In the middle of a pine forest, behind a chain-link fence, saunters a man in Wranglers and a black cowboy hat. Behind him, a tiny dirt path meanders between doll-sized houses in butter yellow, pistachio green and tangerine orange. Behind him, swarming through this surreal miniature village, cats.
Sleek cats. Fat cats. Scrawny cats. Lazy cats. Scaredy cats.
Cats on roofs. Cats in windows. Cats in doors. Cats on shelves. Cats on stairs. Cats on chairs.
Craig Grant smiles, crooked teeth beneath his white handlebar mustache. He offers a rough hand with dirty nails, nods, looks away. Like he's trying to be personable but it doesn't come easy.
Grant is 62. All his life, until about a decade ago, he disliked cats. Today he lives outside a tiny town called Lee, population 355, with hundreds of them. With the help of volunteers, he built his cat village. It's got a city hall with a cupola, a chapel with stained glass, a Walmart with miniature shopping carts. Along the path are piles of Purina, kiddie pools of fresh water, sandboxes of litter.
This is Grant's world. Here on 30 acres, he'll take your cat for life. Even if it has leukemia. Even if it's feral. Even if it's old. He promises he won't kill it, he won't even adopt it out, he'll just love it.
Grant believes his place in the world is to provide cat-topia.
The Colbert Report, Inside Edition, Animal Planet. All have come to check out this weird cat town in the woods. People have come from New York and California. They've flown in unwanted or abandoned cats from Germany and Japan. Donations have poured in, fueled by publicity.
On this day, Grant turns in circles and yells, "Doughnut time! Where are all my babies?"
With a box of sugar doughnuts, he sits in the dirt as cats converge. They rub up against him, they rub up against each other. Grant doles out chunks of doughnut.
In the silence rises an unmistakable chorus of wheezing and sneezing, of air attempting to pass through mucus, of cats with runny eyes and snotty noses.
Grant's cat-topia isn't perfect. In fact, it may be a little sick.
• • •
Grant's life can be divided into two parts.
Not to be unkind, but before cats, he was nobody.
After cats, he was famous. Revered. Hated.
• • •
He grew up in Rhode Island, son of a postman and a homemaker. He joined the Navy, worked in a shipyard, married a high school girlfriend, had three kids. She left him, and he raised the kids on his own.
He lost his home and moved with his son, Rob, to St. Augustine for a job setting up mobile homes.
In 2001, Rob moved out. He'd met his future wife.
"It hit me like a bomb," Grant said. "I felt like I wasn't needed anymore."
Rob left behind his cat, Pepper.
That brings us to Grant's life after cats. It's way more interesting.
"I didn't like cats," Grant said. "I didn't like the hair on my clothes. I didn't want them on the dining room table. I didn't want cat odor."
But Pepper spent a lot of time on Grant's lap; they bonded.
Pepper got pregnant and had a litter of kittens. She got pregnant again, had more kittens. Grant had 11 cats and found himself wanting to come home to the cats more than he wanted to go out to Ruth's Chris Steak House.
"They had become my happiness," Grant said. "I found out a cat wasn't just a cat."
In 2003, he bought a pine tree farm about two hours west in Madison County. He moved a shed and an old office trailer out there. Every day, he drove 125 miles east to help his son with their property maintenance business. Soon property managers were paying him $30 to take stray cats.
A newspaper wrote a story. Donations trickled in. Grant created a nonprofit business. He called it Caboodle Ranch.
His family thought his cat ranch was silly at first. Said his son Rob, now 37: "They were all like, 'Who's going to send donations to someone who wants to save cats?' "
• • •
Madison County sits atop Interstate 10 in the Panhandle, a rural community of 700 square miles, 19,000 people and diminishing jobs.
You cannot buy liquor in Madison County, but you can possess unlimited animals.
Jamie Willoughby, 33, is the animal control director. On a budget of $58,701 last year, including his salary, he picked up 782 animals, euthanized all but 136, and handled mosquito control.
In early 2009, Grant had amassed about 200 cats when people started complaining that his animals were sick. Willoughby looked into it, along with a veterinarian from the University of Florida.
They performed tests and documented that 75 percent of Grant's cats were sick from upper respiratory infection, malnourishment, hair loss, hookworm or other ailments. Sick cats were mingling with healthy ones. There were no records. UF veterinarian Julie Levy urged Grant to stop taking cats.
"The sanctuary does not currently meet minimum guidelines for cat health and welfare," she wrote.
Willoughby could tell that Grant cared about the cats. He seemed eager to make it better. But it crossed his mind that Grant was a hoarder.
"There's obviously a void in his life that he has to fill with cats," he said.
In the months that followed, Grant took some of the cats to a local vet for shots and medical care.
In the fall, Willoughby and a Madison vet went out there and found many more cats. But fewer of them were sick. Now, Willoughby said, 80 percent were healthy.
"A lot of people say things could be better out there," Willoughby said. "That's true. I say things could be a lot worse."
But complaints to animal welfare organizations have continued to come in — dozens in recent months, said Laura Bevan, director of the Eastern regional office of the Humane Society of the United States. In November, they attempted to return to Caboodle Ranch for another visit. So far, no luck in getting the visit.
"It seriously concerns me that he is actively recruiting for cats to be brought to the property," Bevan wrote in an e-mail to Willoughby last week. "He doesn't seem to recognize his limitations and the dangers to the cats from coyotes and other cats. He is overloading his sanctuary and it cannot end well."
• • •
In October, a cat rescuer in Naples named Gary Conley headed to Caboodle Ranch with four unwanted cats. Conley, a director of planned giving for the Salvation Army, had been paying $100 a week to board them.
But as he looked around, Conley, 61, realized real-life Caboodle Ranch was a lot different from Internet Caboodle Ranch. Caboodle Ranch's website featured stunning cats with smooth coats.
As Conley walked around, he saw sneezing cats, skinny cats with sunken bellies, lots of cats roaming outside the fenced Caboodle Ranch.
A brown cat rubbed against his leg and he saw what looked like a twig stuck to its side. He reached down to remove it and realized it was a rib; the cat had a compound fracture.
"This cat needs medical attention," Conley said he told Grant.
"He said, 'Why? It ain't bothering him,' " Conley recalled.
In the infirmary Conley saw 30 or so cats.
"They were all just laying there in their own feces and vomit and urine," he said. "They were laying there waiting to die."
Grant denies Conley ever went into the infirmary. He acknowledges the exchange with Conley over the cat with the compound fracture but says a vet saw the cat and said it wasn't hurting him.
After Conley returned home, he sent out an e-mail about what he had seen to other cat rescuers.
A woman named Pamela Jonasson from Atlantic Beach wrote back that she had taken her three cats there only to have them disappear. A Tampa woman, Carolyn Camp Logan, had volunteered there, become disgusted and started a website "in memory of the lost Caboodle cats." Coyotes were snacking on the cats, she wrote. Lots of house cats, unaccustomed to the diseases circulating at Caboodle Ranch, got sick or disappeared.
"The man's an ignorant hillbilly," she said. "He's out there trying but he doesn't know what he's doing. He's a hoarder. He thinks no one can do it better than he can."
Conley said his visit to Caboodle Ranch "changed his life."
"Since I've come back, I've not been able to go to sleep at night," he said, "because I know what's happening up there in the darkness."
• • •
A light rain falls as Grant retrieves cases of Friskies wet food from a trailer.
He heads out to the back of his property to feed some of the quarantined cats in a fenced compound with space heaters.
He stops to talk to a gray cat as he dumps cat food. "I take good care of you, right?"
Grant requires the cats to come in spayed or neutered with shots. Many of the cats seem healthy. But more than a handful are ill. He's always going to have some sick cats, he says.
"It's like kids in a day care. The ones getting it are new arrivals. If they survive the first winter, they're going to make it."
He is weary of the complaining cat owners, who he says give up their right to complain when they dump their cats. He recently sued Conley, Jonasson and Logan for slander. He won't let anyone see his infirmary. "Attorney's orders."
He is not a hoarder, he says, just someone who cares about cats. "They love me and I love them. We have a relationship."
As he makes his rounds, he pulls out a Clorox wipe and uses it over and over to wipe the eyes or noses of a dozen or so cats. In his pocket, he keeps a small bottle of antibiotics. Every now and then he pulls it out and shoots one dropperful into the mouth of a sick cat. He doesn't wipe it clean between cats.
"I love 'em more than people," he says.
Soon after, as he prepares a needle to give fluids to a lethargic orange cat that hadn't been eating, his maroon cowboy boot lands in a pile of mushy yellow poop.
"Ahhh," he says, grabbing paper towels and wiping it up.
Moments later, he talks about one day having 1,000 cats, maybe even 3,000 cats.
He heads to a kennel with the most recent arrivals, the ones still in their cat carriers.
He taps on one of the doors. A black and white cat with big green eyes sits in the farthest back corner. "Can I say hi?"
"I get to know them. This lady brought in two yesterday. I don't know exactly where they came from. Just bring me your cat."
His supporters say there will always be cat lovers who disagree with how he operates.
"He's doing good work," said Ann Shorstein, a professor at Florida Coastal School of Law who has helped several people with lots of cats, including Grant, for free.
-"He's doing the community a blessing. These cats would otherwise be on the street and reproducing."
Grant, who sleeps in a recliner, said he works 14-hour days for his cats. He said he's taking groups of them to see a Madison vet for shots and flea medication. He produced a bank statement showing that he paid the vet about $2,000 in November.
He's trying to get more help. On a recent day, one worker cleaned out a smelly trailer and another did yard work. At the end of the day, he pulled a stack of bills out of his pocket and handed two $50 bills to the man who did yard work.
"I've got people all across the country and around the world sending me money," he says.
Last year, he estimates, he received $150,000. His donations have increased steadily every year since 2006, when he reported $12,310 in donations to the IRS. He has bins of treats, dry food, toys. Even Ellen DeGeneres sent him a thigh-high stack of cat food cases, he said.
One man built a barn in pieces in Texas, hauled it and put it together at Caboodle Ranch. It will house cats with feline AIDS.
Grant has used some of the donations to pay off the land and purchase three new buildings. He recently spent about $46,000 to order the barn-style structures from Home Depot.
"I'm putting the ranch in a trust for the cats so if something happens to me, it goes to them," he says.
As he walks through his cat village, he calls out to some cats he has named: Mario, Bully, Batman, Bobbles, Toot and Crackers.
"Come on, let's go for a walk," he yells, his voice echoing through the trees. "COME ON."
About a dozen cats scurry from all directions. An orange tabby leaps from the ground and lands on his shoulder.
He is asked if he has any friends. He thinks about it, mentions his son and a North Carolina volunteer. "I have a lot of acquaintances," he says. "But I'm not alone anymore."
He turns around and walks down a path between pine trees, a dozen cats trailing his ankles.
Leonora LaPeter Anton can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8640. Times researcher Shirl Kennedy contributed to this report.