RETIREMENT IN STYLE
June 13, 2003 11:00 pm
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Pilot story and photos

by Susan Schell

CRESCENT CITY – The world can be a cruel place for an unwanted cat. A missing eye, a mangled foot, or just not being cute can spell disaster for a homeless cat.

Death sentences are handed to "unadoptable" cats whose only crime is not being born perfect.

Chris and Hal McChesney would like to give some of those cats a second chance. The couple's home is a ray of hope; a shining beacon for felines in distress. The McChesneys operate F.A.T. (For All Time) Cat Haven out of their home near Lake Earl, north of Crescent City.

The nonprofit, publicly funded haven is dedicated to taking care of unwanted cats.

Unlike most shelters, F.A.T. Cat provides a lifetime care facility for cats, not just a temporary home. Senior citizens or the terminally ill can pre-plan the care of their pets in the event of their own death.

The F.A.T. Cat literature reads: "Every cat you see here and many more are at F.A.T. Cat Haven because their owners could no longer care for them. Many are here because their person died leaving their once adored cat(s) homeless."

Each cat has its own story and it's usually a sad one. Pepper and Tigger's owner died. The cats were found in the home 10 days later. They had survived without food or water.

"The woman's daughter didn't know what to do with them," Chris said.

"She found our brochure at U.S. Bank and contacted us. She said finding us was a life-saver."

Another cat, Bunny, has had deformed legs since birth. Ruffles is deaf. Twinkie was found in a wood pile someone was about to torch.

The McChesneys strive to create a comfortable, loving environment for their 114 orphaned cats. Their four-acre parcel of land is designed around them.

Each new cat is temporarily quarantined in a cage until their health needs are assessed. They are introduced slowly into the general population.

"We don't just throw them out into the compound," said Chris.

"Some of these animals have come from traumatic situations. We try to reduce the stress as much as possible."

If cats are declawed, they are automatically indoor cats.

"They can't protect themselves without claws," Chris said.

The "cat room" is set up for indoor-outdoor cats. Shelves lined with blankets and beds offer a cozy lounging spot. Two small doors cut into the wall lead into the utility room where the cats' food is. The utility room then has a door to the outside.

Located adjacent to the house is another structure, the "cat house."

"We have the only legal cat house in Del Norte County," Chris jokes.

The cat house is a narrow, long building lined entirely with shelves and bedding. The house is insulated and heated; several space heaters are attached to the walls to provide warmth. Cat doors allow access to the outside.

Along the baseboard is a symbol of Hal's ingenuity. A long food trough supplies food through an opening cut into the wall. On the other side of the wall is the garage, where Hal has built feed bins which are kept full of dry food. The feed bins empty into the food tray on the other side of the wall, supplying farm-style feeding so the cats have constant access to food.

"Anything we can do to make it easier," Hal said.

The couple's lone pooch, Callie, has free reign of the outside area. The Great Pyrenees provides "critter patrol" to the back yard.

"Raccoons and possums try to eat the food," Chris explained.

"A grown raccoon can kill a cat. Callie keeps the territory safe."

Cats that prefer the outdoors enjoy the use of the "sanctuary." The McChesney's open land is encircled with a fence, "but the cats don't know they're closed in," Chris said. "They think they're free."

A huge portion of the sanctuary is an unimproved wooded area.

The cats at the haven appear to be perfectly content. They're well-fed, loved and taken care of.

Chris McChesney laments the fact that most cat owners want kittens and shy away from adult cats.

"When you adopt an older cat, they're so grateful," she said. "They know they've been saved. They know they have a home."

Chris keeps a computer database on all the cats' pertinent information: their names, age and when they will need shots. Of course, vet bills for 114 cats can be overwhelming.

"We have a vet account set up at Dr. Tardiff's office at the Crescent Animal Medical Center. People can donate to that account," Chris said.

The haven also accepts donations of money, property and food.

"If a cat will live a quality life by going through surgery, we'll do it. We just figure out what we'll have to do to afford it, eat beans for a month, whatever it takes. The cats come first."

The couple would like to eventually provide a boarding facility for vacationing pet owners.

"We need a travel trailer to put pens in," Chris said. "If we had one of those, we could take in boarders."

The McChesneys put everything into the care of the cats. They would have it no other way.

"Cats are great for health reasons," Hal said. "Nothing soothes better than the purr of a cat."