Cat Woman

For 30 years a Hillsborough woman has looked after cats — 80 (plus) at a time, thousands over a life-time. Peter Malcouronne talks to Colleen Woods about the glory — and plight — of the Little Prophets.

Colleen Woods has had a hell of a weekend. The 75-year-old Cat Woman was up half the night delivering kittens — her third litter in as many days — and her humble Hillsborough bungalow chirrups with the “we we wes” of tiny scraps, some so small you could fit half a dozen in your hand.

She has a grandmother’s face, even by old lady standards, with her twinkly eyes set in heavy jowls. And her voice is grandmotherly too: sharp, no-nonsense but kind. “Come through here, dear,” she says, shepherding me past sacks of cat biscuits and kitty litter to the kitchen.

There are cages in the kitchen, just as there are in every room in the house, bar Colleen’s bedroom and the loo. “How are my kittens?” Colleen asks, unveiling a shrouded cage. The mother of this lot, who Colleen thought was pregnant, was caught behind the Sandringham shops a couple of days ago. Sans catlets. But then Colleen got a call this morning from someone who’d found six kittens inside an incinerator. “You should’ve seen the Mumma cat when we brought them in,” Colleen smiles. “She was overjoyed to have them back. They’d been by themselves for a day and night.

“Poor creatures!”

She takes me through to the inaccurately-titled spare room where seven cats reside, including cross-eyed Clarence, rescued 17 years ago along with his Mum and sister, and then to the lounge, home to another six cats. Good grief, how many cats do you have here Colleen? “That’s for me to know and you to find out,” she laughs, and I wonder if her reticence is because she doesn’t want to come across as the loopy old lady with a hundred cats. Well, she’s not at all loopy and nor does she have that many cats: counting the tenants in the downstairs enclosure, I reckon there’d be no more cats here than Colleen’s had birthdays.

Gareth Morgan’s call that cat owners be forced to purchase lion manes for their cats is currently before cabinet. It’s thought the manes — see —will scare birds and make them more wary of the ‘Little Prophets’.

For 25 years, she’s been taking them in. I ask her why.

“Somebody’s got to,” she shrugs. “It keeps me busy. Otherwise I’d just be sitting here knitting and getting old.”

So each morning begins like this: cages are cleaned, kitty litter changed, the sick ones given medication, orphans fed with an eyedropper. Colleen starts on dinner around lunchtime: a massive stockpot of chicken and rice bubbles away there on the stove. In the afternoon, there’ll be visits to the vet and, hopefully, people coming round to adopt cats after seeing Colleen’s ads in the Trade & Exchange.

Thousands of cats have passed through her home, some strays caught by her band of devoted volunteers, others materialising on her doorstep in carrybags or in boxes. To avoid being swamped, Colleen doesn’t advertise her address, but word gets around: she’s the old lady the local kids come to whenever they find a sick bird.

Compassion’s a costly business. The standard cost of speying a cat is $90, neutering a little less, while an ordinary veterinary consultation with vaccinations is $40. While Colleen’s vet gives her a generous discount and often drops by her house for the vacs, it adds up. And then there’s the food. How much does it cost you each week I ask? Hundred bucks? Two hundred?

“That’s conservative,” she says. And then she cackles, delighted at how little she’s giving away.

“Come out with Mummy, darling,” Colleen says, lifting a frail, grey oriental-cross kitten out of a cage and on to her lap. “This one’s a starvation case,” she tells me. “From out Papakura way. She was brought in with her brother three weeks ago.” Colleen tries feeding her salmon and tuna — “fancy stuff” — with a teaspoon, but the kitten shows little interest.

“You can feel every bone in her little body,” Colleen says. “She’s got a back like a razor blade.”

While Colleen vehemently refuses to euthanase healthy cats, the kitten’s condition is so precarious that you wonder if she’ll make it. “Oh, she’ll survive all right,” Colleen pronounces. “I’ll make her!”

Colleen Woods (centre) with volunteer Sally Ewins (left) and Julie Reyland (right). Photo: Janie Smith, Central Leader.

He was such a beautiful boy,” Colleen sighs, straightening the photo of her eldest grandson, Joel. “The apple of my eye.”

There are crooked photos all over the wall (the kittens use them as a climbing ladder). There are several pictures of a beautiful ballerina, Colleen’s youngest daughter, Sherree, formerly a soloist in the Royal New Zealand Ballet Company. There’s a large faded photo of Piha’s Lion Rock where Colleen scattered her eldest son Michael’s ashes after he took his life in 1998. And there’s one of Colleen feeding a kitten with an eye dropper. “Silly old bat,” she scoffs. “Look at me!”

Under a black-and-white picture of Colleen in her 20s — she looked like Rita Hayworth — is another picture of grandson, Joel, with DJ, a German shepherd. “DJ was one of my favourites,” she says. “She was another starvation case but I nursed her back to health. She lived ’til she was 17-years-old. Her ashes are in that little wooden box: I’m gonna bury them with my grandson.”

Tragically, Joel was killed in a car accident in 1998 aged 23. Colleen’s mother also died that year — she lost her Mum, a son and a grandson within six months of each other.

Colleen Woods: “I had a little kitten come in. Its back legs had been hacked off at the knee. I made little boots for its stumps. Very soon she was climbing up the wall.”

She shakes her head. “I made little boots for its stumps. Very soon she was climbing up the wall.“If I hadn’t had the cats,” she says, “I don’t know how I would survived. I’m sure they saved my sanity. You see, I had to get up each morning and look after them.”

So she battled on. But it’s a job, she says, that can break your heart. No matter how many cats she adopts out, there’s always more coming in — three cats can become a 100 in a year, she says, “if they’re not fixed up”. She talks of the indifference some people have towards animals — “they don’t look at their faces, they don’t look into their eyes” — and then she tries to make sense of cruelty.

“I had a little kitten come in about four years ago,” she says. “Its back legs had been hacked off at the knee.”

She shakes her head. “I made little boots for its stumps. Very soon she was climbing up the wall.

“That little kitten went to live with two registered nurses who just love her to bits.”

A happy ending then. Colleen passes me a bulging album full of photos of smiling people with cats on their knees. “Every time a cat goes, I take a photo,” she says. “The cupboards are chocker with albums — it’ll take you ’til next Christmas to get through them.” And then there’s the piles of cat snaps sent to her by the proud owners.

“They all get homes,” she smiles. “They all get home.”

The Ancient Egyptians believed cats were Little Prophets. And recent experiments at the Cern Hadron Collider offer increasing proof of feline divinity.

First published in Metro magazine, 2006.