How Love Is Keeping 16 Cats Alive

It was my week on Street Kitty Fund duty when the request came in for emergency medical care for a kitty named Bug.  As full-time staff and love-struck Mom to a former street cat named Bugs (plural), this one struck close to home. 

I started to reply, “Yes, we’ll cover Bug’s care,” but then realized the applicant, a caretaker named Sherry, was asking to go to a vet that wasn’t one of our normal partners.  I was about to insist that she choose from one of our approved vets when Tanya, another Soft Side admin, texted me, “Sherry is homeless, and this is one of the 16 cats she cares for so she needs to be able to go to a vet within walking distance.” 

Got it, exception noted.  Consider it done.

Later that day, the vet’s office called me for payment, and I was devastated to learn that Bug had been so far gone that she had to be humanely euthanized. In spite of never having met this cat, I felt like I’d lost one of my own.  When I told the vet’s office, we’d cover her paw print and ashes so Sherry would have something to remember her by, they informed me, “No, Sherry wants to bury her at home.”

That begged the question – where is home for a homeless cat?  And where is home for a homeless cat cared for by a homeless caretaker? 

I knew right then and there, I wanted to meet Sherry and the cats in her care.

Certainly, sharing a love for a cat named Bug (and/or Bugs) was one reason, but there was another even more compelling one.  Every week we hear about cats suddenly showing up in colonies after being dumped and abandoned by former owners, yet here was a woman, homeless herself, who somehow managed to care for a colony of 16 cats.  How does she manage?  How are the cats faring?  And what circumstances led her to this situation and this life?

On the day of our rendezvous, I met Tanya in a parking lot in South Baltimore.  I climbed into her 4-wheel drive SUV and from there, we headed out on a makeshift, rutted path into the woods. After about 300 yards, we stopped in the middle of nowhere (literally) and Tanya yelled, “Hey Sherry, is it okay if we come in?”  After hearing her reply, we headed, this time by foot, down a path that took us even deeper in the woods.  Before we even saw Sherry, we saw kitties – kitties behind bushes, kitties behind trees and kitties lounging on the ground.   Big, healthy, well-fed kitties – most of whom scattered when they saw strangers invading their territory.

Sherry was waiting for us outside her “home” – a Rube Goldberg structure consisting of some actual construction with multiple tarps and a patchwork of pallets forming a wrap-around porch.  Once it was clear, we were friends and not foe, a few of the kitties sauntered over to say hello.  

As we toured her camp, Sherry told us how she’d gone from a normal life back in 2005 with a fulltime job in Delaware to living rough.  As it often does, the story started with a boyfriend – a boyfriend who soon turned abusive (she still has the scars) and subsequently both found themselves living on the streets.  The boyfriend’s long gone, as are her other immediate family members. The cats came later and what was at first just one or two soon multiplied.

How does she afford to feed them?  (And given by their appearance, feed them so well.)  Sherry does receive food stamps, but the cat food comes compliments of a local group of angels.  Every two weeks, they deliver food for the cats while others help by providing items on her wish list – things like water, Nescafe, pasta and creamer.  In fact, they’ve created a private Facebook page so they can communicate and keep her stocked with essentials.  Unlike what most of us consider “essentials” – the things Sherry needs truly are.  Batteries to keep her phone charged, propane to keep warm in the winter and ice to keep food from spoiling during Baltimore’s brutal summers. 

“Living out here 17 years humbles you,” Sherry told me and just understanding the magnitude of what she’s up against humbled both Tanya and me.  Sherry’s at the mercy of Mother Nature as evidenced by the remains of various tents flattened by overturned trees, the possibility of bad actors who might stumble onto her camp and the wildlife she shares space with, including a few hangry raccoons who sneak in at night to dip into the kitty food.

In between learning every kitty’s name and history – Rose, Thorn, Patch, Bad Boy Syn, Fry and Harvey Birdman to name a few, I asked, “Do you feel safe out here?”  Sherry laughed at the question and told us in addition to her watch cats to raise the alarm, she’s got a 50-pound bow & arrow. 

 As we toured the property, a number of the kitties followed along.  They climbed downed trees, raced across a makeshift bridge over the creek and took numerous rest breaks for head rubs and pets.  Over the years, Sherry’s friends have gotten all the cats fixed so the colony is set at 16 unless, or until, another hapless kitty finds its way to the camp. 

Others, down on their luck, once shared this site with Sherry and her cats, but they’re now also long gone.  Some have moved to new encampments, others to housing arranged by their case workers.  Knowing that was a possibility, I asked, “Does your caseworker ever talk about finding you housing?”  “Yes,” Sherry answered, “But I’m here for the cats.  I’ve got 16 of them and I’m not picking six of them to go and leaving the others here.” 

In all honesty, after seeing Sherry’s set up in person, it struck me that in some ways it’s a dream life for the cats.  They’ve got a playground of nature-made cat toys, protection from the elements, food and, above all, an abundance of love. 

That’s a lot more than we can say for the thousands of others that are dumped and abandoned on Baltimore’s streets.

Bug is back home with her family, resting next to her brother, Boo.

Note:  Although Sherry’s camp location has the community’s approval, she and the kitties could be a target so we have to be careful about identifying her location.  However, if you’d like to donate food or essentials, you can PM Soft Side and we’ll arrange pick up and delivery.