute, but next time she stayed longer, and eventually she was sleeping on my bed and taking up more than her half.
The Gang of Four were almost never all in the same room. Smoky owned the office. Muffin had the top of my bed and Aeryn slept inside the box spring. Marley had the kitchen and living room. Muffin guarded the litter box in the bathroom, so I had to set up another one in the guest room. But then I took in a boarder. She lived in the guest room.
With her cat.
Sassy stayed in the guest room, with her own private box. We didn’t see much of her, but Aeryn would sit by the door and sniff underneath it with the hairs standing up on the back of her neck. I felt the pissing wars coming on. Five cats in the house was more than I could take. They required more attention than I could give. There were twice as many cats as there should have been, but there was nothing I could do about it. Every day was a struggle for normalcy, every evening a ballet to get everyone fed the correct food in the correct amount without conflict. The dust bunnies in my house all had real fur. It was that way for about six months.
Then the boarder moved out with her cat. Shortly after, my mother-in-law left her cousin’s house to take an apartment near us, and reclaimed Muffin. It was a happy day when Muffin went back to her real mommy. I was attached, but everyone was happier this way and I was tickled that my mother-in-law hadn’t given away her cat to a stranger.
Then, alas, five years after we took Smoky in he finally passed away from the kidney problem. He’d been on the expensive prescription cat food for more than three times as long as the vet’s best-case prognosis. He was approximately sixteen years old, and it was time.
Last December we lost Marley to liver failure at the age of thirteen. He’s now buried in the back yard with Spot, Silas, Smoky, and two dogs, Ziggy and Riley. We were down to just one cat, Aeryn, for the first time since Silas came in 2000, and Aeryn was the same age as Marley. Plainly this would never do. I looked around, wondering where to find a kitten. I’d never had to actually look for a kitten before. They all just were brought to me. It felt very strange.
So I signed up for a pet-finding online service. The first email I got had a picture of a fluffy gray-and-white female who was marked like Silas, but had odd-looking eyes. It turned out she’d been born prematurely, without eyelids, and had required surgery to enable her to close her eyes and save her sight. The cat rescue who’d taken her in, FLUFF, had paid for surgery for her and two littermates. When I met her she sat on my lap and wouldn’t budge. Her medium-length fur was so soft she sometimes slid. I took her home and named her Morrighan.
Now I’m finding kittens everywhere. I want them all, but know I can’t take them all. Morrighan is my shadow and my lap magnet, and she makes me laugh exactly as Silas used to. I’m holding steady at two cats. See…packrat, not hoarder.