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How Living with a “Crazy Cat Lady” Gave Me Compassion for Animal Hoarders

I used to think to think the worst about people who keep lots of animals -- until I got to know one.

 |  Sep 18th 2012  |   21 Contributions


When you read a story about a crazy cat lady hoarding dozens of felines, it’s easy to condemn her for having too many cats. I’ve done it myself, wondering how anyone who claims to be a cat lover could possibly keep so many animals and be oblivious to their health and welfare. However, that was before I met an animal hoarder. 

About a decade ago, through a series of circumstances, I was apartment sitting one summer for a friend of a friend. The duties included checking in daily on their grandmother, who lived in a separate house connected to the apartment. 

For all intents and purposes, Grandmother Elise was a crazy cat lady with a capital C. She was well into her 90s and lived alone with her cats. Because she had limited mobility, she was confined to her home and dependent on outside care for most of her basic needs. She also had mild dementia.

Illustration by Scott Smith

During my daily check-ins, Elise was rather aloof, but when I brought up the subject of cats, her expression softened and her face lit up with delight like a young girl about to open presents on Christmas. This was a woman who LOVED cats. She lived and breathed for cats. Her cats were her babies. 

Once I brought her a cat magazine and she was beside herself with joy upon receiving this small gift. From that moment on, I was endeared to her, and she was always pleasant and cordial when I visited. Elise had only two cats, but it wasn’t always this way.

I learned from my friend that many years earlier, Elise had been an animal hoarder. She was the crazy cat lady you read about, who had dozens upon dozens of cats. She lived in a large home in a rural community, so it was easy for her animal hoarding to go unchecked. Most of her friends and family had passed away. Elise’s son lived in another country, so he had no inkling of what was going on.

However, the residents of her community knew she was a cat hoarder. People who might have been able to help chose not to intervene. And if everyone had done nothing, Elise probably would have been better off. Unfortunately, there were folks who took advantage of the situation and exacerbated the problem.

Elise didn’t amass more than 50 cats by buying them from breeders or adopting en masse from animal shelters. Other people gave them to her. People with unwanted cats would drop them off to Elise, their local cat lady. 

Group of cats by Shutterstock.

Many people did it anonymously, too. They would drive by in the middle of the night and dump a litter of kittens on her doorstep. Being the cat lover that she was, Elise welcomed all of these abandoned cats into her home, and she spent hundreds of dollars each month to feed them. And that was how a few cats multiplied into a serious situation of animal hoarding.

It was the money trail that finally alerted her son to the problem. During a periodical financial check-in, he noticed Elise’s savings reduced by thousands of dollars. Was his mother being swindled? Learning it was felines playing as opposed to foul play wasn’t reassuring. He booked a flight to see his mother as soon as possible. 

When Elise’s son arrived at his childhood home, he was overwhelmed by the number of cats. It was a huge house, but there were dozens of cats all over the place. A single litter box can stink up a home if it’s not cleaned daily, so you can imagine what it must have been like with the odor magnified 50 times over. He immediately called animal control to have most of the cats removed. 

Elise was furious and refused to speak to her son for months. Despite the cold shoulder, her son also relocated his family to be closer to Elise. While the family was still a two-hour drive away, they could visit her every few weeks. They also paid for a caregiver to check in on her daily.

And here’s where Elise’s story differed from most of the other cat ladies you hear about. While many cat hoarders often start collecting animals again, Elise didn’t. She never again had more than two cats at a time. I believe that what made the difference for Elise was that her son cared enough to get hands-on to deal with the problem. 

Illustration by Scott Smith

It’s easy to point fingers at a cat lady and say, “She has too many cats. Someone should get her professional help.” Living in isolation, many animal hoarders don’t have access to support systems, or they may not be able to afford them or physically be able to get to them. Most cat hoarders don’t have family who are willing to invest significant time and money to help. 

From what I learned of Elise, animal hoarders really do care about their animals and will give everything they can to their pets. Unfortunately, sometimes that’s just not enough, and they don’t know where to turn for help.

I’m sharing Elise’s story so that we can all have more compassion for the next “crazy cat lady” we read about. Instead of judging animal hoarders and saying someone should get them some help, we should look within to see how we can be that someone who makes a difference. While it’s not realistic in most cases to get personally involved, the least we can do is spay or neuter our pets to reduce pet overpopulation and make a donation of time or money to a local animal shelter. 

*Names and details have been changed to protect the privacy of those involved.

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