HANOVER — Joan Norris laughed as three tiny kittens pawed at her ankles and tried to scale her pant leg. Lying quietly next to her, an ill Siamese preened under her gentle touch.
A retired public relations professional who worked for museums, Norris is clearly in her element when she is with cats, and says there is nowhere else she would rather be.
“I am the Queen of Meows,’’ she said with a smile as the kittens, now in her arms, attempted to defy gravity and spring across the room.
The litter mates, just a few weeks old, and several dozen other furry felines of all ages, sizes, and stages of wellness live communally in a converted carriage house behind Norris’ antique Hanover home. The Last Resort Cat Shelter, a no-kill facility that operates out of three bays and a loft attic, has served 11,000-plus neglected or unwanted animals over the past three decades, she said.
It is a record that has earned her, hands-down, the designation as Hanover’s cat lady, she said. “Call the police and ask them where to bring a cat, and they will send you here.’’
In fact, town officials appointed Norris, 70, as an assistant animal control officer in 1981, not so much to give her a job, but to get around the local bylaw that prevented residents from having more than three animals at any one time, she said.
Originally from Manhattan, Norris was living in Ohio when the ocean drew her to Boston in the mid-1970s. In 1977, she and her husband, Ray, and four children settled on Broadway in Hanover.
“I always liked cats and kittens, and when I moved here I joined the local humane society,’’ she said. “I said I would foster animals because I had this building.’’
And soon the sick and unwanted began pouring in — like the two kittens found in the trash pit of a local landfill, followed by four starving kittens born in a Kingston yard.
There were the three feral kittens locked in a Brockton shed, and 22 cats Norris rescued by crawling under the porch of a boarded-up building and breaking in after neighbors reported that an evicted family had left them behind.
Norris has nursed many of her charges back to health and moved them on to new lives.
“I’m just good at it,’’ she said. “Yes, it really is hard work, but when they go off to new homes, it fills my heart with joy.’’
Inevitably, she said, the phone rings the next day with a replacement. At one point years ago, she had as many as 74 cats in her shelter. Residency is based on how many beds become available as other cats are adopted out. Cats come mostly from the south suburbs, although Norris said she has had inquiries from as far away as Atlanta.
These days, about half the 30 or so cats in the shelter are unadoptable for various reasons and will be with Norris for the long haul.
As she talked, she stroked the sleek fur of Silver, the applehead Siamese, who was lying on a sickbed atop a large crate.
“He was filthy and near death a week ago when I got him,’’ Norris said, crooning to the fragile cat. “You’re my friend now, aren’t you?”
Silver was dropped off with an infection that was killing him before Norris whisked him to VCA Roberts Animal Hospital in Hanover. There, associate veterinarian Adam Page treated the cat on his lunch break, and within hours of being given antibiotics, Silver was looking at survival.
Page said there is not enough good he can say about Norris.
“Joan is such a wonderful person,’’ he said. “She has committed herself to the cats she saves every day. Silver is just one case of many that would have ended up being euthanized, but Joan was there to give him a second chance.”
Norris has volunteers who come to help vacuum or hold kittens, but essentially she is it. The shelter is neat and clean with cat-themed paintings, lithographs, and wooden carvings over all the walls. There are pallets of cat food cans stacked counter-high next to piles of clean, soft donated towels and blankets that line cages and cat beds.
A washing machine and dryer run often, as does a dishwasher filled with feeding plates. A window stencil that says “Kitty World” sums it up.
Norris for years ran her own consultancy to major arts organizations including the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, and the Peabody Essex Museum.
“Then, when I got home, I would be running around the countryside coaxing frightened cats and kittens into carriers,’’ she said.
With rising prices and a constant flow of cats, it costs Norris about $30,000 a year to run the Last Resort Cat Shelter. The shelter is not a nonprofit organization, she said, but donors who need tax-exempt receipts may get them through the town, which has a holding account. She has been able to raise $23,000 this year through donations, yard sales with shelter member Trish Glenn in Hanson, and pleas for help in a newsletter.
After this year’s June yard sale, Norris and Glenn rented a booth at Eclectic Collection in Abington and are selling items there to help fund the shelter. They welcome donations of vintage or new things, which are resold.
Norris said she also accepts discarded cellphones, which she sells to a refurbisher. All proceeds go to spay and neuter cats. She can be reached by calling 781-826-9560.