By Adam Corelli (First Published 1993 Old Farmers’ Almanac)
KINGSTON, Ont.: IN THE BEAUTIFUL and historic Canadian city of Kingston (population 61,000), located at the eastern spout of Lake Ontario, live Jack and Donna Wright and their 640 cats. The Wrights have more cats living with them than any other home-owner in North America. The Wrights’ penchant for all things feline has made them famous.
They have appeared on television shows the world over. They have been in dozens of magazines and newspapers. Visitors, from veterinarians to the cat-curious, stream into their two-story home.
The cats seem content. They stand around, blinking, purring, and pouncing, doing the regular sorts of things that cats do. A small, furry mountain shimmers by the front door. Dozens of eyes blink and tails wave. The cats are curious and friendly. This living rug of cats at the entrance is not trying to escape the house. They simply want to crawl all over who-ever dares enter.
Within moments of coming in the door, I find nearly a dozen cats hanging from me. Claws gripping gently, they hang from my arms and legs, and a couple more, stretched thin, dangle down my back. One more has wrapped itself around my neck like a fur scarf.
For a brief eternity, a catatonic moment, I find myself wearing a live cat-hair coat. I remember that I am dogged by feline allergies.
Cats are everywhere in the Wrights’ house. They occupy all the chairs and tables. They sit in partly opened drawers. They lie in the sink, on the toilet seat, on the washing machine, and on the stove. They even manage to somehow obscure the giant television screen in the living room.
“When a film crew comes in, you can’t get rid of them,” laughs Jack. “They crawl all over the crew and the equipment. They get into boxes, go for the lights, and can’t wait to have their photos taken. They just love people.”
This multicultural crowd of cats assumes a cosmopolitan disdain: the Himalayan lives peacefully with the Burmese, Siamese, Persian, and Angora. The purebred coon cat seems more stylishly disheveled than the Heinz-57s it hangs out with. The cats enjoy each other immensely. They lie together in piles. They leap at each other. Indeed, after all their years of cat collecting, the Wrights can recollect only one fight, a cataclysmic brawl involving about 40 cats.
The house is surprisingly clean. The Wrights got rid of their rugs years ago to make cleanups easier. While there is an odor of ammonia and something else (cat breath, perhaps?), it is not disgusting. Hired help, as well as several friends, help to keep things in order.
Every cat has a name, although there are several duplicates (three Boots, three Taras). Amazingly, Jack can call out a name, and from the crowd of fur at one end of the room the sole cat beckoned will emerge.
“You know how people call a cat by saying,’Kitty kitty,”‘ Jack says. “I’ve got one named Kitty Kitty. When I call her, she’s the only one who will come forward.”
The Wrights have a lot of mouths to feed. Chow time runs 24 hours a day. Each day the cats eat 180 14-ounce cans of cat food plus about 50 pounds of dry food and nine quarts of milk. Holiday meals involve a dozen 20-pound turkeys, a few pot roasts, and dozens of cans of pink salmon and tuna. In return, the cats use up seven 20-pound bags of kitty litter each day, enough to fill nearly nine large garbage bags with waste.
The feeding frenzy takes place through-out the eight first-floor rooms in the Wrights’ 15-room house. It all begins each morning at 5:30, when 52-year-old Jack spends the first 20 minutes of his day at an electric can opener. He leaves food in giant bowls and on trays in each room before heading out to work (he and Donna, who is 47, run a painting and decorating business). All but one of the cats eats just enough and no more. The exception has an eating disorder that has made it obese.
“The cats are not greedy,” Jack says. “They will take only enough to make them happy.”
The Wrights’ extended family started more than 20 years ago, not too long after they were married, when they acquired Midnight. By 1981, when the cat family numbered 45, the Wrights moved to a bigger house. As the number kept increasing, so did their reputation within the community. Kingston has a large student population, thanks to Queen’s University. The collection kept growing as students and other locals, unable to continue caring for their cats, brought them to the Wrights.
By the beginning of 1987, the collection hit 145 cats. A family friend noticed that the tabloid National Inquirer was holding a contest to find out who had the most cats under one roof in North America. The Wrights entered, and not surprisingly, they won. Suddenly the press attention, as well as the cat population at 94 Elm Street, soared.
“It just snowballed,” Jack says. “People started coming from all over with their cats. We got them from Toronto, from Ottawa, from Cardinal [Ontario]. We’ve got some from Pennsylvania. There are cats from all over North America in this house.”
It wasn’t a conscious decision to attain feline fame. The Wrights could simply never turn away a pet in need. To this day, they always leave cat food on their front stoop for strays. The sign above the stoop reads Cat Crossing. Jack says the animals are peaceful; they bring him contentment, a purpose in life.
“The cats weren’t put on this earth to be put to sleep,” he says pleadingly. “The problem is that people who have them can’t look after them. It’s nice to have a pet, but if you are not prepared to look after a pet like you would a human being, then don’t bother having one. They are quite a comfort. I’ve seen people sick in the hospital without much happiness, and you take their pet to them and they perk right up.”
As the Wrights’ cat collection has grown in recent months, reaction within the community has been mixed. The local city council recently passed a law limiting to six the number of cats allowed in one house, although the Wrights got a grandfather clause and can keep their cats. The Wrights’ nextdoor neighbor is also upset, complaining that her 640 furry neighbors are triggering her allergies.
Yet the local humane society is one of the Wrights’ biggest fans. Ron McMillan, the director of the Kingston Humane Society, has visited the house to inspect the pets’ living conditions.
“I’m impressed,” McMillan says. “We have a full-time job looking after the 60 cats we have, and we have seven staff. I think he is doing a good job. If he wasn’t there, we would have to euthanize them.”
While Jack dreams of establishing a foundation to care for cats, Donna says they are unlikely to take in too many more because of the complaints and the cost. They spend $306 a day on their pets in food and veterinary bills (a vet visits every week or when needed).
“We go around to the different stores for the specials,” Donna says. Even so, the expense of caring for the pets nearly cost the Wrights their house earlier this year. They fell about $8,000 behind in their mortgage payments. But a story in the local newspaper about their plight brought in donations of nearly $15,000 from cat lovers around the world.
Both Jack and Donna say they have no regrets about the amount of time, money, and emotional support they’ve devoted to their feline family. They simply provide too much enjoyment.
“You never want to get rid of them, but sometimes you wonder what you are doing with them all,” Jack concedes. He says getting out of bed at night is a risk because the cats will take the warm, cozy spot in the bed. He has spent more than one night sleeping elsewhere in the house, forced from his own bed by napping cats.
“One will get on your lap, and one will get on top of him, and they will just pile right up until they are past your chin. It can make it difficult to watch television or just sit around.
“But I just love them.”