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Movie Night: Cat Ladies

I love the kittehs! I have always had at least one cat, sometimes as many three, ever since I was a toddler, and uh, one of the main reasons I fell in love with my ex-husband was that he had always had cats. Finally a man not “allergic” to cats, who loved them! But though for me there is a limit to the number of cats I can love and care for in a responsible manner, I have a great deal of sympathy and empathy for “crazy cat ladies,” women who horde cats.

The documentary Cat Ladies provides a look into the lives of four self-described cat ladies, each with similar reasons for their obsessive love of cats: isolation, loneliness and a desire to love and be loved, to help and to rescue. And as out of control as their lives become, there is something noble in their care for these creatures.

Margot, who has lives with three cats dotes on them, and admits to saving her kitties’ whiskers and to having dreams of breast feeding her cats as though they were children. Feeling like the under-achieving outsider in her family of academics–Margot is adopted–she looks to nurture something and to be loved in return. Her entire life revolves around her three cats.

Smart, pretty Jenny seems to have it all–looks, brains, a high paying job, her own home. She admits she’s a catch, but there’s something in the way: Her sixteen cats. Growing up in an unpleasant home situation, Jenny took comfort in her cats as a child and now though a comfort and a source of pleasure, her cats are also a physical barrier to the intimacy she craves. She worries that she will cross a line and soon have too many and cross the line into becoming a “crazy cat lady.”

Diane crossed that line when she was forced into retirement after the bank she worked for merged with another. She shares her apartment with one hundred and twenty three cats she has rescued. She spends her days and nights feeding them and cleaning up after them, along with feeding Toronto’s feral cat community. She has lost friends because she is so obsessed with the care of cats.

Diane has realized that things are out of control but doesn’t know what to do, how to manage her hoard of felines. She is one step away from becoming Sigi, a cat hoarder/rescuer whose filthy house is home to close to two hundred cats and is fast becoming a neighborhood nuisance. She says that saving a cat gives her a feeling of accomplishment, and that she would love to find homes for her cats, except the ones who only she knows how to care for. Her level of “care” is heartbreaking in its both its tenderness and its filthy despair.

And therein lies one of the problems with “rescuers.” In their minds they want to save the cats, a wonderful ideal, but no homes are right for the cats, no one can care for them like the hoarder. As the head of animal cruelty in Toronto points outs, often these cats are because the rescuers become overwhelmed. He takes us on a tour of house where cats are ill and dying, pointing out a dead kitten and explaining that as well intentioned as rescuers are, they are a bit beyond the normal bounds.

What causes crazy cat syndrome, feline hoarding? It may start with loving a creature, wanting to help but then it accelerates. One theory is that toxoplasma gondii –a relative of the malaria parasite found in cat urine–can affect some people, primarily women, the same way it does rats and mice. The parasite makes rodents less fearful of the smell of cat urine and slows their reaction time, making them slower.

T. gondii antibodies in persons with schizophrenia and other severe psychiatric disorders and in controls have been reported; 18 reported a higher percentage of antibodies in the affected persons; in 11 studies the difference was statistically significant.

Could cat hoarding be a form of schizophrenia caused by the parasite?

Sadly, Diane and Sigi the two worse cat hoarders and the animal cruelty officer do not offer solutions to the feral cat population, which is capture, fix and release, which allows the feral cat population some degree of control, if only people would fix their pets and not turn them loose.

Cat Ladies’ filmmakers show compassion with their subjects, but also give an unflinching look at their lives, the cost in social isolation and psychic pain and well as the financial cost. Each in their own way realize they are trapped. Even Sigi who defies animal control and her neighbors with the nearly two hundred felines says that if she stopped rescuing cats now, it would be ten years at least before they were all gone.

When one of Margot’s three cat’s dies, she reaches out to distant friends and family and discovers that she is cared about and that with Bongo’s death she has the opportunity for the human contact, for friendships, for a normal life. Diane, Jenny and Sigi–and their pets–may not be so lucky.

Please spay and neuter, and support programs which capture, fix and release feral cats.

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Lisa Derrick

Lisa Derrick

Los Angeles native, attended UC Berkeley and Loyola Marymount University before punk rock and logophilia overtook her life. Worked as nightclub columnist, pop culture journalist and was a Hollywood housewife before writing for and editing Sacred History Magazine. Then she discovered the thrill of politics. She also appears frequently on the Dave Fanning Show, one of Ireland's most popular radio broadcasts.