In Florida, one man has carved out 30-acres to provide a home to nearly 500 unwanted felines, who travel from far and wide to settle into their elaborate sanctuary, Caboodle Ranch. The founder of the ranch fronts all of the facility's costs out of his own pocket.
LEE, Fla. -- Security is tight at the Caboodle Ranch, where the entrance is guarded by 500 strong. Yet, the formidable presence melts into purrs as guests enter the 30-acre cat sanctuary in Madison County, 50 miles from the state capital of Tallahassee.
The man behind it all is Craig Grant, the founder of Caboodle Ranch. But for a retired contractor who had an aversion to felines, Grant's golden years have taken an unusual twist.
It was Grant's commitment to his children that fostered a new life destiny. No longer able to care for his cat, Pepper, Grant's son asked him to permanently care for the pet. Having spent his entire life raising his three kids, Grant couldn't say no.
Albeit a reluctantly made agreement, Grant soon learned he needed Pepper.
"It gave me a reason to come home at night, because I was suffering from empty nest syndrome," Grant said.
Yet, the wheels of fate had already begun to turn as Pepper soon gave birth to five kittens. Grant's heart warmed from seeing the felines as pesky nuisances capable of destroying a tidy house, to six separate personalities.
Having tested the limits of his Jacksonville landlord, Grant needed a feline-friendly living solution. An advertisement lead him to purchase a five-acre parcel of land on a tree farm in November 2003.
"It makes you think of 'Field of Dreams,' " Grant said of the 1989 Kevin Costner film.
What started as one cat quickly grew to 150. Grant would take in strays and pick up cats at construction sites. But, soon enough, five acres wasn't quite enough elbow room for all the residents, so in five-acre by five-acre patchwork plots, Grant expanded Caboodle Ranch into a 30-acre property.
" 'If you build it, they will come,' " said Grant, repeating Costner's hallmark line.
And boy, did they come. Some from down the road, others from as far away as New York, New Jersey, and Columbus, Ohio. Grant has given all the animals, from victims of abuse to wandering strays, a second chance.
With the time needed to care for the spayed and neutered feral colony, Grant decided to retire early and devote his time to the felines.
"There's a lot of responsibility here, a lot of work," Grant said. "I work 14 hours a day, seven days a week. I'm pretty much here 24 hours a day with them."
While some have called the ranch a dumping ground, according to Grant, he has taken keen attention to creating a home "where cats aren't treated like animals."
Starting with $100,000 out of his own pocket, Grant has designed and built a showcase property that conjures notions of a gingerbread village.
The feline city is complete with a city hall, police department, Caboodle chapel, an elementary school, and, of course, Walmart.
To find respite from the hustle and bustle of downtown life, the kitties merely need to cross the river to the Cat Nap Inn, where they can relax in lake-front cabins.
If the accommodations fall short on the relaxation scale, the cats can accompany Grant on a walk through one of the many nature trails he has carved out of the former tree farm, or hide in the underground dens he dug for them.
"This is animal control," Grant said. "It's a place where people want to bring their cats. They're not going to drop them in a shopping center when they hear about Caboodle Ranch. They will want to keep them here."
Yet, as more residents arrive, Grant forgoes paying himself a monthly salary of $1,000, in order to ensure the cats have all they need.
"Come on, come on, let's eat," said Grant, as he removed the tin's tab with a hissing pop.
Like a herd of cattle, hundreds of cats make their way to Grant. In a sea of tails, Grant observes the cats, which he says has brought him endless happiness.
For Caboodle Ranch, happiness is not free. Expenses quickly climb to $6,000 in covering food, medical supplies and shelter for the 500 cats.
"Hopefully I can stay with my cats and keep this thing going," said Grant, who is financing the expenses out of pocket.
Some call him crazy, but to Grant, this isn't about money.
"I think I'm supposed to be doing this and it comes at a time in my life when I can give it 100 percent," Grant said of the perks, which, in his mind, out weigh the long hours.
Funds are rapidly running low as tough times abound for all. Nevertheless, Grant is confident he will land on his feet, if not for himself, then for the hundreds of felines who depend on him.
In the meantime, Grant is utilizing his Web site to generate additional funds with Caboodle Ranch merchandise and even $100 gingerbread cat homes.
But perhaps the greatest chance Grant and the 500 Caboodle Ranch inhabitants have in maintaining their gingerbread lifestyle, is just that -- the unique nature of their living.
The quaint appeal of Caboodle Ranch has begun to generate media attention from Tallahassee Magazine to The New York Times, as well as a handful of local television stations in between. With the news of Caboodle Ranch spreading far and wide, it is a town that is sure to withstand the test of time.
For more information on Caboodle Ranch, visit CaboodleRanch.com.