It’s sad. She was one of my special three Little Old Ladies in Napier in 1979 and I cannot for the life of me remember her name. I even had to remind myself of the name of the street where she lived by looking it up on Google maps. How could I forget? Paradise Road. A steep dead-end road up the side of Bluff Hill.
She was a powerful formative force in my education as a health inspector and human being, largely thanks to the role of my mentor at the time, Gordon Johansen. Gordon was an elderly health inspector of the old school, which means he had been a plumber who retrained in public health back in the time when public health was all about drains. Gordon was also a true gentleman who lived up to the implicit responsibility inherent in the term “Public Servant”. He should have been retired years before but he was still on the job at Napier City Council and was the perfect role model for any young officer newly learning how to deal with people.
One morning I received a call from the proprietor of the corner dairy on Carlyle Road. He told me of a customer, an elderly woman, who regularly came to his shop. She always bought large quantities of cat food and did not buy much of anything else except bread and butter. He said he suspected she might actually be using the cat food for sustenance, and that she may need some help. She lived half way up Paradise road.
I first visited him and he pointed out where he believed the old woman lived. I knocked on her door. It opened and the first thing I noticed was the smell. The nuisance provisions of the old Health Act that was in force in those days had very broad definitions of nuisance, and already I knew I had one to deal with. The Act also gave health inspectors strong powers of entry but I did not need to invoke them, for the old lady invited me in with the same pleasure that many lonely people show when they get unexpected company. I told her why I was visiting her, and she happily showed me around the house.
What I found was very disturbing. The lounge was full of cat shit that had been there so long it had composted into the carpet. There was spindly yellow grass growing from it.
The linoleum floor in the kitchen was grubby, but at least it had been swept. The refrigerator contained only cat food and bread. The bathroom had a bath that had clearly been disused for some time. Her bedroom was a mess. The place was not really fit for habitation.
And there were dozens of cats. All feral-looking and unapproachable. Many were mangy with weeping eyes and tattered ears. They scattered as we entered a room. None were at all friendly. You wouldn’t want to stroke them anyway. There were more outside. I lost count at a couple of score.
As I pointed out to the old dear the various problems in her home she cheerfully acknowledged them. Her smile never changed. She listened carefully to everything I said and smilingly agreed that things had got out of hand and maybe she needed help. I don’t believe I have ever had a more cooperative nuisance.
I still remember clearly how when I mentioned the cats her face lit up as she gushed about how beautiful they were and how happy they made her. When I told her she had too many she just said she could never turn a cat away and they just kept coming. She had to feed the little dears. She pointed at a mangy old cat with some even mangier kittens and said again how cute and fluffy they were. They weren’t. They looked to be in distressingly poor health and decidedly not fluffy. I realised she was possibly partly blind and also just maybe a little potty.
All this was a little more than a newly qualified health inspector knew how to handle. I knew the rules and regulations that applied, but in this situation I needed some guidance. I turned to Gordon for help. He returned with me and we chatted further with Ms Catlady. We learned she had no relatives except a nephew who never visited her. She did not have contact details for him. She had no one to help her. She had no money and received only the old age pension. The house was in her name and had no mortgage. There had been a Mr Catlady once, but that was long ago. She was alone. But she had her cats.
Gordon was a man who knew everyone. He had contacts and influence. He also knew what to do, and it was not to invoke the Infirm and Neglected Persons Regulations and get the Medical Officer of Health to have the old dear committed. He swept into action. He first called the Superintendent of Napier Hospital and asked him to make a bed available for a patient who needed some ‘tests’. He asked that they find a pretext to keep her in hospital for at least a week. Such was his influence and such was the tone of the times, that the Super readily acceded to his request.
We then went back to see Ms Catlady and convinced her she was not feeling all that well and should have a checkup at the hospital. I promised to look after the cats while she was gone and once again she cheerfully accepted and agreed to go. We helped her pack a bag and I drove her to hospital and stayed with her while she was admitted. I promised to visit and let her know how the cats were doing.
Then I saw what people can do. The Fire Department, the Lions Club and the Freemasons moved in and hosed, cleaned and repaired the old lady’s house. They took out the bath that she could no longer climb into, and replaced it with a shower. They threw out her old bed and bought her a new one. In the process they found several thousand dollars she had squirreled away under the mattress and seemingly forgot. They opened a bank account for her. One of the contacts was in flooring and a new carpet was put in the lounge.
In the meantime I was trapping cats as fast as I could, using possum traps, and disposing of them. Humanely. I make no apology. I love cats but there are times when there is no other option. Healing, neutering and rehoming all those cats was simply out of the question. I lost count of how many I dealt with, but there still seemed to be just as many left.
When we at last brought her home Ms Catlady was overwhelmed. We showed her the new shower and her new bed and she was so enthusiastic in her gratitude. We told her she would have a weekly visit from the District Nurses to ensure that she was well and eating properly. We told her about her bank account. I still don’t know how it was done without her, but I assume one of Gordon’s contacts in the Lions Club or Freemasons was a banker and minor details like signatures were sorted out somehow.
I explained the missing cats by telling her that I lived out in the country in an old farmhouse in Rissington. I said we had a rat problem and I had taken some cats to give them a new home. They had been so successful that my neighbours had asked for some and I had taken some more. I hoped she didn’t mind that I found new homes for some of her cats. Of course she didn’t. That was wonderful. Mr Johansen and Mr Freshwater were her heroes. We could do no wrong.
Over the next few months I returned almost weekly to ask if I could take a couple more cats because everyone in Rissington wanted them, they were such good ratters. Those we didn’t dispose of we had spayed or neutered and eventually we got the numbers down to a manageable few, though still more than the by-law allowed.
That is how we did things then. Much of what we did would probably get us thrown into jail these days. All this happened in the good old days when we were truly public servants under the old Public Service Act. When the Tory bastards changed it to the State Sector Act and we became State servants, that is when the paradigm shifted and we served the politicians, not the people. But I digress.
We kept an eye on Ms Catlady from then on. She had regular visits from us and the district nurse and with a lot of encouragement her health and hygiene improved. When I left Napier in 1980 I charged my friends and colleagues to look after my three little old ladies, and I received regular reports for several years until one by one they passed away.
LEMMA: Though she fitted the stereotype a little too well I did not intend this post to be denigratory of Cat Ladies in general. Cat Ladies have had rough press over the centuries as this article points out.
“Old Maids at a Cat’s funeral,” engraved by John Pettit in 1789.
Georgian cartoonists denigrated the unmarried woman by showing how her “unnatural” love for her cat usurped the “natural” bonds of marriage, children, and family.