Sandy Sgrillo grew up loving animals of any kind.
"My parents weren't big animal people so they never really allowed us to have any pets," said Sgrillo. "So I said when I get to be an adult, I will have as many as I want."
East Tennesseans first heard of Sgrillo through her Smoky Mountain Llama Treks business.
"For 10 years I took people out on the hikes out on the trails," said Sgrillo. "We packed the llamas and I just simply adored that and loved that and had a lot of fun introducing people to llamas which they were not real familiar with."
Sgrillo, who is also an artist, sold her llama trek business several years ago but continued to operate a stained glass business in a space at the Covered Bridge Shops on Glades Road in Gatlinburg.
"I had a bunch of cats in the store and I was finding out that people were more interested in the cats than the stained glass," recalled Sgrillo. "Really, their spending limits are a little tight lately because of the economy. They'd come in and play with the cats and want to know 'what's his name?', 'how old is he?', 'can we play with the cat?' So I thought what a perfect idea to start Kat Kingdom which was an idea of mine from years ago."
Kat Kingdom is a mini-petting zoo featuring cats. Visitors can come in and, for a minimal fee, play with the 11 cats that live there. She was inspired by cat cafés in other countries and wanted to open a first of its kind business here in East Tennessee.
"I used to be the llama mama and now I'm the crazy cat lady," said Sgrillo. "For many, many years I wanted to do my home this way but people already think I'm the crazy cat lady so I said 'well, let me just open a place'."
Eleven kitties, ranging in age from 1 to 14, prowl, jump, play, and sleep their way around the store. A majority of the cats are Sandy's own pets that were rescued while the rest are on loan from a local animal shelter and up for adoption.
"It's really for the awareness of the adoptable cats," said Sgrillo. "We want to press the adoptions and this is a great way for them to come out and get out of the cage. We've got the playful ones. We have the ones that just constantly want to climb up and go higher and higher and higher. They walk the pipes, they walk the walls, and they'll try to escape out once in a while and then you get the little quiet ones that like to curl up in their little bed and just nap all day. But most are very friendly and very playful."
Sandy says at first her friends were skeptical about this unique business.
"They completely thought I was crazy and they still do think I'm crazy but it's working so. People are always looking for something new and interesting," said Sgrillo. "Eventually, I want to have a cat cafe so people can come and eat and enjoy the cats during and afterwards from eating."
Sandy goes works tirelessly to ensure they are healthy and friendly to people.
"Every cat has been spayed, neutered, vaccinated, and tested for feline leukemia and micro-chipped, de-wormed, and deflead", she said. "They're very well-behaved. They will not come here at all unless I know they're people friendly and they don't hurt anyone."
As with all cats, each feline has its own unique personality. Sandy says they all get along with the exception of a few little "cat fights".
Kat Kingdom's kitty collection consists mainly of rescue cats including: Big Bear (Sandy's personal favorite), Kenya (the overall visitors' favorite), Egg Roll (taught the other animals how to climb the walls despite being blind in one eye), Queen Nefertiti (a former outdoor cat), Smoky & Juno (currently up for adoption), Oreo (the oldest cat in the Kingdom-born with only three legs), Shawna (a Calico), Mellow Yellow (so shy-we didn't even see it), Shaggy Waggy (likes to wag her tail), and Autumn (fluffy tortoiseshell that likes to jump over the wall and escape the building!).
She designed Kat Kingdom for their comfort, painting the walls, building the ladders and boxes for the cats to sleep in.
"I had a small space to work with so I really had to design going up and of course cats like to climb so they're just having a ball on the stairs and climbing," said Sgrillo. "They go up on the rafters, they climb on the walls and they just have a ball in here. It gives them exercise. We had a fatty over here (Kenya), he's already lost a pound just from being here and climbing and running. They love it. They love it here."
But it's not all creature comforts. Visitors can relax with the cat, brush them or play with them using one of the many toys around the room. They can also browse a gift shop full of cat-inspired items like jewelry, food, and the artist's stained glass creations.
"You come in and you can sit down and play with them, brush them. Play with their little toys and they'll come to you because they're very friendly and it's actually quite relaxing. People come in and some people stay for hours and they'll say 'we don't want to shop. We just want to stay here and play'."
Sandy hopes people will come in and realize the importance of adopting cats and learn a few things about our feline friends. She admits her job has the best perks.
"I get to spend all day with my kitties. I mean, how good is that?," said Sgrillo. "They just they light up my life. I couldn't live without them. If someone said 'I'll give you 2 million dollars but you can't live with cats', I'd say 'no way! I have to have a cat'."
Admission to Kat Kingdom is $2.50 per person and you can stay as long as you would like. They're open from 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. Monday Through Saturday and are located at 849 Glades Road in Gatlinburg, Sandy suggests you visit before 1:00 p.m. when the kitties are more playful, Phone is 865-436-5911 or visit www.facebook.com/katkingdom
Kat Kingdom will host a Grand Opening/Fundraiser on Friday, August 1 from 11am to 3pm. Guests will be given free admission and donations will be taken and there will be a silent auction for the Sevier County Humane Society. Sandy will have her llamas there for people to enjoy and there will also be food and live music by "Fluitar".