We have 11 cats. That sounds like a lot of cats. That is a lot of cats.
Melissa is a big hearted soul, and I am sure whatever she is doing right now involves eliminating cruelty in this world. To that end, we somehow became the crazy cat and dog people that people warn their childless adult kids about.
Melissa moved to Tempe in 1997 and quickly developed a cadre of felines that grew dependent on her kindness. All told, including the 11 current cats, she had a direct hand in the lives of at least 30 other cats. She had an indirect impact in probably hundreds more. Most of those were ferals that she would either regularly feed, that she caught to assist in getting fixed and homed, or both. All of our current 11 were feral cats that joined her colony. They range in age from 1 to 15.
I do not mind the cats, in fact, we have a mutual respect for each other that has grown into love. However, make no mistake, the cats were her endeavor. In the end they are all family and I will do everything in my power to make sure they are safe, happy, healthy, clean, and fed.
I hate to admit that one of the first thoughts that came in to my head during all of this was "what the f*** am I going to do with 11 cats?". It just popped in there along with the more serious questions. I made a promise to her and to myself that first night that I am going to see them through. It is what she wanted, and so it is what she will get. We have 11 cats because she loved all animals and could not stand to think of any animal suffering or going without. My days now start and end with feeding the cats and dogs, cleaning their areas, and making sure they are protected.
Care for all the cats and dogs takes about two hours each day, not including play times, walks, or other special projects. The mornings consist of feeding the dogs, letting them out to play, feeding the inside cats (five total), making the next day's kongs for the dogs (frozen overnight), letting the dogs back in to eat frozen kongs, restuffing the ice pack pouches for the outside cats (six total), refreshing the outside cats water and dry food bowls, feeding the outside cats with wet food, removing and replacing the previous day's thawed ice packs with re-frozen packs, giving the outside cats their meds, cleaning the outside cat boxes, cleaning the inside cat boxes, and if necessary doing a load of laundry for towels, blankets, and ice pack pouches.
The evenings consist of feeding the dogs, letting them out to play, feeding the inside cats and giving them their meds where needed, feeding the outside cats and giving meds, cleaning up any messes, and spending time with each group to make sure they feel loved and needed.
I am not complaining with any of this. Far from it, actually. There is a meditative quality to the process, especially in the evenings. It is a time to reflect, and in some cases to have one-sided conversations with Melly.
Melissa followed this process almost every day from 15 years. She would finish her work and then find time in her otherwise packed days to do all everything. She did this, every day and every night, simply because she felt an amazing amount of love for all of these creatures.
I think on this as I continue her work. Feeding and caring for all of these animals was, in a way, part of her calling. They all exist today because she existed to provide care for them, to love them and make sure that they knew she considered them family. The dogs show their gratitude, the way that dogs show gratitude for everything. The cats are harder to read. A cat is just as likely to ignore you as he is to cut you just to watch you bleed. In their own ways I know the cats are grateful. In their own ways I know that they too are grieving.
When we were looking for our new house we spent several months searching for a place that had just the right yard to accommodate our menagerie. At this point, 2011, Melissa had been taking care of the Tempe cats for about 10 years. She had established our house as a regular stop for several of the local feral cats. Our worry was that if we left they would lose the one steady source of food and vet care they could count on. So, without much need for convincing on her part, I drew up plans to build a large open air enclosure to house our crew.
We eventually found our house here in central Phoenix, and after four months of late nights renovating the inside for us and building the enclosure out back for the cats, we moved in. The outdoor enclosure follows the perimeter of our yard and is roughly 25 feet wide at it's widest and 9 feet tall throughout. It covers roughly 1500 square feet of our yard, including an swamp cooled garden shed that they have unencumbered access to whenever they like. The structure covers gardens, a sand pit, grass and gravel. It has tunnels and literal cat walks. Solar cells power lights at night, and each cat has access to a homemade igloo for the hot summer days. It includes multiple chairs and a hammock and in general is a great place to spend a late afternoon reading a book. In a lot of ways these cats live better than I do these days, and that is a testament to just how much she loved and cared for them, and to how much I have to live up to.
The cats, being cats, put up a big show of their indifference to all of this. There do not see anything special about some human spending on average $6 a day to make sure they are fed and taken care of. Cats are still jerks, for obvious reasons, but she loved them and now so do I.