News & Politics » Feature

Cat Lovers

A Man, a Woman, a Motel, and 500 Cats



Cats here, cats there,

Cats and kittens everywhere,

Hundreds of cats,

Thousands of cats,

Millions and billions and trillions of cats

--from Millions of Cats by Wanda Ga'g

Past the Dan Ryan construction, past South Holland, beyond the belching plants along the lake, through flat and sandy Indiana farmland, and just a mile and a half from the Michigan border, in a clump of buildings marked by a tilted sign, live two old people, 500 cats, and a dream.

The tattered hand-painted sign, decorated with two cats in black silhouette, was recently repositioned by a drunken driver. But this latest was the least of the travails endured by Fried's Cat Shelter, which last August suffered a fire that wiped out about half its physical plant, although fewer than a dozen felines. The cats were rescued from the burning building by two passersby who hurled cats out the windows of the old motel building until they themselves were overcome by smoke.

Today, Hans Fried is in the paneled office-cum-boutique of his rebuilt cat shelter, surrounded by terra-cotta candle holders, cat-motif quilts and tote bags, and a framed certificate noting that he and his wife Lucille were jointly WBBM AM's citizen of the week in June 1988. "I get 20 calls a day to take cats," he says in an accent still heavy with his native Berlin. "Here is a mother cat and five kittens dumped on the doorstep of a man who already has several cats and two dogs. He cannot take them. We have no room, we cannot take them, but if we do not they will die.

"We have 500 cats currently. It is costing me $10,000 a month. We get no government money because we don't kill--if we would kill, we would get support. That's one thing that I can't understand. We're supposed to be a civilized society--and yet we manage to kill millions of God's creatures, year after year, animals that give us nothing but love and affection. We kill them, and yet we call ourselves the master race of creation. That's why I'm in this business."

Hans, 77, and Lucille, 83, came to Chicago from Hitler's Germany in 1939, settled in Elmhurst, and entered the construction business. After moving to Beverly Shores, Indiana, in 1957, they became involved with local humane societies. But they weren't happy with the euthanasia almost universally practiced by animal shelters for older, crippled, or unadoptable beasts. Inspired by Chicago's no-kill, no-cage Tree House cat shelter, they decided to go into the cat-rescue business for themselves, on a somewhat larger scale. They sold their home and some heirloom jewelry in the late 70s, bought an old motel on four-and-a-half acres on Highway 212 in Michigan City, and soon found themselves inundated by homeless felines.

Childless Hans Fried concedes that the cats are their children. It's some retirement. Between the cats and the correspondence (the telephone rings in their home after hours) "it's a madhouse--not at all restful." They've worked out a deal with the local post office: anything addressed to "Cats" in Michigan City will find its way to Fried's.

"When we started out 15 years ago, the cat was the underdog," says Fried, a slightly stooped man with thinning white hair combed straight back. (He grew up with dogs, his wife with cats--"I think she must have been in a former life a cat; She always knows what they are thinking, she knows what they want.") "Everybody cared for dogs; nobody cared for cats. Today, the cat is on top--it fits into our life. Cats are easier to maintain, they are very intelligent, they are very affectionate, very loving, and we could learn from them instead of killing them."

This constant refrain is echoed in Fried's recently composed "position paper." He'd been asked so many times for his philosophy that he decided he'd better write it down (the italics are his):

"The primary and immediate purpose of Fried's Cat Shelter is, of course, to provide a shrine of love and hope for hundreds of homeless, deserted and suffering felines who have come to us throughout the years and continue to come daily searching for warmth, love, and food.

"They are now living in our Sanctuary in total freedom, safe and protected from any further harm for the rest of their natural lives, for we neither cage nor kill, but spay and neuter . . .

"We also want to demonstrate that, apart from the many blessings, our idea of caring for our animals is more feasible in the long run from an economical viewpoint.

"This can be done by projecting over a period of 15 to 20 years. During this time we can expect a gradual decline in the costs of the various animal-control programs. A rigid (if necessary, compulsory) spaying and neutering program will reduce the number of strays considerably over the years until a fairer balance of homeless animals and homes can be achieved.

"Our present system, unfortunately called humane, of killing millions of afflicted animals year after year is offering no tangible evidence at all of doing a bit of good to either combat the suffering or to reduce the number of strays. Therefore, it will continue to cost the taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars year after year without any relief in sight . . ."

At the cost of spaying, neutering, and housing cats and dogs, the country eventually could spare itself the burden of having to kill millions of them every year, Fried argues. Their blood would not be on our hands.

But that cost would be formidable, as the Frieds' own shelter demonstrates. Despite volume discounts from three local veterinarians, their vet bill--for spaying, neutering, and general health care--runs over $1,000 a month. Medication is another $500 a month. Every day the cats run through 150 cans of moist food, 30 pounds of dry food, and eight economy-size boxes of Tender Vittles, their bedtime snack. The 8,000 pounds of litter the shelter requires every month are, mercifully, donated by Edward Lowe, the man who invented and has made a fortune from clay-based cat litters. Assisted by one full-time and a dozen part-time employees who do most of the cleaning and feeding and medicating, Fried says "my payroll is unbelievable, too." There is insurance to be paid. The furniture and linen must be replaced regularly. The Frieds collect $1,130 a month from social security. The quilts and candle holders bring in three or four thousand dollars a year. The shelter charges $25 for an adoption; but each cat, Fried estimates, costs the shelter an average of $100 in veterinary costs on arrival. For every five cats that go out, ten more come in, and each new wave of publicity brings another wave of cats.

Most of these cats will never find another home. Some are too old, too ugly, not friendly enough. Others are afflicted with feline leukemia, now commonly called "cat AIDS," but far more easily transmitted between felines than the human disease is among us. Twenty-six cats crowd an old trailer with a screened-in porch ("So young," says Fried, pointing to a half-grown female, "and already she has leukemia"); more space is needed.

Feline leukemia is considered incurable, and because it is so contagious, cats with it must be quarantined for life. Most shelters simply aren't equipped to do that--and some, which kill any animal that seems unlikely to be adopted (some even kill cats that come in with ear mites, which must winnow the population with extreme speed), wouldn't care to keep them if they could.

But Fried says he has seen feline leukemia "completely disappear" in some cases, and he argues that even afflicted cats are usually happy and comfortable. In those rare cases where the cat is clearly suffering--there have been only a couple over the years, he says--the Frieds will have it put down.

Incoming cats are quarantined for 12 to 14 days, "to make sure they're OK. Then they go to the vet, are spayed or neutered, get their shots, and then they go with the General Assembly."

Asked if there is a religious basis for his work, Hans Fried lights up. "You are the first one who asks me this question!" (This is a surprise to hear, for the man has dealt with reporters from publications ranging from the Morris Report--"the magazine for finicky readers"--to the National Enquirer, which, he says, ordered 200 photographs and then decided not to run the story.) He is inspired by Christian Science, a faith he discovered in Elmhurst. Its basic tenet, clearly discernible in the Frieds' work, is that God is love.

"I don't like to mention this, for they will think I'm a religious fanatic," says Fried. "Some people think that I'm unnormal thinking, and some people think I'm crazy. They think I'm an old cat nut or a religious nut. But I'm not." Indeed, there is too much humor in Hans Fried, too bright a twinkle in his eye, for him to make a persuasive lunatic. He simply likes cats, a lot.

Fortunately, a fair number of other people who also like cats a lot and agree with the Frieds' no-cage, no-kill philosophy contribute something occasionally. A mailing list of 4,000 names from around the country is just now being entered into a computer, after 14 years in which Hans Fried kept a handwritten record of every contribution. Lucille Fried is the author of a newsletter, purportedly dictated by Charlie Junior, one of seven "privileged characters" who have the run of the place, that goes out every three months to every name on the list. Sealed with a paw print, the newsletter features a head shot of Charlie, the latest facts and gossip from Fried's Cat Shelter, and, inevitably, news that the shelter is "flat broke."

"I think you could say that we have a big difference in philosophy," says Jane Stern, director of development and public relations for the Anti-Cruelty Society of Chicago. At no-kill shelters, she says, "a lot of animals are kept in cages for their entire lives. But humans have made dogs and cats a part of their world. Sometimes a cat will spend a lot of time hiding under the bed, or seem indifferent, but then there are times when it really wants to be scratched and patted by a human.

"We don't believe here at Anti-Cruelty that a life for any cat should be without a family."

The Anti-Cruelty Society takes in 20,000 animals a year--including an average of 4,000 cats just between May and September, the kitten season. "Generally, we accept animals of any age, any breed, any kind--including sheep, goats, anything. We adopt out dogs and cats."

Strays are kept for seven days, in the hope that their owners will claim them; then they, like all other animals brought in, go through a vet check. If they pass, they're put up for adoption. If they don't, they're killed. (Mere ear mites do not win a cat a place on the ACS hit list.) "We euthanize for upper respiratory problems, hair loss, discharge from the eyes--a lot of these things mean a sick animal, and we are forbidden by state law to adopt out a sick animal. Ringworm's another thing that can go right through [the adoption ward]. If it's a less ill animal--a dog that has kennel cough, for example--we'll send it to one of our foster homes for a couple of weeks, and treat it with Robitussin until it's better. Then we'll bring it back and put it up for adoption." Unless an animal develops an interdicted illness in the adoption ward, it'll be kept there until it's adopted, with no time limit; Stern says it's unusual for adoption to take even a month.

Stern dislikes the idea of cageless shelters, "just because of the danger of disease. We find that it's very difficult to keep something like that sterile." And she points to the flaw in Fried's operation, the very limited number of cats that the Frieds can help. Hans Fried takes in about 200 cats a year. He has to refuse 500 or 600.

Where Stern does agree, most emphatically, with the Frieds is on the subject of sterilizing animals.

"A lot of the time people want to blame humane societies for euthanizing, but they're the problem. . . . Families let their cats have kittens so that the kids can observe the 'miracle of life,' and then you have these seven cats that nobody wants, and what do you do with them? . . . Tomcats are a big part of the problem--[the owners] let them wander around, and they don't know what they've been up to."

The Anti-Cruelty Society, with a budget of more than $2 million, is supported entirely through private funds. "We get no state, federal, or local support. If we were to receive any kind of funds from government, we'd have to allow our animals to go to research, and we won't do that."

Neil Ruzic and his wife Carol have been more than good friends to the Frieds; they've donated $50,000 over two years to build an addition to the shelter. The Ruzics, who live in Beverly Shores, and the Frieds make up the board of Fried's Cat Shelter, Inc. A science writer with nine books to his credit, a former magazine publisher, cofounder of the National Space Society, and developer of an island in the Bahamas where he designed and owns a futuristic house powered by sun and sea, Ruzic is a man of parts. He is currently writing a novel.

Ruzic has his own priorities when it comes to Fried's; first on his list is "to get somebody else involved that could run it. . . . If you could get somebody in there who could work with them, that would be ideal." Ideally, that somebody would, like the Frieds themselves, forgo a salary. Utterly dependent on donations, the shelter is unlikely ever to offer a decent wage. What it asks is a sense of mission.

"The next requirement is to get people to adopt cats. I would like to see more emphasis on adopting. The emphasis has been on raising money for building so that they could have more cats, and of course, after the fire, that was the top priority.

"I wouldn't want to see it expand in terms of facilities--it's absolutely endless. . . . I think you have to get to the point where you're serving the community, and then have a stable population--cats in equal cats out--because there's absolutely no end to it."

Ruzic has a novel idea to help end the cat overload in northwest Indiana: "[Fried's] could be a clearing center for sending cats to Japan. They like cats--it's not like China, they don't cook them--they're clean people and cats are clean animals; they don't have a lot of space, and cats don't need a lot of space; and there's a shortage of cats in Japan. It gets back to having someone who can work full-time with the Frieds.

"The philosophy, I think, is a good one--to neuter instead of killing. I advocate neutering--actually, 'advocate' is a weak word for it. I'd like to have a law requiring people to have their animals spayed or neutered"--with an exemption for professional breeders. "[People] don't do it because they don't think about it, or they don't want to spend the money, or whatever.

"My wife and I are animal lovers; we hate to see animals bred and then killed. The Frieds are really nice people, and they've dedicated their lives to this. With a lot of these not-for-profit organizations, you really have to wonder about it, because they pay themselves a salary--and I'm not just talking about animal shelters. But these people, every penny they get, from social security, or the sale of their house, or whatever, goes into it. It's their lives."

Chicago's Tree House Animal Foundation was the inspiration for the Frieds' shelter. Tree House is also no-cage, no-kill, although it does put down cats with the feline leukemia virus. Unlike Fried's, Tree House eventually places "almost 100 percent" of its furry residents, according to executive director Ellen Sawyer.

Advertising leads to most of the placements. "We also get an enormous amount of adopters through word of mouth--people act a cat here, and they tell their friends and coworkers about us," says Sawyer. "We've really turned ourselves inside out to make a comfortable, homey, sanitary environment. Our building is a house--and people can identify with that. . . . It doesn't make people depressed or anxious like the standard place with rows of depressing cages."

Staffers at Tree House "get to know our cats' personalities quite well. We can help someone who's looking for a quiet cat, or someone with kids who might want a more rambunctious cat." Once cats are pronounced healthy by the staff vet, they're eligible for adoption. "Kittens, or cats who are unusually beautiful or charming, go right away. Some cats might take a couple of years." Mutilated cats, which Sawyer says can be just as loving and affectionate as any others, aren't the hardest to place. Cats that are shy or that have behavioral problems are. Eventually, a home is found for almost all.

"The Frieds are the nicest people in the world," says Ellen Sawyer. "They said they wanted to do something like this, and they did. A lot of people say they want to do something, but when they really look at all it involves, they're overwhelmed. [The Frieds] really did it."

A service provided by Fried's since 1983 is the Feline Hilton Hotel, a boarding service without cages or barking dogs. Each "room" measures eight by four by eight feet, has a heavy screen door, a shelf by a big window for sunning and gazing, a piece of furniture or two, and private toilet and dining facilities. "We always had between 10 and 20 cats," says Fried (they currently have an even dozen of their own, living with them in their double trailer at the back of their wooded lot), "and we hadn't been on vacation for 40 years, because we didn't want to give our cats to the veterinarian." They charge only $4 per cat per day, and attract a clientele from as far away as Chicago.

Other roomettes house mother cats with kittens, groups of deserted kittens, or cats who need to be alone for one reason or another. There is a room for geriatrics "who don't want to be bothered with these youngsters." There is a room for adolescents, so they can romp among themselves without bothering their elders. There are stroage rooms, a furnace room (the rebuilt shelter building has steam heat--much healthier for the cats than forced air, maintains Fried), a kitchen, a laundry room with never-sleeping machines. And there is the General Assembly.

It is the heart of Fried's Cat Shelter, and there are cats everywhere: lounging on a windowsill, or beneath a skylight, or on one of the raised mattresses, each covered with a washed-daily bedspread; or digging in one of the 30 litter boxes that line a wall; or sampling a mouthful of cat crunchies or having a drink; or strolling; or grooming themselves and one another; or having the odd brief catfight. "Occasionally you hear a harsh word, but it happens in the finest families," says Fried. There is no cat smell (the new building is constructed of extremely washable materials, which are scrubbed and disinfected every other day), there is no loose cat fur, there are no fleas.

Two hundred cats share this big sun-bathed room, and as Hans Fried comes in many of them rush to greet him. "Hi, kids! Hallo, Lucindachen! This is my secret love!" as a cat clambers to his shoulder. "Always when she sees me she comes." Others find a spot on his arm, so that he is draped by three cats as he shows the room. "Hallo, Mama Maggiechen! Hallo, sweetheart!

"Look, so many cats, and all are different--their coloring, their size, always something. What's beautiful on the black cats is the eyes." Every cat here has a moniker; Fried doesn't know all of them, but he says his assistants can call every one by name. We meet Charlie Junior, resplendent in a rhinestone-studded golden collar and sleeping with his cronies; he is indifferent to today's visitors.

One cat has no tail, another has no ears, a third has but three legs; all three would have received a death sentence almost anywhere else. Some of the cats ignore their visitors, others saunter up to be scratched and petted. One little black cat follows us around, begging to be stroked, but decides she really doesn't care to be held. It makes leaving her behind a little easier.

What will happen to all this when the Frieds are no longer around? Lucille Fried is in the hospital as we speak, down with a recurring case of pneumonia. "That's a good question. A lot of people ask that question. It will continue to exist. We have several people who will jump in when we are not there anymore. . . . I want to have it run as perfect as possible. It needs to continue--it doesn't need to improve, but to continue."

Outside, as one of the Frieds' own cats, Elsa (for the heroine of Lohengrin), scurries across the yard, Hans Fried gestures at the undeveloped lot behind the leukemia ward. "One day I hope it will be completely built up and that I can take every cat that needs a home here. . . . Yes, I would [enlarge] it in a day. If some godfather, some godmother came along who had the money, I wouldn't wait one minute."

In his position paper, Fried wrote, "As for myself, I must admit that nothing has ever taught me a more valuable lesson than living for many years in close association with our animal companions--our blessed felines. As strange as it may seem, through it I have learned to better understand the true purpose of my own life. Like a Pandora box, it has unveiled to me a complete new vista of life in which man's inescapable and noble mission is to reflect, by birthright, God's nature on this planet."

Asked about his philosophy, he responds, "I always say you cannot teach a tot the laws of mathematics. And we have to go very, very slow to change our living. But what I know I try to put into practice. And I know that the way we treat our animals is a bad recommendation for the human race. If we could change our way of thinking, it would change the way we look at the world. Animals are easier to work with than people--they don't talk back! We have to work to solve our race problems, our discrimination problems, and this thinking could help. But this goes too far. I try to do what I understand."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/John Sundlof.

Add a comment