You can call Joni Nelson crazy. You wouldn’t be the first. She’s been called plenty of other things too, most of them unprintable.
She can take it. She can give it back pretty good, too.
“I don’t want you to think I’m a horrible person,” she says apologetically, her voice worn low and gravel-rough by cigarettes. “I have a filthy mouth.”
There are worse things in this world than cussing. One of them compels Nelson to travel a darkened city every morning, while most of Boston sleeps.
She’s a cat lady, a member of a small, rag-tag, passionately committed, largely invisible and, yes, possibly unhinged, army of men and women who tend to street cats all over Massachusetts. She feeds and provides makeshift shelters for cats who have lost their homes or never had one. She traps them so that they can get vaccinations and flea treatments. She has them spayed and neutered so they’ll stop breeding.
Despised by some and misunderstood by many, Nelson and her comrades are all that stand between a city’s cat colonies and world domination.
It’s hard to say for sure how many feral cats are out there. Mike Keiley, chief of cat programs for the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, says it’s reasonable to assume there’s one street cat for every six residents. The MSPCA estimates there are more than 10,000 feral cats in Dorchester and Roxbury alone.
They are housepets, and descendants of housepets, both lightly and cruelly abandoned. It isn’t a grand humanitarian cause, taking on human suffering or world peace or the lack of parking downtown. But it is a good one, and it is Nelson’s.
And so there she was, working her tiny corner of the huge cat crisis in the dark on a recent, frigid morning, bent over a giant bag of dry cat food beside her idling car outside her Roslindale home. She’s usually out here at 4 a.m., but she agreed to meet me a little later, since it was a holiday, and there was no need to rush to her job driving a Boston school bus.
She scooped dry food into cardboard trays, mixed in giant spoonfuls of wet, and stacked the trays in the back of her red Hyundai.
“This is the whole process, every darn morning,” she said, except she didn’t say darn. She held up an extra-large can of food.
“At my age, I should be all excited about a cruise,” she said. “Now I’m excited about this: A buck a can at Stop and Shop.”
She is 56 — “I’m 56, I look 96, and I feel 100.” She’s been driving a school bus for more than 30 years. She started tending to street cats 10 years ago, when she spotted a colony on a vacant lot along her route.
After a short ride in her extremely fragrant car, we stood at the lower end of that sloped lot in Dorchester, holding a few trays.
“This is the one that started it all off,” she said proudly of the nondescript patch. Cats appeared from the shadows, one by one. “These are my babies. Hey, Momma! Hey, Slapper! There’s Fluffy.”
Nelson estimates she has taken 176 cats off this street alone over the last 10 years. She counts only seven cats here now. When she first arrived, they were everywhere, eating from dumpsters, their ribs hanging down. She took out cats that were ill, or were friendly enough for adoption, and made sure to have others neutered so the colony wouldn’t expand. She brings the neutered cats home to her garage to recuperate before setting them free again. She has kept some over the years. She refused to say how many, though over the course of our conversations, she admitted to at least five.
Nelson visits with about 100 cats altogether, spread over 10 colonies in Roxbury, Dorchester, and Roslindale. Some live in iffy locations. At one point, we went behind a building into an alley where, a few seconds later, eight cats came to greet us. Some of them seemed friendly. Some were decidedly hissy.
This is the point at which I should confess that, although I live with one, I am not a cat person. I am even less of a hang-around-in-dark-alleys-in-neighborhoods-where-bad-stuff-has-happened person.
I was starting to get the feeling I’ve had over the years reporting stories in dangerous places — I’m remembering an alley in Westerrn Pakistan after 9/11 — that, you know, perhaps this wasn’t the smartest move. Nelson’s stories weren’t helping: “My friend Claudia and I were trapping one night and we heard ‘Pop, pop, pop,’ and she said ‘Get down!’ and I said ‘I can’t, my knees!’”
“Should we chat in the car?” I offered feebly, backing out of the alley. But Nelson stayed put, talking to the cats. She did not lower her voice. She is fearless.
A lot of residents don’t like her. They’re angry at her for venturing onto their properties, for feeding cats they wish would just go away. They don’t seem to realize she’s also trying to make sure those cats stop breeding. When they yell and swear at her, she yells and swears back.
She’s angry, too. She knows some of the people who live near her colonies have turned cats out when they had no more use for them. Some of the cats she feeds are friendly. She takes some to the vet and finds they’re microchipped — former pets, obviously. She’ll get a colony down to five one year, and come back in the spring to find it growing exponentially again.
“How can you walk out your door and ignore them?” she says. “These people are abandoning cats. I didn’t put them here; you did.”
Nelson is getting tired. She has handed off a few of her colonies to her friend Fred, who got into the feral cat tending business six years ago, at Nelson’s urging, and now feeds and traps in 23 places — “Without Fred, we’re dead,” Nelson said. “I’d have to get up at 1 a.m.”
Trapping is hard work, and she can’t do it as often anymore. And she can’t keep pouring money into food and veterinarians’ bills.
“If I ever hit the lottery, I’d build a shelter,” she said. “But it would be filled within the month, and I’d have to build another.”
Sometimes she cries on the way to work, worrying about her babies, and what might happen to them when she is gone. People donate blankets and food sometimes to help her, but it’s never enough. There are just too many cats.
Nelson is convinced the only way to end this is to stiffen penalties for people who abandon cats, and launch a citywide education campaign. She’s probably right.
In the meantime, the MSPCA is coming in to take the pressure off her, at least for a little while. With a grant from PetSmart, they’re working with an army of Nelsons from Charles River Alleycats to trap and neuter at least half of the feral cats in Dorchester and Roxbury over the next year.
When they’re done, they’ll return the cats to the streets they know. The animals will still want feeding, and love. And it looks like as long as she’s kicking, Nelson will be there to give it to them. It’s not like she has any choice; this is who she is.
As Nelson set down her last tray of food for the morning, the sky lightened and turned pink. The city awoke. The cats, their bellies full, scurried back to their hiding places. And Nelson headed home to tend to her patients.
“People say ‘God bless you,’” she said. “ I don’t want God to bless me. I don’t want a special place in heaven. I want this madness to stop. I want this suffering to stop.”