5010 Northhaven Avenue San Diego. It’s the address that every cat on the planet would love to call home. From the outside, it may look an any other ordinary suburban house but on the inside, it’s a one-of-a-kind feline adventure park with themed overhead walk ways and paths of discovery leading to ceiling-high hidey-holes and look-out stations that fulfill the feline need to look down on human kind.
For the ten felines that own Bob Walker and Frances Mooney, it is their home. Everybody knows they rule here – even the postman when he delivers mail addressed simply to The Cats’ House.
The story behind this one-of-a-kind home is an interesting cat tale. So get comfortable, put your cat on your lap and read on.
Once upon a time, in the early 1980s, boy (Bob) meets girl (Frances) while licking envelopes for a Californian political campaign. They fall in love and get married and literally hours later adopt a cat named Beauregard.
Each day, when Bob and Frances went to work, Beauregard would transform into a feline MacGyver using his skills to remove and combine kitchen ingredients such as macaroni noodles and cake flour. He’d transform everything into his mess d’jour and proceed to swat it around the house. Then he would sit back and admire his handiwork and wait for Bob and Frances to return.
The novelty of cleaning it up soon wore off and Bob and Frances decided that Beauregard needed a playmate. Enter Benjamin…
Beauregard and Benjamin were having such fun that Bob and Frances thought another kitty to add to the enjoyment. Enter Calafia, a cat of many colors. The details are a bit hazy as to how Jerry Lee came into the picture. But its easy to see that by now Bob and Frances had discovered that kittens come and they grow …The couple also soon learned that the legal maxim namely “possession is nine tenths of the law” applies to cats too. Thus in all honesty, their home was well and truly their cats’ house!
While 5010 Northhaven Avenue was comfortable enough for a young couple, it was getting overcrowded with cats. There was nowhere to sit; the couches were permanently occupied. So they looked up and saw all that empty space at ceiling height. Realtors may talk about homes in square feet but cataholics like Bob and Frances were thinking cubic.
Very soon, they were knocking walls and had built a floor-to-ceiling scratching column covered in 395 feet of pink-dyed sisal. Next they connected it to a wall-to-wall beam just below ceiling height. From a human perspective, the column was a room divider between the living room and the dining room but from the feline perspective it was a launching pad to an overhead fun zone beam.
The cats took to it like ducks to water running full speed down the hall chasing each other up and over the couches and climbing up the column and racing along the beam. Unfortunately, they hit a dead end where it connected to the wall. So Bob and Frances realized they needed an exit strategy so that the cats wouldn’t be trapped and began chiseling through the walls extending the beams so that they ran from room to room. Frances artistic talents kicked in and ultimately the 140 feet of cat pathways that all linked up with ramps and staircases through the house were adorned in 42 different colors.
Simultaneously with what was happening at ceiling height, Frances was collecting cat stuff – lamps and ornaments, statues and artworks, toilet seats and trinkets to decorate the walls. She was also cutting up old copies of Cat Fancy magazine, which she turned into a fabulous montage, varnished with a high gloss sealer and created a unique artwork on the kitchen floor.
People came and looked and marveled. Bob a professional photographer soon realized that this work in progress has morphed into a book, The Cats’ House and suddenly cat lovers round the world were looking and learning as the couple had generously shared the blueprints of all their ideas.
Journalists vied for interviews and camera crews from around the world set up lights on the front porch.
That was then.
Now in the 21st century, cat lovers have come to recognize this innovative couple as the pawfathers of the feline enrichment movement. Today cat behaviorists have endorsed some of their ideas as essential lifestyle needs to keep cats that enjoy an indoors-only way of life both mentally and physically fulfilled; tall scratching posts, floor-to ceiling circular stair cases, shelves on the walls, hammocks for the window and hidey holes… There’s no question that many of these designs that now populate pet stores were birthed from the original ideas that Bob and Frances built into their home.
If he had to start from scratch now, would he do anything differently?
“No,” says Walker. “However in the early days we soon realized that some of our spaces and walk ways were too narrow for wide-berthed cats. We had a Japanese film crew in fits of laughter when a cat got stuck. So if you’re trying it at home, remember to leave enough space from the walls for “big-boned” cats to be able to turn around. And take cognizance of your cat’s needs; spiral staircases are great for youngsters but elderly cats prefer ramps.”
The only thing they’ve changed is the sisal climbing post. It’s no longer pink but has been left natural in color.
“It was impossible to replace the worn bits and match the pink dye,” explains Mooney.
The couple also learned early in the creative process the importance of having human access into every nook and cranny.
“Cats hide when they are frightened or ill and you need to be able to get to them at all times,” she adds.
Currently Walker is building on creating an exterior jungle gym enclosure leading from the main house that will double up as a photographic studio.
“All the units will be on wheels so that we can keep changing and re-inventing the space,” he explains. “And the cats are going to have a great birds eye view of well, birds.”
Although the couple generously shared many of their designs in the book The Cats House that now has been in print more than 14 years, these days they will happily come and construct for besotted cat lovers willing to generously ply them with green “kibble”.
It takes kind and generous people to keep opening their home to stray and abandoned pets. Currently, the Cats’ House is ruled by a clowder of ten.
“Let me see, says Bob, “I get dizzy when I count. There’s Charlotte, Eddie, Stella, Gus, Elliott, Dave, Sam, Willow, Zander and Lili.
“Everyone know where we live and I’ve always been amazed that no-one has dumped a basket of kittens on our doorstep.”
No sooner were the words out of his mouth when the couple discovered a tiny Chihuahua puppy on their front porch.
“We advertised and asked around the neighborhood but no-one came forward so we gave her a name, Sadie, and stopped trying to find her a home,” explains Walker.
The couple have been adopted by a dog before when a Siberian Husky jumped into the back of Frances’ car while she was loading groceries in a car park and refused to get out the vehicle. They did the usual round inquiries in trying to find her owner but when no one came forward, and because she loved the cats, Sasha permanently joined the household. She passed away aged ten about six years ago.
Back then, the house didn’t need any particular doggie adaptations to cater for her needs. But now, in the latest chapter of this tale, Bob and Frances are thinking canine and seeing what they can do around the house so that tiny Sadie, who will never grow to match the cats in size, can keep up with her feline housemates.
And America’s pet industry is also watching and waiting to see what they come up with too so that their innovative ideas can trickle down in homes everywhere.
Well, not exactly. There is undoubtedly a lot more to come. Everything about Bob and Frances is very much a work in progress.
The Cats’ House is published by Andrews McMeel and available on Amazon.com