About six weeks ago Chris Hilton went to his local dump and noticed cats everywhere he looked.
He now has 32 stray cats living in his house and he’s given away his sofa and 50-inch television to make room for them all.
Hilton, who moved to Waverley, South Taranaki, from Auckland in 2016, already had a menagerie animals including five cats, two dogs, numerous chickens, ducks and geese, and a couple of goats living at the property dubbed The Waverley Hilton.
His goal is to tame the strays so they can find homes as pets.
* The cuddly killer undermining our best predator-free efforts
* Morbidly obese cat one of the fattest Christchurch SPCA worker has seen
* Waimate’s celebrity cat Thor moving to Motueka
“It was getting to the point where they were going to have to do something about them, and I decided to do something,” he said of transfer station’s colony of strays.
The felines were surviving on food put out for them by a local cafe owner.
“Because she was feeding them, they are mostly in fairly good shape and somewhat tame,” he said.
This gave him hope the animals could be tamed enough to become pets. So, he borrowed traps and cages and ended up catching 57 cats and kittens.
The kittens easily found homes and some adults went to foster carers in Hāwera.
The remaining cats are in large cages in Hilton’s house, each equipped with a bed, litter tray and feeding bowls.
Most of his belongings are stored in a bedroom, but he’s kept one comfy chair in the lounge.
The former mechanic, roller hockey enthusiast and body builder is unable to work full-time due to chronic health issues.
And the cat project has been a welcome focus after the death of a friend, Cam Zimmerman, who drowned while fishing at Waiinu Beach, Waitōtara, on June 7.
“I wasn’t sleeping anyway, so I figured I may as well go and trap some cats,” he said.
He learned how to rehabilitate them through videos on YouTube, and has been getting advice and support from other cat rescuers and experts around the country.
Scratches are almost a daily occurrence.
He’s getting through a lot of iodine and has had a trip to A and E and a course of antibiotics after one of the cats escaped its cage and bit him through his knuckle when he caught it.
“At one point I counted 37 different puncture points on my hands. It’s not so bad lately, either they’re getting calmer or I’m getting better at handling them.”
The cats all have names and Hilton hopes to find good homes for as many as he can.
A vet friend in Auckland has supplied him with medicines, and has offered to come to Taranaki and neuter all the cats when they are tame enough.
Two that have already become friendly, Miouw and Miouwmiouw, are identical black brothers originally thought to be one cat, that used to hang around the cafe in town looking for food.
“I caught ‘him’, and then the next day, ‘he’ was back, that’s when we figured there were two of them,” he said.
Hilton said he has received loads of community support through his Waverley Hilton Facebook page, with people donating cages, cat food and kitty litter, and even toys and hammocks for the cats.
“It’s amazing how it’s all come together.”
He plans to set up a registered cat rescue.
So far, he has had enough donated food and kitty litter to keep the cats all well-fed, and donations of veterinary supplies for common ailments have helped keep vet bills to a minimum.
But he goes through about $30 worth of kitty litter every two days, and more than 60 pouches of cat food a day, plus biscuits, and is considering selling his collection of antiques to pay for cat food.
Cleaning and feeding all the cats takes up a large part of each day.
“The cleaning is continuous. It’s about four to six hours just for normal cleaning,” he said.
The floors are covered with black plastic and old carpet, and he gets through it by listening to Terry Pratchett audiobooks as he works.
Taming the cats takes patience, he said.
“You start by getting them to take food off a fork, then a spoon, then to accept you touching them when you feed them.”
Eventually, the cats associate the pats with being fed, and start to seek attention.
“You start to think there is no hope, then one of them breaks for you, and it’s awesome.”
Taranaki Animal Protection Trust trustee Daveena Taylor, Hāwera, is supporting Hilton with caring for the cats.
“Chris is an amazing guy, he has taken this upon himself when nobody else would, these cats were destined to be euthanased, he’s taken it upon himself to go in and save as many of them as he can, and he’s doing a wonderful thing for the community.
“It’s very difficult what he’s doing, it can be very, very stressful,” she said.
The cat colony in Waverley probably started with a few pets being dumped or left behind when families moved house, she said.
Stray cat colonies could be managed by trapping and neutering, euthanasing ones that were sick, rehoming some as pets or barn cats, then releasing the rest and continuing to feed them and monitor their health.
The remaining cats would keep new cats out of their territory, and control rodents.
But the overriding need was for desexing, Taylor said.
“It’s really lovely when people feed them, but if they don’t get them desexed, three cats can quickly turn into 45,” she said.
In six months this year, the trust had rehomed 445 kittens and cats.
Of the 57 cats Hilton had trapped, if half were female and each had three litters of four kittens next breeding season, that is a potential explosion of well over 300 kittens.
“He is doing the community a massive favor taking these animals in, and he needs support,” Taylor said.