Prior to her recent passing, Diane had opened up her house to over a hundred stray felines. Now, the search is on for homes that will take in the ones she left behind.
I am standing inside a mid-sized house in the Yonge and Finch area, and I am surrounded by cats. Not two, not three—there has to be close to 20 of them scurrying around me.
But that’s nothing. Just a few years ago, the owner of the home—a 69-year-old former banker named Diane—was offering refuge to no fewer than 123 felines. Diane, however, defies the stereotype of the anti-social, neglectful cat lady living in squalor. (Note: This Diane should not be confused with this one.) All of her foster felines were given names and documented on a master list for vet visits, paid for out of her own pocket. However, that number decreased dramatically when, in 2010, Diane was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, a fatal cancer of the plasma cells. As she began treatment, Diane embarked upon the difficult task of finding homes for her many cats.
During my visit with her earlier this month, Diane looked lively, at least in spirit. She did not resemble someone in the last stages of her life. But she had just returned from her lawyer’s office after finalizing her will. She couldn’t eat much, as her enlarged liver was putting pressure on her stomach, cutting off her appetite. At the time, she was undergoing an experimental treatment, one that she hoped would give her another six months to live. It was a prognosis that proved to be too optimistic—Diane succumbed to the disease on Feb. 18.
Diane’s life as a cat rescuer began 10 years ago, when, one night, she heard sounds in her backyard; upon investigation, she discovered a colony of five stray cats, all birthed by a feline abandoned by her neighbour. An animal lover since childhood, Diane did what many veterinarians deem impossible: She began trapping and domesticating feral cats, and preparing them for adoption.
But Diane’s goodwill was also her burden. Cat rescuers started hearing about her; one organization in particular began pushing her to accept more cats than she could handle. With no time to socialize the ones she already had, the numbers rose. “All the cats that needed foster homes, they all came to me,” Diane told me. But even as she was being sent 30 cats at a time, Diane never objected. “In the end, I opened the doors of my house to them.”
“People would call her from cat-rescue organizations at all times,” says Evelyn Chant, a former co-worker and one of Diane’s closest friends. “If she got a call saying that there were cats in the ravines in Don Valley, she’d go and feed them.”
Diane spent most of her early pension on having the cats spayed and neutered. As of 2009 (the year she was featured in the documentary Cat Ladies), she estimated that she was spending roughly $3,000 monthly on cat food, veterinary bills, and cleaning personnel. “It started to wear on everybody,” says Chant. “Even as she got sick, it was hard for her to give up.”
Chant says this was classic Diane behaviour. She recalls the time when Diane befriended a homeless man near their workplace and would help him out with money or a place to stay. “She’s always been that type of person—very, very much with the underdog. She always had trouble saying ‘no’ to anybody. I think that’s how she ended up with so many cats.”
Unfortunately, the remaining cats that Diane leaves behind are not so easily adoptable—they are either too old, or they’re once-domesticated cats that became feral after their owners abandoned them.
“People don’t tend to adopt those too much—it takes a lot of patience,” says John Young, a doctor and animal-rights activist who offered to help find homes for Diane’s cats.
Hannah Booth, a veterinarian and member of the Toronto Feral Cat Coalition, says it would be wrong to put feral cats back on the streets. “It’s all about ensuring the animals have a good quality of life. You don’t want to release animals in a territory that’s dangerous.”
There are an estimated 10o,000 stray cats in Toronto, the result of inconsiderate owners who set them loose onto the streets without the requisite spaying and neutering.
“It’s a human-created problem,” observes Booth, one that only worsens once spring hits and cats go on mating season. “Right now, we are kind of okay, but two months from now, shelters are going to be full. It really is quite all-consuming. The problem is so overwhelming and you are never going to solve it completely. It’s never-ending.”
After a decade of taking in cats, Diane’s house had come to resemble less of a personal home than a homeless shelter. When he heard about Diane’s diagnosis, Young suggested she move out of her house. “I was very concerned, because her immune system was not working properly,” he says. “Cats can carry bugs that people with normal immune systems won’t get sick from, but people with a damaged immune system can.”
In her final weeks, Diane had been living for a month with two female acquaintances from cat-rescue organizations who were taking care of her. She was also paying for someone to feed her cats, and a social worker who would visit her house weekly to clean-up and tend to the animals; they continue to care for them in the meantime.
Juggling her treatment and caring for the cats was tough, but Diane’s good karma was consistently rewarded, as many of her friends adopted some of the cats. “She gave up so much of her life that people [were] just happy to help her,” says Chant. “I’m not into cat rescue at all, but I honuor her desire to do this. Sometimes, there are just overly generous and kind people who want to make the world a better place for people and animals.”
If you would like to apply to adopt one of Diane’s cats, please text or telephone Kimberly Heys of PAWS at 416-520-7995 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Please note that all messages will be returned after March 4.