Terry Lauerman is a 75-year-old retired Spanish teacher from De Pere, Wisconsin, who spends his days petting cats. Sometimes, Terry gets tired — and when that happens (and it happens a lot), he takes a little cat nap with his feline friends. On September 18, the animal sanctuary where Terry volunteers shared a series of photos of a dozing Terry snuggled by equally sleepy cats, and he became an instant internet sensation. Dubbed the “Cat Grandpa,” Terry is surprised by his newfound fame.
“I’m just petting cats here, there’s nothing special about it,” he told WomansWorld.com. But what Terry’s doing is special, because many of the cats at Safe Haven Pet Sanctuary Inc. in Green Bay, Wisconsin, have lived hard lives. When we talked to him, he was petting a black-and-tan striped tomcat named Buckhorn. “He was very frightened for a long time, and now he’ll come and sit next to me and want to be held, and petted, and brushed, and all that.”
Before volunteering at Safe Haven, Terry worked at several local humane societies. “I had worked at Bay Area Humane Society and Door County Humane Society previously, and I had a couple thousand hours of volunteer service there, but I decided I didn’t like cages. These cats are uncaged here, and they just sort of walk around; it’s a homey environment, and I’m much happier volunteering here. It’s very nice.”
As a child, Terry had always had cats, but the places he lived after moving didn’t allow them. “For years I did nothing, but when I retired, I decided I would want to do something that was fun. And so I have my projects that I’ll do in the morning, different things, research. I’m a retired Spanish teacher, so I do research on that. Then in the afternoons, I spend three hours at the santuary here just enjoying the cats — and they enjoy me, too.“
By his estimate, Terry has been working with Safe Haven for about four months, and he’s got a routine — which usually involves napping. “Well, I was tired and [the cats] were tired, and they crawled right up on me. This one just loved to sleep on my legs, and if I would hold him on my chest he would move down immediately to my legs. His name was Louis. Louis just got adopted so I’m in shock now — separation shock — but that’s what happens. You get attached to a cat, and then they get adopted. The one in the picture has been adopted by someone. They saw the picture and wanted the cat.”
It was during one of those cat naps that Elizabeth Feldhausen, the founder of Safe Haven Pet Sanctuary, snapped the adorable (and now viral) shots of Terry and the kitties. “Well, I was sleeping and [Elizabeth] said ‘Can I take your picture?’ and I said ‘Yeah, you can take the picture,’ and she put it on the web I guess, and so there you have it.” When Elizabeth told Terry how everyone had just fallen in love with the photos, he was surprised. “Oh I couldn’t believe it. It’s unbelieveable.”
After the photos captured hearts all over the country, dozens of donations came pouring in — $20,000 in just two days. At one point, the sanctuary’s website crashed because as many as 1,000 people tried to visit every second. And while Terry is thrilled that his photos are driving so much goodwill, he’s content to just continue doing what he does best: petting cats.
“A lot of them do [come running when I come in]. They know I have treats, and they know I have a brush, so they love to get brushed. And of course, they all like treats.” As the cat-brushing expert, Terry knows all the best places to pet a cat. “Most of them like to have the under chin brushed. They’ll lift their head up, and then I can brush their neck and they seem to like that, so I would call that the ‘sweet spot’ on a cat.”
Terry adds that he enjoys his time at the pet sanctuary because of the diversity of felines he gets to care for. “We have a couple blind cats, we have a couple that are paralyzed. It’s satisfying to work with a real needy cat, too. We have some regular, normal cats, too, but the ones that are special needs are really fun to work with. A lot of them have had really sad histories before they got here, but this is a safe haven, and it’s a very homey situation for them: it’s shelter, and air-conditioning, and heating, and food, and a comfortable place for them to be. They’ve found a home in a way until they somebody would adopt them. And of course, some of them are very old and perhaps will never be adopted, so this is their final [home].”
Terry has undoubtedly formed a special bond wih the cats at Safe Haven, which makes it bittersweet when they get adopted. “I lost one yesterday, her name was Tilly. I had worked with her for several months. She just got adopted, but as soon as I would come, she would follow me around, so she knew I had treats, and she was looking for treats. And so I got here today and Tilly was gone, I had no one to great me at the door.”
Any pet owner will understand the pain of losing an animal — even one that wasn’t yours to begin with. Fortunately, that means Terry is open to love and cuddle another cat. “That’s my experience: You gain one when another one is gone.”
If you would like to make sure Safe Haven Pet Sanctuary and Terry can continue helping cats in need, you can donate on their website here.