Betsy sheds some light on crazy cat ladies

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One day my dad and I were walking along the trail by my home, accompanied by my goats, when he halted in his tracks and exclaimed, “Oh, migosh. You’re the crazy goat lady!” “Excuse me?” I said, surprised by the surprise in his voice, not to mention the characterization of me as — a lady.

Betsy and her cat, Charlie

Charlie is Betsy’s “little man in a cat suit.”

He repeated, “You’re the crazy goat lady,” and launched into a story about an old woman who walked in the road with her goats near his house when he was growing up. He and his friends figured she was a witch.

His childhood impression of what it meant to be a woman walking with her goats — an eccentric old bat — had just collided with his adult perception of my incredibly blessed life with beloved pets.

About the time my dad was calling me a crazy goat lady, our editor wrote me and said that during a web search on the phrase “crazy cat ladies,” my name had popped up.

Preparing myself to hack out a hairball of an email correcting the misimpression, I read on to learn that I was quoted in a Forbes article, where I discussed the misogyny of the term, “crazy cat lady.” That was a relief. I sounded thoughtful, not crazy. So as we celebrate “I am a Cat Parent,” we at Petfinder thought it might be time to shed some light on what it means to be a crazy cat lady.

While the association of eccentric women and cats is an old one, the “crazy cat lady” term sprang up in the 1990s about the same time Petfinder caused an explosion of new adoption groups. The new marketing wonder — the Internet — supported rescue in a way that had never even been conceived. It also was the decade when trap-neuter-release (TNR) came to the fore as the humane way to deal with feral cats.

To city and county shelter administrators, the cat rescuers were calling for change from the traditional way of dealing with feral cats, which was rounding them up and euthanizing them for “their own good.” Debates heated up across the country and passions rose. Some characterized the, mostly, women who were trapping ferals, neutering them and managing sometimes huge colonies, as “crazy cat ladies.”

The debate probably went like this, “You may think I’m just some old crazy cat lady, but I have an MBA, I work on Wall Street, and there is solid evidence that if you just kill all the feral cats, new ones will move into that territory. By neutering them and managing a colony, we will stem the flow of kittens and we can stop killing thousands of cats a year!”

And the people invested in the old ways heard, “blah… blah… I’m just some old crazy cat lady… blah… blah.” And then The Simpsons TV show introduced a cat-loving character, who indeed was crazy. And here we are.

Blending the old pairing of eccentric women and cats with the new impassioned cat rescuer is a little definitionally risky, however, because the pairing doesn’t really work. The old stereotype was that these women, labelled “spinsters,” were lonely and isolated socially, and they made up for it by acquiring cats. But in the cases of rescuers, their passion and advocacy doesn’t fit that.

A few years back, I met a woman who folks would have called a crazy cat lady. For several weeks, this young woman met me outside my apartment at 5 a.m. every day with a trunk load of cat traps that she tirelessly helped me fill with feral cats so we could get the cats neutered (no easy feat when you are talking about wily New Jersey ferals). It wasn’t her neighborhood, and she wasn’t my friend (yet), but her behavior was that of a kind, involved person, not isolated. Furthermore, it is hard to be lonely when you are up before dawn trapping, spending time lobbying city officials about TNR, and out after dusk managing your own colony of wild friends. No time for lonely. As for isolated? She had 30 cats. She never got a moment to herself between her volunteering and her (you guessed it!) work on Wall Street.

Let’s face it. There are all kinds of crazy. Some kinds of crazy are to be avoided at all costs. Mean people should not have cats. People who can’t manage the care of the cats shouldn’t have cats without support. But most of the crazy cat ladies I know (men or women) only have a few cats and take care of them quite splendidly — to the extent that other people would say, “OMG, you take your cats to Europe with you? That is CRAZY!”

I think the “crazy cat lady” stereotype means something new, too. It means “crazy for cats.” It doesn’t suggest the stench of urine in the bushes and four litter boxes in the kitchen. Rather, it suggests faded (albeit sometimes hairy) sweatshirts with giant screen-printed kitten faces, knowing what TNR stands for, reading Lillian Jackson Braun (if the cat lover is over 40), and being willing to set up camp in the median of I-40, trying to trap a cat — a feat that may harken back to the crazy label, but actually takes no small degree of physical and mental fitness.

While these cat advocates are great for cats, calling them crazy ladies isn’t. Cats need to be associated with strong, healthy people, and the words crazy and lady just don’t do it. Determined cat woman or determined cat person would more closely describe the people I know, women and men alike.

Cats are increasing in popularity with men and women who work long hours. Big surprise. Cats aren’t waiting to go for a walk the minute you open the door. This is a good deal for cats because if one gets out, gets lost and ends up in a shelter, he or she is much more likely to die than a dog and has almost no chance of being reunited with his or her family. The homeless cat stats are really sad.

So thank goodness for crazy cat ladies — oops! — determined cat people, who are doing their best to stave off disaster for cats until the unenlightened* wake up and realize they need a cat. Or two. Seriously. Cats do better when adopted in pairs.

I myself own no sweatshirts with screen-printed kittens and have far too great a variety of pets to be called a crazy cat lady yet. But the more I think about it, the more I aspire to it and have fantasies about the simplicity of caring for only one type of animal. Thirty cats sounds easier than two cats, two dogs, two horses, one goat, three cows, a box turtle, five chickens, 20 guineas…

Ah-h-h. I feel a goal emerging. In anticipation I need to start collecting cat sweatshirts. For now, I’ll just have to take pride in being a crazy goat lady.

*Special note to cat allergy sufferers who love cats: you are exempt from my characterization as unenlightened.

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