Animals & Wildlife Magazine

Eulogy For A Pet Lady

By Petslady @petslady

Shirley was my mother. She passed away suddenly and unexpectedly last Thursday at the tender age of 83. It was her raison d'être to care for strays, be they animal or human. Shirley Van Cleave, my mother, and her expression when I tried to explain how a camera can work without film.Shirley Van Cleave, my mother, and her expression when I tried to explain how a camera can work without film.

When she was a child she had a special cat that she would tuck cozily into one of her doll beds each night. He was one of those unusual cats who actually put up with such treatment. She would make sure his tail was curled around him and then would go to bed. The mystery each morning was how his tail managed to be sticking out the foot of the bed. One day she got up a little early and was standing next to her bedroom window. When her mother called, "Shirley! It's time to get up!" The cat suddenly appeared out of the local foliage and raced for the house. By the time she got downstairs he was back in the doll bed with his tail sticking out. The sweet little feline, not wanting to disappoint her, would wait until she was in bed then go on his nightly prowls. When he heard the verbal cue each morning he would race back inside. The only way he could make it back under the covers was to burrow in from the foot of the doll bed, leaving his tail hanging out.

How could she not become a pet lady with such a start in life? Unlike most girls, she did more pet sitting than babysitting. One of the items she left behind was a ceramic collie that she had been given as a teen as a thank you for dog sitting. It is one of the few items of hers that I have chosen to keep.

When I was a teenager our cats had "treed" a squirrel in the carport and it had somehow managed to be just hanging on by a bit of cord and could not go anywhere else other than into the waiting paws below. Shirley grabbed a pillow from the family room and ran out to rescue the squirrel. She brought it up gently under the squirrel and lifted it to the point where it could leap into the tree. 

One day she was doing laundry and didn't notice that our Tabitha cat had decided to explore the dryer. She shut the door and turned the dryer on. It took her a moment to realize what the strange thumping noise was and then panicked. She yanked the dryer door open and let out a very dizzy cat. Tabitha suffered no damage and lived to be 17 years old.

Later in life she went into doing elder care. One of the drawbacks to this work is that your work often died, leaving you at loose ends until reassignment. Shirley often took it upon herself to make sure that surviving pets found a home. If one of the other caregivers took the pets, then she would offer free pet sitting to help out. This is also how she ended up with a parrot that no one else wanted. 

A neighbor's cat, fed up with living with two men, a three-year-old boy, and a Rottweiler, moved her kittens in without invitation. The cat stayed and Shirley made sure that she was spayed. The kittens were feral so they were given to the animal shelter (a no-kill shelter) to be fostered. The mama cat was not a fit in Shirley's little circle of her cats, so we found her a new home with one of my coworkers. We planned a strategy to ease the cat into her new home. The woman was in the process of rebuilding her home after a wildfire so she couldn't take Mia right away (that's right, Mama Mia. I think I was having Abba flashbacks when I named her). She would come by Shirley's house at least once a week to make friends with Mia. When we packed Mia up to drive her to her new home she was anxious. When she found out where she was at the end of her journey she was thrilled. She was with an old friend in a large house with only one other cat that happy to let her be the boss. She lived a long and happy life.

A feral cat in the neighborhood had figured out how to get in and out of Shirley's house on her own. Mom, ever the animal lover, just named her Griselda, and let her come and go as she pleased. What Griselda pleased was finding some little out of the way spot to have her litters of feral kittens. The first was behind the piano so that we couldn't get them used to humans. The next time she was pregnant Shirley set up the cat carrier with a little bed in it for her nursery and Griselda used it happily (as long as we left her alone). Out of the second litter Shirley kept one and we were able to find a home for one. The others had to go to the humane society. By getting Griselda used to the cat carrier it was easier to catch her and get her spayed before another litter could be born.

Miss Lillie, Griselda's daughter, was to be Shirley's last cat. When Shirley had to give up her mobile home and move into an apartment, Miss Lillie was left in the care of a neighbor. 

A family friend was at the hospital with me when she passed and this friend started telling me of all the souls that would be waiting to greet her on the other side. When she started in on cats I laughed and said that she would have trouble getting into heaven for tripping over all the cats that would be waiting there for her. 

At one point Shirley and I counted up all the cats we had had together over the years. We made it a single list because, even after I moved out on my own, we both cared for all of them. The total came to 27, not counting feral kittens. That's quite a clowder.

Shirley's grand-cat, Naomi, in repose in a bucket of mulch.
Shirley's grand-cat, Naomi, in repose in a bucket of mulch.For the last few years of her life she kept a look out from her tiny apartment over the rabbits, squirrels, and raccoons she would see outside. She would worry over them in the drought, high winds, or when the grounds were sprayed with any chemicals. When one of the trees outside broke in an early snowstorm last October she fretted about the squirrels losing habitat. She took all of them into her heart.

I'm sorry that she never really had a chance to know her current granddaughter -- my little Naomi kitty.  They would have been the best of friends. The animal world will be a little sadder now without one of its guiding shepherds. 

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