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Cat museum stretches its legs: As visitation grows, museum plans for larger location

Harold Sims launched the American Museum of the House Cat in 2017 but has been involved in cat rescues in Western North Carolina since the 1990s. Harold Sims launched the American Museum of the House Cat in 2017 but has been involved in cat rescues in Western North Carolina since the 1990s.

Now well into its second year of operation, things are purring along at the American Museum of the House Cat in Sylva, so much so that director Harold Sims is hatching a plan to build a new, bigger home for the cat-honoring attraction. 

“Getting a crowd like we have today, it’s pretty tight quarters in here,” Sims said on a rainy August Thursday that had seen more than 30 people check out the museum. “It will be more spacious.”

Sims envisions a space nearly triple the 1,000 square feet the museum now occupies cohabitating with the Old School Antique Mall on U.S. 441, in the Savannah area of Jackson County. Displays in the existing space are necessarily crowded, and Sims, a longtime cat lover and collector of all manner of cat-related artifacts, has plenty more potential exhibits in storage. The plans are made and a preferred location picked out — all that’s left is to see the purchase go through and start building. Sims believes it would be possible to finish the new museum in time for the new season’s launch in April 2019.

“Everything in there is sacred, you might say,” Sims said as he gestured toward the rooms where the cat exhibits are. “A lot of it’s one-of-a-kind. A lot of the wind-up toys are going back to the 1890s, and the carousel cats are something you don’t see every day.”

The museum, one of only two cat-centric museums in the United States — the other is in Alliance, Ohio — opened its doors for the first time in April 2017, operating six days a week through the end of the season in December. More than 6,000 people visited the museum during those first nine months, Sims said, with nearly 3,000 people coming by in the first four months of the 2018 season, Sims said. Proceeds benefit the Catman2 cat shelter that Sims also runs. 

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Stuffed replicas of Catman2’s mascot Kevin the Vampire Cat perch in a row.

“Everybody seems to be very pleased,” Sims said. “They come in and laugh at things.”

There’s plenty to laugh at — or marvel at — in the cat museum. There are miniature cats playing instruments on a miniature stage, painted cats slinking on the sides of beer steins, cat masks hanging on walls, stuffed cats, carousel cats, framed cats in paintings, and even a real mummified cat from Egypt, likely killed and embalmed so that it could follow is master into the afterlife. 

“I think cats are amazing animals that need to be seen by people for what they are,” Sims said. 

That’s a sentence that summarizes the trajectory of Sims’ entire post-retirement life. Now 83, Sims has been the force behind the Cullowhee cat shelter Catman2 since the organization began in 1996. After retiring from a career teaching biology at St. Petersburg Community College in Florida, he and his wife Kay moved north to the mountains, where he soon found himself absorbed with in the overwhelming task of trying to find homes for all the cats without them. 

In 2002, that fixation gained a permanent monument with the completion of the Catman2 Shelter next to Sims’ home in Cullowhee. The no-kill shelter has an average population of 65 cats and handles about 150 animals each year, having conducted more than 3,000 adoptions since it opened. The shelter also manages a low-cost spay/neuter program, which has kept thousands of unwanted kittens from being conceived due to hundreds of spay/neuter operations on shelter animals, pets and feral cats. 

“It’s a legacy,” said Sims. “It’s something I want to do while I’m here to do it that could have been done by anybody, but nobody wanted to do it. I pitched in my whole retirement years working for cats you might say.”

Sims has put a lot of thought into his legacy. He’s getting older, and since the museum opened last year he’s felt the strain of being on his feet nearly every day, taking tickets and welcoming guests. He wants to know that the cats — and the Catman2 organization he created — will be taken care of when he’s gone. 

“I gotta reach beyond the grave somehow to keep it going,” he said. “I think it can go on. It’s going to be bigger, it’s going to be better than it is right now — and it’s been tremendously good this year.”

 

Support the museum

Donations of time, money, shelter supplies and cat-related relics for the museum are wanted to support the American Museum of the House Cat and the shelter cats at Catman2 that museum proceeds benefit. 

Find out how to get involved at www.catman2.org.

 

When you go

The American Museum of the House Cat is located at the Old School Antique Mall in the Savannah area of Jackson County, at 4704 Highway 441 South, Sylva. 

The museum is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday and noon to 5 p.m. on Sundays, but closed on Mondays. Cats on leashes and small dogs are welcome. Admission is $7.50 for adults, $2 for children under 12 and free for children under 6. 828.476.9376.

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