Doberman pinschers, to be exact. His dad had started breeding them right before the beginning of World War II, when Sims was a boy living on the family farm in upstate New York. They were valuable animals, some even going into the U.S. Marines as war dogs when the conflict erupted.
But mostly what Sims remembers is the noise, and the chewing.
“I don’t have much use for dogs,” he said. “Cats to me are so much more interesting and so much quieter and loving in not an overt way, but they still show you they love you in a quiet, peaceful way.”
Before retiring to Jackson County, Sims, 81, was a biology instructor at St. Petersburg Community College in Florida. He developed an appreciation of cats for their evolutionary history as well as for their quiet purring. They’ve been survivors from the get-go.
“The cat really came to man not because he wanted to help man but because he wanted to get food from the rats man had attracted,” Sims said.
“Really,” he added, “the cat saved man’s life because he kept the grain from being eaten by the rats.”
These are reflections Sims can now make while sitting in a 4,000-square-foot house dedicated entirely to cats. The Catman2 Cat Shelter, located on Bo Cove Road in Cullowhee, holds anywhere from 60 to 90 cats at any one time, with a dual goal of finding loving homes for homeless cats and giving a happy, well-fed life to those unlikely to be adopted.
Becoming the Catman
When Sims retired in 1991, he had no inkling that, 25 years later, he’d be sitting where he is, doing what he is. In fact, when Sims’ beloved 19-year-old cat died years ago, he and his wife agreed they’d take a break from cats for a while. But then they moved to the mountains, and a stray cat that came to be named Marco showed up on a neighbor’s porch. It soon became the Sims’ pet.
“Marco led to another cat named Suki that led to a cat named something else,” Sims said.
He’d already been involved with the animal shelter in St. Petersburg, so when he and his wife came to live in North Carolina he began to get involved with a local animal shelter. Sims and the shelter eventually had a parting of ways, but he continued to work with cats in need.
“I had a little shed and I fixed it up with wire pens and little cheap cages and started rescuing cats,” he said. “We went dumpster diving and took out cats rather than other things.”
Before moving to Cullowhee, Sims lived in Brevard. Every Saturday morning, he’d show up to one of the thrift stores there with five or six cats in the back of his car, working all day to get them adopted. That’s when he first came to be known as The Catman. Sims like the moniker and decided to formalize it with a vanity license plate. Unfortunately, “Catman” had already been taken.
“Catman2 sounded like Katmandu, so I decided to put a two after it,” he said.
The final step in the making of Catman2 was construction of the cat house. A search for affordable property led Sims to Cullowhee. Over pancakes in the restaurant space where the Sylva Bogart’s is now, Sims and his contractor friend Jack Nowlin came up with the outline for the design.
They went out and started digging holes. When the thing was about halfway done, Sims had a sudden realization — the 35-by-16-foot room was going to be too small.
So, he made lemons out of lemonade. The project was finished in 2002, two years after it began. By then it had grown to include a hallway encircling the original room, with a round of cat rooms circling that. The rooms all include a screened-in porch area, allowing the cats to get out for fresh air and sun whenever they so choose.
These days, Sims adopts out about 135 cats per year, logging more than 3,000 adoptions since his beginning as Catman in 1996.
There’s more going on than just adoption. Another part of Catman’s work is preventing unwanted kitty pregnancies, beginning a program in 2014 to provide free and low-cost spay/neuter services. In 2015, Catman2 fixed more than 350 cats — both pets and feral cats — and has done 75 so far this year.
“There’s not feral dogs running around the woods having feral puppies all the time, but there are feral cats doing it as we speak,” said Kaleb Lynch, the shelter’s manager, who also volunteers his time for trapping feral cats to be fixed. “It’s certainly a problem we can fix. We just have to have the support to do it.”
Challenges along the way
It hasn’t been easy. In some ways, the Carolina mountains are “dog country” — it’s hard for Sims to get the donations he needs to keep the cats-only shelter afloat, with his own money supplementing many of the operations.
“I’m taking no salary for myself, and for the first five years I paid all the insurance and all the lights,” he said. He also used his own money to build the building, and the nonprofit doesn’t pay rent for use of the space. He relies on Lynch to put in more time than what Catman2 can pay him for.
With all that as fact, it probably doesn’t have to be stated that Sims really likes cats. Even with dozens living at the cat house — which is on the same piece of property as his home — he still keeps seven for himself. A couple of those are “foster cats,” animals whose owners send a monthly donation for Sims to keep them. Three are shelter cats that weren’t compatible with the others at the shelter.
Lynch is of somewhat the same mind — he’s currently keeping 10 cats and three dogs at his house, though three of the 13 animals are fosters.
Each of the hundreds of cats Sims has known over the shelter’s lifetime has its own history and personality, but he doesn’t pick favorites.
“There’s no cat that I really don’t like,” he said. “To me they’re all just different colors, you know?”
Honoring the house cat with a museum
Harold Sims, known in the mountains as “The Catman,” is on a mission to bring the glory of the American house cat to the masses.
Or, more specifically, to open up a museum dedicated to showing visitors all there is to know about cats and their long history with humans.
“I want people to know more about the cat,” Sims said. “I want people to be able to appreciate the cat, and I want it to be a teaching museum.”
Sims, 81, is the owner of the Catman2 Cat Rescue in Cullowhee, and he’s also a longtime collector of cat-related artifacts. Walk through the shelter, and you’ll see walls adorned with paintings, antique ads and many other iterations of framed furry faces. But Sims has plenty more cat paraphernalia than what’s displayed at the shelter. Art glass, wind-up toys, stuffed animals, chrome lithograph photography from the 1880s — all the cat-related antiques imaginable.
“I’ve got some real rare, high-end pieces,” Sims said.
By the end of June, Sims hopes to have them displayed in a pair of rooms he’s rented from the Old School Antique Mall along U.S. 441 in the Savannah area of Jackson County. Once the space is all cleared out and cleaned up, he’ll start moving in, and he’s got all sorts of plans for what the space can be.
“You’ll be walking into a cat space when you’re walking into the building,” he said, explaining the false front he envisions that will make the entrance looks like a cat’s mouth. Murals will cover the wall outside, and the self-guided museum will feature a history of the cat, charts detailing its anatomy and a mock-up of a vet’s office in addition to the antiques.
According to Sims’ research, there’s only one other cat museum in the country — in Alliance, Ohio.
“I think we could have another museum in this country, and it could be here because there are cat lovers everywhere,” he said.
In Sims’ estimation, cat lovers’ numbers are only going to increase, as more people move to urban environments and the market tends to smaller, more compact homes. If those trends continue, he reasons, the house cat’s low space and maintenance needs will only cause it to rise in importance as America’s preferred pet.
“There’s going to be more need to have cats,” he said.
Sims also sees the cat museum as a way to draw attention to the value of his collection. Now in his 80s, Sims knows full well he won’t be around forever. He worries constantly about how the shelter will remain afloat when he’s gone, and while he believes his antique collection is extremely valuable, he’s skeptical that, without some advance planning, it would sell for much more than nickels on the dollar.
By teaming up with the antique mall and getting visitors through to admire the pieces, he said, they could be sold slowly over time to bring in money to the felines of Catman2.
“It’s going to be a lot of work to get the thing set up and running, but I think when it gets up it’s going to be a real asset to the county,” he said.
Lend a hand
Catman2 needs help if it’s to stay in the business of helping Jackson County’s cats in distress. The shelter itself requires at least $70,000 per year to pay for staffing, vet work, medications, cat food, cat litter and utilities. On top of that, Catman2 is in the process of opening a cat museum on U.S. 441 in the Savannah area of Jackson County. Rent will cost $1,000 per month.
Donate online at www.catman2.org or send checks to Catman2, Inc., P.O. Box 2344, Cullowhee, N.C. 28723. A fundraising page for the museum is at www.generosity.com/community-fundraising/the-american-museum-of-the-house-cat-for-catman2.