How To Live And Die With 40 Cats? An Interview with a Country Cat Lady

By: Justin Nobel | Date: Wed, January 29th, 2020

Cat Portrait in home of Katrin Hecker
A painting in the home of Katrin Hecker, who lives with more than 40 cats. "I think people are more interested in where the spirit of their cat goes than where their husband goes," she says.

Where do cats go when they die? Can they come back as other cats? How do you know when to euthanize an animal? Can dogs commit suicide? How many cats is too many cats?

These are some of the questions Digital Dying recently asked Katrin Hecker, who for more than 20 years has run an animal welfare organization called AnimalKind in Hudson, New York. Katrin grew up in East Germany, lived as an artist in New York City during the 1980s and moved to the town of Hudson in upstate New York in the mid-1990s. “Hudson has 84 alleyways and there were between 15 and 60 cats in each alleyway,” says Katrin. Thus, AnimalKind was born.

Since then, she has treated and taken in thousands of cats—and other animals too—and helped facilitate countless happy adoptions. Katrin has also helped cats die, encountered them after death, and has a unique window into end of life care for animals, which has given her a unique window into life, and death, as a human. Katrin lives with 40 plus cats and a handful of dogs on a country road in the Hudson River valley north of New York City. Digital Dying recently spent an evening with her.

How Were You Led To A Life With 40+ Cats?

I am doomed with the humanitarian syndrome. I was born in East Germany and was a pediatric nurse in Hamburg then came to the United States to learn English and worked as an au pair. All I could say was “Hello my name is Katrin I am looking for the room, you advertise in the Village Voice.” I wanted to go to Latin America so I could do humanitarian work, but I ended up staying in the United States. That was 1987. When it comes to dying, I have experience with children, old people, and animals. As a pediatric nurse, I dealt with children who were sick with terminal illnesses.

This one 11-year-old, in particular, was definitely going to die. His mother came every day and often was very upset. At one point he got up in front of all of us and said we should not be sad for him going. He explained that every night for six months there were two angels who came and were taking him on a journey and they were showing him what he would see when he died. He had this demeanor that was very comforting. We were there to take care of him and he was taking care of us. A few of the children were like that. If you listen and you don’t take your own ego into account or don’t think you know it all then you can learn a lot from people who are on the cusp of moving on.

Do You Believe Children Are Better Able to Cope With Death Than Adults?

A weird phenomenon you experience when you hit older age is the older you get the more you remember when you were younger. I always grew up with my mother saying, ‘This child has too much fantasy.’ I believe children have memories of their earlier life and are closer to certain experiences they may have had in the past. These are things that may be leftover from a different place and if they are not validated, say by a culture that does not believe that people had past lives, then these experiences go away. But there are cultures on earth that do things differently. This doesn’t mean the person who became the child died five years ago, they could have died 5,000 years ago. Time doesn’t exist, it only exists for us here because we are making it work for us. My question to you is when you were a kid did you have memories that didn’t fit?

How Do You Know When It’s The Right Time To Put An Animal Down?

I do it when they stop eating. If they stop eating, maybe they have a disease, but if they are old and they are really not having any problems and they stop eating to me that is a sign they are not interested in being around anymore and they want to go. And of course, before any decision like this they will always be checked by a vet.

I see this with people too. It is like you refuse the nourishment you need to be alive, and that is a sign you don’t want to be around anymore. And I think what we can do for the animals and not do for humans, that is horrible. So many humans are suffering, there should be a way for humans to make the choice to end their lives without pain. If someone is young and depressed that is different, but I really believe it should be an option for people. If they don’t have a quality of life and there is no help for people then please let them go, because what happens in nursing homes here is very scary. That is worse than death. And I think it should be your prerogative to be able to choose when to die.

Digital Dying Has Written About Animal Suicide, Do You Believe It Can Happen?

I never really thought of that, but now I have goosebumps. I have seen so many animals give up. Usually, it’s older animals that have been displaced. I always think that it’s my failure because we are not doing enough but I know we do everything we can and there are some animals that just don’t want to be here anymore. They refuse to be alive and they stop eating. Now that I think of it, I do believe there is something true about animal suicide. You have to change your thinking because suicide is such a human thing, you think of dropping off a bridge, or someone hanging themselves, some physical act. But animals don’t have those options, so they have to do whatever they have available to them, and the only option for them is to just stop eating.

Do You Have Any Stories About Cats Coming Back From The Dead?

My most amazing cat story ever is the story of Hanzy and Franzy, two kittens set to be euthanized. Both were missing legs and hopped like rabbits. Hanzy was mother to the kittens and Franzy hated people, whenever he saw a person he hobbled away. While I was away in Germany for Christmas a pit bull in the house killed Hanzy. When things like this happen you can’t predict your own emotions—I was pissed, I was angry, I was sad. Hanzy and I had an important ritual, every morning I would go to the toilet and Hanzy comes right between my legs, throws herself on her back and shows me her belly. I always have 40 cats, at least, so it’s hard to find intimate moments with each one of them. That was our intimate moment, and now she was dead.

Maybe three or four days after I returned, Franzy, who never even used to look at me, comes between my legs when I’m in the bathroom. I am not making this up, by the life of my mother it happened! And I knew it was Hanzy, because Franzy would never do something like this. And from that moment on, and for about a week, Franzy was acting like Hanzy. He came every morning to the bathroom to be my belly rub. Then, a week later he got really sick with FIP (Feline Infectious Peritonitis) and died very quickly. What I think happened is Hanzy went to him and said, ‘Hey, come over here, it’s more fun.’ So, an animal can come back through another animal. It is fascinating. I think people are more interested in where the spirit of their cat goes than where their husband goes.

Do You Believe Death Is The End?

Death to me is like a Wednesday in the universe. Death is not the end. I think that death is totally okay and fine, there is nothing to fear. What I think is horrible is suffering, suffering is totally different than death. Death is like steps to another room or another door. Suffering is torture and pain and should never be exposed to anyone. And if there is no quality of life there is no reason to be alive, I really believe that. I believe this for myself too, I would never just want to exist, but that is my personal belief. Everyone is different.

Tell Me About Coming To Hudson And How You Started AnimalKind?

My husband was a punk rocker, leather and all. I met him in New York and we moved to Hudson in 1995 and lived in a 9,000 square-foot church. There were so many cats, you have no idea. Hudson has 84 alleyways and there were between 15 and 60 cats in each alleyway. I was hot, young, I had red hair, I rode a motorcycle. We were basically like the witch and the devil.

The first cat I found was this three-legged half-tail cat in my backyard with an eyeball hanging out of his head. I was a designer and had a label called Cave Attire, making clothes for rock stars. At first, I looked around and saw all these cats and thought, ‘Oh my god, they love cats here.’ It wasn’t until later I realized they’re pregnant, starving and sick. The first cat I trapped was Lucky. I bought Lucky to a vet and it was an $800 bill. I didn’t have the money, so I traded three of my Cave Attire items to get Lucky taken care of. Some older people in town will remember this redhead on a motorcycle with a saddlebag full of cat food. I went to all the alleyways feeding cats. Then I realized feeding them is nice but it’s not really doing anything long-term, so I started spaying and neutering. But that was like $20-30,000, so I got incorporated.

What Do You Say To People Who Think 40 Cats Is Too Many?

I think no matter what you choose to drown yourself in, as long as it is being taken care of and treasured and appreciated, then it is okay. Is there a rule book somewhere? For all this stuff that has to do with materialism, it’s like more is better. Houses, pools, cars. But when it comes to things of the soul why is there a limit? This whole thing about how many animals you have, it is so manmade. I am not talking about 100 birds and 40 cats in cages. I think as long as you care for them and are responsible for them then it is okay. If I give them what they need and let them live their own life, then who is to judge me. I have been through this all of my life. I have been called a witch. I have been called a crazy cat woman. As long as someone provides the quality of life it is okay. And I do I think I have a better home than most people who have no animals.

Tell Me More About Rescuing Cats From War-Torn Countries, Where Death Is So Common And Close?

The blind cat from Yemen, now happy and cozy in Katrin’s living room.

I have connected with women in Egypt, in Lebanon, in Libya, in Costa Rica. They always find me and since I am a sucker and have the humanitarian syndrome I can’t say no. I am connected to this really incredible woman from Syria who lives in America now. She contacted me to try and get cats out of Syria. I tried to do a fundraiser and GoFundMe and PayPal shut me down. I suppose they figured I could be financing terrorists in Syria. I didn’t know any of that, I just wanted to get these animals out of the warzone, and we did. We got 12 cats and two dogs. You cannot fly to Syria. This woman flew to Lebanon then took a taxi to Syria and another taxi to Aleppo then picked up the cats and drove them back. I love that story.

In Yemen people who rescue animals found me over the internet and drove them to the airport. These people in Yemen have no food themselves and they are saving cats. This little cat from Yemen is blind [points to a cat on the sofa], and he is the best cat in the world. It makes them happy, they have so much happening in their lives now. And knowing he is happy makes me happy. But recusing cats from these countries costs a lot of money. It costs $350 to take a cat out of Syria because you have to get a vet check and pay for the flight. So, ten animals is $3,500. I don’t have it, and I can’t raise it because if I say Syria I get shut down. It is little drops here and there, that’s all I can do. I wish I could do more.

Any Special Advice On Cats, Death, Or Anything Else?

When I came to Hudson I thought I was going to be a famous designer. I painted, I had shows in New York City, shows in Europe. But it just stopped with the cats. I realized I could design 100 coats or I could make 100 paintings but I really wanted to be making a difference in life. What is the goal in life, why am I here? Then it came to me, when I leave I want to leave a big smile and two thumbs up to myself, whatever that means to me. I realized it doesn’t mean the clothes or the paintings it meant making a difference in someone’s life, and it doesn’t matter if it is an animal or a child or something else. And now here we are, ten litter boxes every morning. There is no right or wrong way because there are so many openings for passionate people. Passionate people are needed everywhere.

To learn more about AnimalKind, visit their website here. To make a donation to Katrin personally for her animal rescue work in the US and other countries, please contact Digital Dying writer Justin Nobel and he can connect you.

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