It was still summer when Jim Hershberger packed up his 22 cats at his homestead in the Mentasta Mountains, hauled them down a mountain on a sled and loaded them into a raft. After a short river trip, he drove 250 miles to Anchorage, where he moved into a friend's shipping container.
Hershberger's plan: get supplies, visit the veterans' clinic here and find a woman. He is no ordinary man, his cats are not ordinary cats, and so far, he hasn't found that extraordinary woman who wants the whole package.
Instead, the city broke his heart.
Hershberger is fighting for his felines -- talking to reporters, seeking legal help, painting "Free my cats now" on his vehicle -- after they were seized Jan. 14 in what the city says is an ongoing animal cruelty investigation. A police officer found the cats in crates inside Hershberger's gray Toyota hatchback, parked outside the Conex where Hershberger and his dog Sheba were staying. It ranged between 5 degrees below zero and 5 above in the vehicle, police said.
"I was in tears talking to them," Hershberger said.
The officer cited Hershberger, and city prosecutors are looking into criminal charges pending a veterinarian's examination of the animals. The cats are now at Anchorage Animal Care and Control Center. Hershberger is hoping to strike a deal that will free them.
"His cats are being held as evidence in a crime, and so I don't really know by what mechanism at this point he could just take his cats and go," said prosecutor Cynthia Franklin.
The shelter's spokeswoman, Brooke Taylor, said the cats were in "fair to good" condition when they came in. Hershberger says the cats are accustomed to the cold and are well cared for.
"They needed the cold weather to keep them primed up, because it's extremely cold where I live," he said.
Hershberger left the cats in his vehicle with a down sleeping bag and two litter boxes, which he says he cleaned daily. They weren't in crates all the time, but he had to keep some separated, he said. They went through about 70 pounds of cat litter a week and two bags of food every day, with two cans of mackerel mixed in, he said.
"I took extremely good care of my cats."
Hershberger is allowed to visit his clowder of cats from time to time, a series of sad experiences, he said.
The mostly black-and-white cats -- including Jack, Jill, Lucky 2, Mary Stone, Mellow Fellow, Lion and Lorinda -- were "freaked out" when he went to see them Jan. 17, Hershberger said.
"I took each cat out and I hugged 'em and I held 'em," Hershberger said. "I told every one of them cats that I'm going to do my best to get 'em out of there as quick as I can get 'em out of there."
Hershberger says the cats run freely at his place in North Slana, 50 miles from Tok, at the end of a winter trail that crosses three rivers and two lakes.
Making the trek, cats inside crates loaded on a sled, has been dangerous in the past, he said. Last winter, he attempted the trip in knee-deep snow when it was 40 degrees below zero. He didn't make it past the first frozen river before he had to stop and build a fire and eventually called 911 on his cell phone. The troopers told him to save himself.
"The first thing they told me was, 'Leave your cats and get out.' And I said, 'No, I can't do that.' "
Instead, he pulled them back to his car, he said.
Hershberger only comes to Anchorage for "modern conveniences," supplies, his search for lasting human companionship and to visit the veterans' clinic. He was in the Navy during the Vietnam War and hung around the Berkeley drug scene, sources of lasting anxiety problems, he said. Though he says he doesn't smoke or drink anymore, Hershberger has so far been unsuccessful at finding a mate, on the Internet or through dance lessons, and he admits the cats have been a turnoff.
"I'd never give up my cats," he said.
So why, many have wondered, does he want so many cats after all the heartache, loneliness and now legal woes?
Hershberger says he's had them since they were kittens. And he's had cats his whole life, some that traveled with him across the country, riding on his backpack as he hitchhiked. At his childhood home in Kansas, his father bred dogs and had 15 to 20 at a time. His dad sold the dogs, and Hershberger says maybe someday he'll sell the cats. But he's not ready to part with any of them just yet, he said.
"Right now, to me, they're priceless. Somebody could offer me a thousand dollars for one and I wouldn't sell it," Hershberger said. "I don't really want to part with any more and I really don't need any more. That's where I'm at right now."
If Hershberger is convicted of animal cruelty, he could face a fine, jail time and mandatory counseling. And the city would have to take away his cats.
Hershberger says he'll sue to get his cats back, but he hopes it doesn't come to that.
"All I care about is my cats' safety," he said. "They need to be with me. They're hurting bad. It's like they're in jail, like they're being punished because I got a charge put on me."
Reach Casey Grove at email@example.com or 257-4589.