Out in Madison County, near a place called Lee, Florida, lived a man with 500 cats. Craig Grant loved cats so much that he bought 30 acres of rural property and opened Caboodle Ranch, a safe haven for unwanted felines. Feral cats, stray cats, abandoned cats, unwanted cats, shelter cats who would otherwise be put down – Grant welcomed them all.
Tallahassee magazine caught wind of Grant while doing a story on the effort to trap, fix, and re-release feral cats in Tallahassee. So I headed out to Caboodle Ranch to do some editorial photography of Grant’s herd of cats and his safe haven he had built on his property for an article in the magazine.
In order to photograph as much of the Caboodle Ranch life as possible in a short period of time, I planned to arrive one afternoon and camp out at the Ranch overnight, thus giving me the opportunity to document life there in the afternoon, evening, night, and morning.
As I pulled into Caboodle Ranch, I immediately saw cats roaming free all over the place; on the fence, in the woods, on the buildings; even on the mailbox. There were cats on top of, around, and under everything, and that would soon include me!
Throughout the property, Grant had several trailers the cats could enter and leave at will for comfort and for protection from predators. There was also a row of cat houses that made up the Caboodle Ranch “town,” complete with every building imaginable; including a Wal-Mart and a City Hall. In the winter, it seemed, the cats could also stay in these structures to keep warm. There was even a small pond and a water wheel well that provided fresh water.
I thought I had seen a lot of cats until, after a short tour of the property, Craig Grant broke out the canned cat food at feeding time. The cats have a constant, steady supply of dry cat food, but, boy, do they love the canned food! As Grant called to his “babies” and started plopping the food onto styrofoam plates, they came out of the woodwork. More cats showed up there in the middle of Caboodle Ranch than I had ever seen at one time before; and this was only a fraction of the total number of cats there. The feral ones kept their distance, but the more domestic cats stampeded to the feast. As I photographed the chaos, I had to move carefully as the felines covered the ground around my feet.
Afterwards, once the kitty crowds had dispersed, I was photographing Grant interacting with his feline friends when I knelt down to get a good camera angle. Before I knew it, a cat had leaped up onto my shoulders! I reached back to pull him off, but he dug his claws in. Seeing as how I was wearing a thin shirt, I decided it was best not to fight the claws and I just left him up there. For the next hour, as we walked all throughout the property, and as I took pictures, my new friend stayed perched on my shoulders.
In the evening, a visitor dropped off two more cats to the Ranch. Delivering a cat to retire at the Ranch requires a reasonable fee per cat to cover expenses for their life at the Ranch. All cats arriving at Caboodle Ranch are supposed to be fixed, but judging by the kittens romping around the property, it’s not a sure thing.
The tame cats at Caboodle Ranch all desperately crave attention. It’s hard to show enough attention to a handful of pets, let alone several hundred of them. Everywhere Grant went, he was flanked by a large group of cats, who wanted the companionship of a human. They also followed their new photographer friend. Much to my dismay, at times, the younger cats would attempt to climb up my legs to get my attention. As soon as I would pull one off my leg, another determined critter would start climbing.
When it came time for me to eat something, I walked off the property to the dirt road entrance. Only a mere dozen cats followed me, which, odd as it may sound, was a relief because it was so few. All eyes were on me as I gobbled down a quick dinner.
After darkness fell, we went for another walk through Grant’s property, which is a pine tree farm (outside of the small developed portion of the Ranch). All throughout the walk, Grant called to his babies, and they came out and followed. When he shone his flashlight behind him, dozens of gleaming cat eyes shone back from the darkness.
When Grant ate his dinner that night, he stood in the middle of the Ranch under a pool of light from a street lamp, surrounded by dozens of his cats. The all sat quietly, watching him, waiting for him to drop a morsel of human food.
Later that night, Grant found an injured cat and hurried it to his infirmary trailer. There, he tirelessly attempted to help the animal, giving it an IV and fretting over it while other cats paused to watch. I could see the concern in his face for this one cat of many, but I also saw his exhaustion from trying to care for such a large number of animals.
The one shot I didn’t get on this editorial photography assignment that I wanted was of Grant’s sleeping arrangements, which he told me directly were off limits to photography. In my mind, I can picture him covered from head to toe in cats as they all peacefully sleep.
When it was time for me to put the camera down and turn in for the night, I walked just into the tree farm, flanked by a handful of cats and kittens, and set up my jungle hammock between the trees. As I tried to drift off to sleep, the cats continually reached up, poked their claws through the fabric, and scratched at my back, begging for attention. Eventually, they gave up for the night and I could sleep.
The next morning, Grant shared his doughnut breakfast with the cats that clambered all over him as he lay in the grass next to the pond.
After photographing the morning routine, it was time to pack up and drive back to Tallahassee. I headed out to my Jeep Wrangler, which at the time had no back windows. The Jeep was covered in cats, with more inside. My new, four-legged friends were sad to see me leave, as was apparent by the goodbye gifts they left on my driver’s seat.
Craig Grant and the Caboodle Ranch were featured on the Colbert Report’s The Enemy Within in January, 2011.
Recent developments involving Caboodle Ranch:
For updates on the future of Caboodle Ranch from Craig Grant, read his blog here.