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COMMUNITY VOICE

My Aunt Millie was right: Cats are a lot like people, especially when it comes to handouts

Sunday, January 20, 2013 - 12:01 am

My Aunt Millie is a cat woman.

Not in the same vein as Julie Newmar or Halle Berry, of course, nor is she prone to wearing black spandex. No, I'm simply talking about cats — real cats, and lots of them.

Being in her 80s and a widow for more than two decades, she remained active. She was involved in her church. She bowled regularly and kept in regular contact with friends and relatives. But there was an emptiness each time she returned to an empty house.

Perhaps it was fate that one day as she stepped outside of the back door, to her surprise there was a stray calico kitten meowing and appearing hungry. Of course Aunt Millie's maternal instincts took over and she instantly brought the stray inside and offered a bowl of milk. As the cat eagerly lapped up the milk, Aunt Millie felt her heart melt, and right there and then she adopted the young feline. She couldn't resist the aura of the kitten being a victim and alone, plus, combined with those innocent cat eyes, well that was all it took. In Aunt Millie's world, all was well.

She enjoyed the time with her new kitten. In the evening when watching her favorite television shows, the cat would crawl up next to her on the couch purring contentedly. When the weather was warmer, she would sit in the backyard and watch the cat chasing butterflies. The cat eased her loneliness and gave her a warm feeling that she had done the right thing by bringing the cat into her home, for she had also convinced herself that if she hadn't then this wonderful friend might have perished in an unfair world.

My Aunt Millie had lived in the same farm house that she had shared with her husband when he was alive. So it really came as no surprise one morning when she heard her adopted kitten meowing and scratching at the back door, and when she opened the door to see what was causing her pet such concern. Low and behold, there was another cat. This one was an older stray with stripes. But as with the first cat, Aunt Millie just couldn't turn her back. And so, this cat, too, was welcomed into her home. Being a good Methodist, she believed it was the Christian thing to do.

Shortly afterwards, Aunt Millie wrote me a letter telling about her newfound friends. In the letter, she apocalyptically wrote, “You know, cats are a lot like people.”

But then another cat showed up. And then another and another. At first Aunt Millie, understanding the dilemma of having too many cats under her roof, tried to appease the cats by putting plates of food outside. During the Indiana winters, she saw to it that the now increasing number of cats would get warmth in the barn.

Soon there were eight cats, and then 10. And still they kept coming. Aunt Millie continued to put out the plates of food believing she had no choice. For the younger cats, she would take them inside out of fear that they would not survive the elements. But they would ultimately stay inside. At first, she kept up with the strain of the ever-increasing number, even with those who took for granted they were now house cats.

It got to the point that Aunt Millie lost track of just how many cats had come to depend on her food and shelter. Between the indoor cats and those relegated to the outdoors, 20 became 30, and still they came. Wherever there was a stray, they sniffed out the Purina Cat Chow and the Little Friskies that my Aunt put outside, and once they found the free food, they stayed. There were people who, looking for a way to free themselves of unwanted cats and learning of my Aunt's obsession, would drive by and dump their cats into my Aunt's care. My Aunt couldn't help herself and looked the other way.

I had learned of the digression from another relative and one day stopped in to visit my Aunt. I was astounded by what I saw. The cats had taken over the house. It appeared they no longer saw the need to visit the litter box and left their extractions wherever they deemed appropriate. Cat hair was everywhere, and the smell was nauseating. Toys filled with catnip littered the floor and what had been beautiful and well-cared-for furniture was now shredded from cat claws and covered with cat hair. I found grocery store receipts showing that my Aunt was spending more money on food for cats than she was for herself. It was evident she was sacrificing her own nutritional intake in order to feed the freeloading cats. But Aunt Millie seemed not to notice that anything was out of order.

“Aunt Millie, this is ridiculous. These cats have taken over your house. You've got to do something about this. This is not healthy,” I declared.

“If I don't care for these wonderful creatures, what will happen to them?” she asked with all sincerity.

“They will survive. You must stop offering freebies to every cat who lives within a 50-mile radius. You cannot afford it. They are destroying this house and judging by how much weight you've lost, they are destroying you as well!”

My aunt paid no attention to me that day, not to anyone else who tried to reason with her. Not so long ago, she had a mini-stroke. When emergency responders entered the house, they were shocked by what they saw in what had become a cat community. Adult Protective Services got involved and declared what had once been a wonderful home was now uninhabitable. Today, my Aunt Millie lives in a nursing home and in the meantime, I and other relatives were working with the local animal shelter to work out a worthy arrangement for close to 40 cats. I keep thinking back to my Aunt Millie's words, and she was right: Cats are a lot like people.

I wonder if President Obama is a cat person?

Bob Rinearson is a resident of Fort Wayne.