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In Maine town, ‘cat ladies’ claw for rights of strays

At lunchtime, Brenda Jarvis was swarmed by the cats of a trailer in Dixfield, Maine. She is among a group caring for dozens of cats.Yoon S. Byun for The Boston Globe

DIXFIELD, Maine — Brenda Jarvis crouches inside a weathered trailer and tosses plates on the floor like she’s dealing a deck of cards. It’s lunchtime, and more than a dozen cats come scurrying for food.

“I don’t count them anymore,” said the 75-year-old Jarvis. “If they show up at the door, I take care of them.”

It’s a labor of love, one that Jarvis and her sister, Caroline Smith, started 40 years ago with a few abandoned cats that over the years became hundreds. Since then, they and other self-proclaimed “cat ladies” have made this trailer and this town somewhat of a magnet for unwanted felines. The cats have the run of the trailer; the women live elsewhere.


Their effort appeared to get a big boost when Barbara Thorpe, a longtime resident, left the bulk of a $197,000 estate to Dixfield’s abandoned and unwanted cats upon her death in 2002.

But only $3,000 has come the cats’ way since then, the women’s attorney says. The cat ladies of Dixfield, as well as the town itself, are fighting back, suing the trustees as part of a legalistic cat fight.

“This charade should not be allowed to continue, and the cats must get their inheritance without further delay,” Seth Carey, the women’s attorney, wrote in a motion filed at Oxford Superior Court.

To the trustees, the suit is frivolous. The statute of limitations has expired, the women are not named in the will, and there is no timetable for payments, according to Neal Pratt, a Portland lawyer who represents the trustees, one of whom was Thorpe’s longtime housekeeper.

“Let the trustees execute their discretion,” said Pratt.

So far, according to Carey, that “discretion” has resulted in only small, sporadic payments from the money left by Thorpe, whom Jarvis described as a childless, well-regarded nurse who loved Siamese cats.


Recently, Maine’s attorney general, Janet Mills, joined the pending suit as part of her office’s oversight of nonprofit charitable organizations. Mills said her interest is simply to find answers and resolve the case as quickly as possible.

Before its appearance in Superior Court, the issue had languished for eight years in Probate Court with no clear resolution.

Inside the cat-filled trailer, where Jarvis’s parents had lived, the legal sparring seems far away. Instead, this long, narrow space is a purring, lounging, climbing, claw-sharpening tableau of furry contentment.

A cat rested on top of a stove in a trailer that is home to stray cats in Dixfield, Maine.Yoon S. Byun for The Boston Globe

The five women take turns keeping the trailer clean and the cats happy. They also keep cats in their own homes. One of the women, Valerie Warriner, cares for 47.

“I can’t even tell you why I care so much for the cats. I just do,” said Warriner, a disabled Air Force veteran.

The women laugh easily at the stereotypical image of “crazy cat ladies,” although they concede that their passion goes above and beyond. All the cats are spayed or neutered, their bowls are washed regularly, and the trailer’s laundry is done every day, said Jarvis, who doesn’t mind shoveling snow from the roof with her 74-year-old sister.

The sisters estimated that the two of them alone have sheltered 600 cats over the years. A sign in the trailer’s kitchen reads: “Cats leave paw prints on your heart.”

“They can do anything they want here,” Jarvis said of the animals. “I pay the bills, but it’s their house.” She estimated that $500 of her monthly $763 Social Security check is spent on their care.


Like Jarvis, the rest of the women said they steer a significant portion of their income toward the cats.

“I spend more to feed the cats than I do to feed me,” said Donna Weston, a 60-year-old electrician who also pays all the vet bills for the trailer cats.

Weston and the others insisted that they do not regard the Thorpe estate as a personal ATM.

“It’s all about the cats,” Smith said.

Those cats include Sam, a 22-year-old who enjoys the warmth of an aluminum mat placed over a stove’s pilot light. There’s also Inky, Sophie, Bandit, Monty, and tiny Queen, a stunted 9-month-old who stopped growing shortly after birth.

The women are known throughout this mill town of 2,500 people about 75 miles north of Portland, and many families who no longer can or want to keep cats deliver them to the trailer. Sometimes, they are placed inside the door. Other times, they are unceremoniously dumped.

Once, Jarvis recalled, a cat was thrown onto the trailer’s lawn at Christmas from the window of a moving pickup truck.

“The cat just stood there,” Jarvis said. “It seemed to be asking, ‘Where am I? What did I do wrong?’ ”

Jarvis, who has been married for 44 years, said her husband has never had dinner at home. Not once. Instead, they stop at the trailer each night, where Jarvis checks the cats.


Day after day, night after night, Jarvis and the other Dixfield “cat ladies” care for animals that otherwise might be euthanized or die outdoors. It’s a mission they pledge to continue for as long as they are able — trust money or no trust money.

“Whether we get it or not, we’ll continue to take care of the cats,” Weston said.

Jarvis nodded. “I’ll be doing it with a walker,” she said.

Five women take turns keeping the trailer clean and the cats happy.Yoon S. Byun for The Boston Globe

Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at brian.macquarrie@globe.com.