Preview of Coming Attractions

Over the next several months, I will be traveling across the country in search of cat stories, visiting innovative cat rescues and shelters, interviewing eccentric cat lovers, leading vets and behaviorists and so much more. To view my travel schedule and learn more about my Cat Behaviorist business, please visit . If I will be in your area and you feel you have some interesting cat stories to share, please don't hesistate to contact me via my website.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Cedarhill Sanctuary, Caledonia, Mississippi: Feline Self-Determination

Without a doubt, Cedarhill Sanctuary, in Caledonia, Mississippi has created the most appealing residence for rescued cats that I have experienced thus far.

Kay McElroy, the founder and director of Cedarhill, explained, “Free will is the key. These cats all get to make a choice about where and how they live. I respect them as individuals.” Her instincts helped to create a paradise for discarded domestic cats from all over the country and even the world. She took in 53 Katrina cats, but also accepted seven cats from Greece, along with dozens of others that needed refuge and a good home each with its own unique history.

She started as a rescue for Big Cats (Lions and Tigers, as well as Cougars)—and there are plenty of those too. ”There is no question, people’s interest in the Big Cats helps fund this sanctuary for over 200 domestic cats, as well. Not to mention the dogs and horses.”

Kay stresses, “This is not a zoo. Zoos are for people. I am very selective about who gets to visit Cedarhill, because this is a sanctuary, it is all about the animals here.”

Essentially, there are four different options for the Cedarhill domestic cats. The Senior House for older cats and those with special medical needs (though there are also a couple of younger, healthy cats that insisted on moving in and have settled nicely with their elders.) The Senior house includes a large kitchen for meal preparation, dish sterilization and load after load of laundry. The 50 cats live in four large rooms, a screened in porch and a serene enclosed backyard.

The next option is a ½ acre outdoor enclosure complete with trees to climb, a play fort, cubbies, and four climate controlled cottages. All 150 cats are free to roam the entire enclosure and sleep wherever they please. In two of the cottages, the sleeping arrangements are more individual (cat beds rest on shelves that create divisions of space), and in two they are more communal (essentially beds, where 20 cats will curl up in one big heap.) The more independent cats tend to prefer the cottages with the shelves, while other cats like the cuddle cottages.

Some cats don’t adjust well to communal life on such a grand scale and they are divided into small groupings of 4 or 5 cats with their own cottage and enclosure, separate from the large group. Kay has only had two cats that had a violent response to sharing space with others. For one, his sociability issues were resolved with anti-depressant medication. With another, he needed his own private enclosure. “In truth, I think he just likes being on his own. I tried reintroducing him to the large enclosure after a few years, but he was very clear that he wanted his own space. He is the only cat I have had that is willing to fight to the death. But when he is alone, he has a very sweet disposition. They are all different and I try to respect that.”

Some cats wander the larger property, making their homes in heated cubbies. While some others prefer to stay in the main house with Kay.

Cedarhill doesn’t use any volunteers. All of the staff are paid professionals, selected for their love of animals and willingness to treat all of the animals with the utmost care and compassion. Cleaning of the interior spaces happens twice a day, litter boxes are scooped three times a day (and there are a lot of litter boxes), cats are fed and medicated as needed, and all of the staff also spend quality time with the cats. “Sometimes, I will just lay on the mattress with the cats and let them all love on me at once.” Says the staffer who works with the Senior cats five days a week.

As Kay and I entered the Senior House, about 20 cats trotted over to greet us, all rubbing heads against each other in shared excitement. I took off my sweater, as it was very warm indoors and one dottering kitty obliged me by depositing a good dose of his scent on it. My bad. The group radiated good health, with plush coats and bright eyes, only when I stroked their spines did I feel those tell-tale protrusions that give away a cat’s advancing age. Otherwise I would have thought they were much younger. “I feed them Felidae. My holistic vet recommended it highly and I think it shows in their coats.”

We received a similar greeting when we entered the large enclosure, a swell of head butting, allo-grooming cats hurried to greet us. We visited each cottage and Kay greeted each cat by name, laughing about the ‘orange mafia’—a particularly clickish group of orange tabbies that band together through thick and thin. In the red cottage, Kay points out a grey tabby, “She is quite a character, she always has a big, black boyfriend. This one is her third. With each one, she lets him sleep with her and attend to her with grooming and companionship, then suddenly one day, she’ll spurn him. Doesn’t want anything more to do with him, and she’ll pick another black tom to hang with. The previous one lasted for three years, now she ignores him.”

As we sit in the red cottage, several low level spats occur. An odd hiss here and there, an occasional bat of a sheathed claw. “Do these encounters ever escalate to a full scale fight?” I ask.

“Only with the two cats I mentioned before—one was cleared up with medication, the other can’t be with other cats. But otherwise, no, just the occasional stand-off like what you have witnessed.”

“And how do you respond?”

“Usually, I really don’t have to. They are communicating ‘I want this sleeping spot.’ ‘Move over’ ‘Let me eat in peace’.”

I wondered if some of the escalating aggression cases I have seen are really a three way interaction. Cat hisses at cat, person reacts with extreme concern or scolding which escalates the pattern and inadvertently encourages repetition. Perhaps a more hands off approach would be much better, except in the most extreme cases. Here are a 150 cats that interact constantly without fighting. Kay understands that hissing is just a feline way of saying “Back off” and doesn’t warrant a scolding or human intervention, perhaps that is part of why it works here.

For more information about Cedarhill Animal Sanctuary please visit their website at

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