SYLVA, North Carolina — Harold Sims is wearing a jean shirt with “Catman2” stitched into the left breast pocket. He’s sitting on a black couch, just a few feet away from an enormous tree trunk that’s been carved into the shape of a cat.
Naturally, Mr. Sims, 84, is talking about cats.
“I thought we needed a cat museum in this country, so I decided to build one,” he says. “People thought I was crazy. They told me that nobody wanted a cat museum. Well it turned out that a lot of people did.”
The tangible result of Mr. Sims’ desire to “honor the house cat,” as he puts it, is the American Museum of the House Cat. Unofficially, it’s the largest and most visited museum in the United States solely dedicated to domesticated felines. It’s also just one of nine on Earth, Mr. Sims claims.
“It’s not the best in the world,” he says. “But it’s probably the best in this country, by a long shot.”
Since it’s grand opening in 2017, Mr. Sims reports that upward of 15,000 people — including tourists from Russia, China and England — have come through this small, inconspicuous building just off US-441 in rural Western North Carolina, a region of the country often known as the Gateway to the Smokies.
Now it’s also a portal into the magical world of the house cat.
“It’s one of only two [house cat museums] in the country,” Mr. Sims claims. “There’s another up in Ohio, but there’s not much there at all.”
He’s talking about the Feline History Museum in Alliance, Ohio, which features at least two things that the American Museum of the House Cat does not: living cats and a functional cat house designed by the late modernist architect Frank Lloyd Wright. The cat house in question is unassuming, Cherokee Red mini-structure. And it did not impress Mr. Sims when he saw it in person.
“If I were a cat, I wouldn’t want to live in it,” he says. “It’s really small, with low ceilings. Not easy to live in.”
Mr. Sims’ museum, while lacking a Lloyd Webber, features endless charms.
For starters, there’s that towering tree trunk house cat, which Mr. Sims claims dates to early 17th century Borneo. At one point, the sculpture resided at a Halloween store somewhere in Pennsylvania. It’s been painted in a flamboyant style, and Mr. Sims isn’t happy about it: not the style itself, that is, but the fact that it was altered in any capacity. “It must have been beautiful wood at some point. But then some idiot painted over it and messed up a good antique,” he says.
Around the corner from said antique, inside of a vertical glass display case, is an authentic mummified cat from Ancient Egypt that dates back to 332-30 BCE. It’s wrapped up, as though sleeping.
As Mr. Sims tells it, ancient Egyptians worshipped felines and believed they could carry a human’s spirit into the afterlife. Thus this cat was killed and placed alongside an unidentified human corpse, as a sort of spiritual escort. “The cat was a God to them,” Mr. Sims says.
He denounces that bygone practice as unnecessarily brutal. He has a soft spot for the mummified kitty, which he’s dubbed Hebony. Mr. Sims is planning on writing a book about Hebony, in which the heroic feline will uncover the truth about the Egyptians’ cat-slaying rituals.
Spoiler alert: things do not end well for Hebony.
“He finds out that cats are being killed for people’s graves, so he undertakes a quest to figure out what’s going on,” Mr. Sims says. “He discovers what’s happening, and becomes a whistleblower, of sorts. But they eventually catch him, mummify him. And that’s the end.”
‘It was like popcorn’
Mr. Sims tells this story like he tells all of his stories: in a rapid-fire, fact-heavy, semi-mumbling style reminiscent of the late author Hunter Thompson. It’s hard, if not impossible, to catch everything he says the first time around, which makes the use of a recorder doubly important. He breaks up his mile-a-minute delivery with an occasional warm, disarming laugh.
He’s done a lot in his life, from serving in the Navy, to earning his doctorate in education to working as a marine biologist. He also taught at a community college in Clearwater, Florida, for 22 years, before retiring and tucking himself and his wife away in the mountains of Western North Carolina — like so many Floridians do.
One of his first cats was a Persian named Buzzy. After Buzzy died, Mr. Sims and his wife traveled a bit, then settled down again in Western North Carolina. One day, they spotted a cat walking up their road. So they took it under their wing.
Then they got another one. And another. And another.
“It was like popcorn,” Mr. Sims says. “Now we have 13 of them.”
It was around this time that Mr. Sims became intrigued by the personality of house cats. He began devouring literature about them, and his passion only increased the deeper he delved. “The more I learned, the more I began to believe that they’re smarter than we are,” he says.
Let him explain.
“Cats don’t discriminate. They don’t care if you’re white or black or yellow. And they speak a universal language: you could take a cat to Paris and he’d interact with a French cat on the street, no problem. Plus, cats don’t care about what other cats have. A cat has what it has, and that’s fine with him. Cats don’t start wars. They have no gods to pray to. They don’t mess up the environment. They just live.”
Then Mr. Sims says something that seems to drive to the core of what he and the museum are all about.
“I wish cats could rule the world,” he says. “We wouldn’t be in such a mess if that were the case. People think I’m crazy. But by God, cats know how to live.”
That Catman2 stitching on his breast pocket? For starters, his nickname is Catman. (More on the “2” momentarily). In front of the museum, along US-441, there’s a large sign featuring a picture of Mr. Sims holding a cuddly feline. It reads “Catman’s Lair” in colorful lettering.
Mr. Sims is certainly deserving of the “Catman” title. He’s done so much more for his feline companions than simply memorialize them and their myriad likenesses in a museum. He’s also helped improve their lives within Jackson County, where he resides.
Around the time that he became borderline (or perhaps totally) obsessed with house cats, he discovered that every shelter in the county killed its cats if they weren’t adopted within a given time period. So in 1996, he set out to build the county’s first no-kill institution.
That shelter, now known as Catman2 (“Like Katmandu,” Mr. Sims explains), is still going strong today. At any given time, it’s home to approximately 70 cats. Not only are the felines spared a potential death, they’re also boarded sans cages. That’s the way it’s been since the shelter’s inception.
Some of the creatures have arrived at Catman2 by strange means.
“One day, this barefooted guy came to the door,” Mr. Sims recalls. “He had hair down the back of his neck, a sheet over his body and a cat in his arms. He was apparently going to jail for marijuana and he wanted us to take his cat.”
“He loved the thing, and wanted to make sure it was taken care of,” he adds. “So we took him in, and the guy was thankful, and said he’d pay us someday, if he could.”
Before the guy left, Mr. Sims asked him for the cat’s name.
“Oh,” the guy responded. “It’s Mary Jane.”
A Place to Call Home
Sylva, North Carolina, isn’t where one would expect to find the country’s largest anything. It’s a quaint town of 2,600 about an hour southwest of Asheville, a city of 91,000 that prides itself on cultural weirdness. It’s often considered the East Coast’s answer to Austin. If there were ever a place befitting of a cat museum, Asheville would be it.
Mr. Sims understood this, and originally entertained the idea of opening the American Museum of the House Cat within city limits. But property was too expensive, so he settled on Sylva, a locale best known as a filming site for the critically acclaimed 2017 movie “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.”
“I couldn’t afford a plot of land in Asheville. Then, three years ago, I found this place,” Mr. Sims says. “I give $1,000 per month to keep the thing running, which is reasonable.”
But he won’t be in this building much longer. He’s in the process of constructing a new location across the street that, when finished, will be three times larger than the space he’s sitting in now. Mr. Sims has already mapped out in his mind what some of it will look like.
There will be two sliding barn doors out front, with a cat on each: one happy and one sad. The happy cat represents all rescued felines, while the sad one represents those searching for a forever home. The archway over the door will be made into an enormous cat, ala the world famous Cat Museum in Kuching, Borneo, from which Mr. Sims draws much inspiration.
He has other ideas floating around in his head, but doesn’t want to give away all of his secrets prior to the relocation. One thing is for sure, though: he wants to make the place as visually impressive as possible.
“It’s going to be a big ‘wow’ for people when they walk in,” Mr. Sims says. “And when they leave, it’ll be ‘I can’t believe he did that.’ Hopefully, it’ll live on long after I’m gone.”
What becomes of the American Museum of the House Cat after Mr. Sims passes away is something he often worries about. He’s in his mid-80s, and despite being in generally good health, he won’t live forever. He’s poured his time and money into the museum, and there doesn’t appear to be a clear heir. “Some days, I feel like a dinosaur that just keeps trying to survive,” he says.
But all of that is in the future. For now, Mr. Sims and his museum are thriving. He’s fully pursuing his eccentric passion, well into his golden years, and his adoration of felines has bled into his creative life.
Mr. Sims has been many things: a Navy man, a marine biologist, an author, and much more. He’s also a poet whose book— “Poems, Songs and Other Silly Things about Cats” — is available at the museum. “These ideas pop into my mind out of nowhere,” he says.
The last poem in the collection is titled “Why Folks Call me Catman.” It has a lovable Suessian rhythm, and it ends like this:
Soon people were bringing me cats and my new name began
The people were calling me, that Old Catman
So don’t sit around when you retire
Find something that you might wish to aspire
People won’t call you the Catman, because that’s what they called me
But they will give you a nickname, you just wait and see
This article originally appeared in USA TODAY.