It all really started with Momma Kitty about 17 years ago.
Penny Johnson had lost her 15-year-old cat, Harley, to cancer and swore there would be no more pets. Two weeks later, Momma Kitty showed up and ended the vow.
She was wild and skittish, but had her six kittens at Penny and Jesse Johnson's house atop the river bluffs in Caseyville. She left three kittens, took three away and couldn't be caught.
She did that three more times. Penny finally caught her in a live trap and had her spayed.
But Momma Kitty's dynasty was established. She and her offspring are the basis for the Johnsons' herd of 12 cats.
Momma Kitty is a black cat. Her kittens were black, too, so at one time there were a whole lot of black cats running around the home where the Johnsons also have their construction business.
"We had this new employee just sitting in his truck in the driveway. I told him to come on in, but he said, 'No ma'am. Are there always this many black cats running around here?' He lasted a day and never came back."
Momma Kitty is now 18 and has given up her wild ways. She is approachable and mellow, living with the 11 other cats. Until last summer, the Johnson's had a lucky crowd of 13.
They are still grieving for one of the kittens from Momma Kitty's first litter: Skidder was 16 when he died in July from a thyroid condition that took him from 16 pounds down to 6.
"He would fetch the rings from a milk jug and bring them back to you, just like a dog," Penny Johnson said. "He would stay at the foot of the bed when I was sick. My husband had to come get him to take him to eat."
Penny Johnson used to work the night shift as a telecommunicator for the Illinois State Police, so she slept during the day. Jesse Johnson taught Skidder not to meow so loudly.
"I'd tell him to whisper, because Momma was asleep," Jesse Johnson said. "And he'd get real quiet, just kind of mouthing a 'meow.'"
Penny Johnson has lived on the blufftop since she was 6. Her parents' house is directly in front of hers.
As a child she had dogs and ducks, but her uncle had cats and she started liking cats.
"Each one has its own little personality," she said. "I think they pick you, you don't pick a cat."
Her cats are all strays or cats she rescued from abuse or neglect. She spends $1,200 a year just on shots, and that's with a bulk discount that her vet, Michael Harres, gives her. She said she gets a new one and takes it straight to Harres to be spayed or neutered and to get its shots.
"I take a new one in and say, 'You know the drill.'"
She said Harres told her that if he were ever reincarnated, he'd like to come back as one of the Johnsons' cats.
"It's true. Those cats are her children, and they have quite the life," Harres said.
Besides the vet bills, they spend $5,200 a year on cat food.
"The people at PetSmart know me by name," Penny Johnson said.
And it's not just dry cat chow. She also gets canned food and treats.
"Would you want to eat the same thing every day?"
They all get Christmas presents. Their toys are all over. And then there is the apartment house.
Jesse Johnson's construction skills were put to use on a 10-cat apartment complex on their back porch. It has skylights. It is heated. The roof lifts for easy cleaning.
There are even three "penthouses" -- individual beds atop the complex that are the favored spots and the subject of daily competition.
But cooperation seems to be more the way of the Johnson cats.
If the couple are late getting home past the 6 p.m. feeding time, one cat sits on the porch bannister and keeps lookout. It alerts the others when the couple arrive and the crowd assembles to demand their dinner.
Three of the cats once caught a large snake and carried it up the driveway -- one on each end and one in the middle. They had to stop midway to rest.
And there is a heroine. Little Bit is a little bit of a diva and looks like the cat on the Purina Cat Chow bag. She is often in the penthouse. She is small but fierce.
"There was a big dog came trotting up the driveway, a rottweiler," Penny Johnson said. "Little Bit faced it down and had it turn tail and run back down that driveway."
Only two of the 12 are house cats: Fritz, a Siamese, and Witzee, a 28-pound black cat that could pass for a runt panther.
Witzee likes to take down Christmas ornaments. He hides behind the door when he is bad, or at least hides his head and leaves the rest of his big body exposed.
There's been a change in Witzee.
"They did not get along, but since Skidder died Witzee's started showing some of Skidder's mannerisms," Johnson said.
Call it re-in-cat-nation.