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I Am Cat Lady, Hear Me Meow

A cat's best friend or worst enemy? How a feline fixation can go too far

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Current research indicates hoarding may be associated with obsessive-compulsive disorder. Other possibilities include attachment model (a person suffers from early developmental deprivation of parental attachment and is unable to establish close human relationships as an adult), focal delusion, addiction, zoophilia (deriving sexual gratification from animals) and dementia. What literature exists, according to Patronek's consortium, suggests hoarders may resist psychotherapy and medication.

Hoarders "have a lot of problems," Corkwell says. "They have a lot to say. They don't have anybody to listen to them. I've called myself a collector of collectors because I get attached to them. And I worry about them a lot.

"There's nothing I can really do for their personal problems, but I figure maybe, if they have somebody to talk to every once in awhile, then I just hope it works."

More power to her. My experience indicated cat hoarders weren't too chatty. More often than not, they didn't want to talk -- not in person, not on the phone. Arranged meetings were canceled; many homes were said to be in no condition to visit (remodeling, you know). More often than not, I was questioned as if I were in cahoots with animal control.

Spay and neuter your pets, dammit

Hoarders often say, what's the alternative for these animals when the only alternative is euthanasia? "They just can't accept that the animal would be put to sleep, so they keep it but they're not taking care of it," says Snow, who's worked in animal welfare for almost 30 years. "Obviously, we don't want to euthanize animals, but at the same time we want them taken care of. It's the same thing as with a child -- if you have a child, you have to provide for that child food, shelter, medical care, and love and time and attention. You have to do the same thing for animals."

Of course, when authorities find an abused child living in squalor, society doesn't order him killed. Authorities step in with a social safety net, however weak or inadequate. But animal shelters are so inundated by homeless, stray and feral cats and dogs that authorities often see little alternative to euthanasia.

In the 12 months preceding June 2006, more than 14,000 animals were euthanized at Charlotte-Mecklenburg Animal Control. Eighty-four percent of cats and 69 percent of dogs that came into the shelter never came out alive. In July alone, 701 cats were put to sleep -- that's about 23 each day. Wait lists for no-kill rescue groups can be long. And as long as people refuse or neglect to get their pets spayed or neutered, a ready supply of uncared for animals will always be waiting.

A cat's best friend

Perhaps, then, society shouldn't look askance at the more benevolent variety of the so-called cat lady. Almost all of us know this type, if you aren't, ahem, one yourself. They're the women you call when you find a stray. You can tell instantly when you walk into their homes -- not necessarily because of cat hair, but because of the cat pictures, toys, dolls and knick-knacks. Cats seem to find them. Their clothes may be covered in cat hair, they may bore their co-workers with talk of cats, but their animals are cared for -- often to a precious, eye-rolling degree. "Everyone makes fun of us," says Clea Simon, a Boston-based author whose book, "The Feline Mystique," explores the bond between women and their feline companions.

Simon, who describes "The Feline Mystique" as a tongue-in-cheek "feminist-felinist manifesto," writes mysteries in which cats play a central role. In "Mew is for Murder," the murder victim may or may not be a cat hoarder. But you don't have to be a hoarder to draw scorn, she says.

"There's this long history of persecution," Simon says. "Most of the witches killed during the witch-burning times were women, and many of the animals killed with them were pets."

No one has ever asked "Feral Carol" Butler if she's a witch, even though the 54-year-old Lake Wylie-based digital photo artist has more than 40 cats, most of whom are solid black. Butler has a seemingly innate love of cats -- as a small child she believed her family's pet cat was her brother.

Butler, a well-known cat lady who has a weekly two-minute show about felines on Lake Radio 93.7, also writes plays that sometimes (you guessed it) feature cat themes. She says it's her colony of feral cats that helped her give up the corporate world and explore her calling. If she hadn't needed a job that would allow her to care for the colony, now stabilized at 42 cats, she wouldn't have had the guts to work from home.

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