Nov. 13, 2009 — -- Single. Female. Three Cats.
Red flag! For most people, the combo invites the label Cat Lady, says Christie Callan-Jones, a filmmaker.
Callan-Jones' latest documentary, "Cat Ladies," tells the stories of four women and their devotion to their cats. Elizabeth Vargas of ABC's "20/20" recently sat down with Callan-Jones to examine the unique relationship some women have with their feline companions.
For some of the women, pet ownership has turned into an obsession with cats, or an addiction to helping cats. But what made the women "cat ladies," Vargas found, was more than the number of cats the woman owned, be it three or 123. More influential was the emotional attachment between pet and owner.
CLICK HERE for photos of women who hoard cats
The film began as an idea of Suzanne Mullett of Chocolate Box Entertainment. Jeannette Loakman and Sally Blake of Chocolate Box produced the film.
"About 10 years ago, I was being called a 'cat lady' -- mainly out of jest but with a hint of disdain," Mullett said. "At the time I was living with two other people and we had five cats in the household, two were mine, two were my roommate's and one was a friend of mine's who moved and couldn't take her cat with her. The term initially angered me because you could tell it wasn't a compliment. Then it started to intrigue me -- about where this term came from -- and I began to start seeing images and references [to] the 'cat lady' in the media all the time."
"The most common [cat lady type] is a female character," Mullett said. "Single of course, lamenting that she can never own a cat because once you have one you won't be far away from being the cat lady of the neighborhood."
The "Cat Ladies" film crew interviewed hundreds of potential cat ladies and ultimately found four brave women, all from the Toronto area: Margot, Jenny, Diane and Sigi, who don't use last names in the film.
Margot has three cats -- Bongo, Fritz and Little One. They are her entire world. When she wakes up in the morning, they are there to greet her with purrs and kisses. But as much as her devotion to her cats is a central part of her life, she is very lonely, very much in need of a friend, she says. Her relationship with her cats might be hindering her developing friendships with human beings.
Margot was adopted. Her adoptive family was overachieving, she said, and she felt she never lived up to her parents' expectations. She has worked as a receptionist but longs for more.
"I think I should be at a certain place in my life at my age and I'm not," Margot said. She sees her cats as the only "people" who really love her.
"My cats, that's what saved me," she said. "They love me, they weren't mad at me, they accepted me for who I was."
At the same time Margot seems to crave a human connection. "I don't think people know I'm as lonely as I am," she said. "I try not to think about it myself, but I am. I need more than the cat.
"I hope someday to have a relationship with a person that is just as amazing. But for now cats is where it's at."
Since the documentary was produced in the fall of 2008, all three of Margot's cats have died.
Bongo died of feline leukemia and Little One was killed by a dog that was visiting the apartment -- a tragedy which Margot is still reeling from. Fritz died of old age.
Margot has two new, energetic cats that she says she's ecstatic about.
Their names are Dubhe and Merak, named after stars in the Big Dipper. They turned one on Halloween.
At 36, Jenny is a successful, fiercely independent sales agent with her own home -- which she just happens to share with 16 cats. It's not that she wouldn't want to find a partner or have children, but the experiences she endured as a child -- emotional trauma caused by a difficult childhood -- have prevented her, she said, from having healthy adult relationships.
"But I'm fine, don't worry," she said. "It's not like I'm on medicine or anything like that ... anymore."
Jenny knows that she's on the cusp of becoming a "crazy cat lady," she said, but she insists she's not there yet.
"Life without my cats wouldn't be life," Jenny said. "OK, maybe not so many."
Jenny talks about having had boyfriends in the past and being open to finding someone new -- though she says the best way to meet guys is usually at the dog park.
"I think I'm a great catch, and it's kind of depressing that I guess no one else has seen that," she said.
"I can't end up having 30 cats," Jenny said. "Then it's completely over. This way I'm still OK, got some hope."
Since the documentary was filmed about a year ago, Jenny has lost one cat but gained three rats. It total she keeps 15 cats, two dogs, three rats, two birds and two rabbits. Everyone lives inside.
Jenny said she has a very strained relationship with her family so she considers her pets her family.
Sigi is on a mission to save cats. She has transformed her house into a dormitory for hundreds of cats. Too many cats to count. Sigi is what many mean when they say "crazy cat lady."
"I find it amusing that people call me the 'crazy cat lady,' because I don't look at myself that way," she said. After countless run-ins with the Humane Society, which made her get rid of most of her furniture because it was too unsanitary, she now sleeps in a plastic lawn chair. She is surrounded by angry neighbors who say the stench of the cats is overwhelming.
"I've gotta be honest," said Vargas, "I don't think I could walk into that house. It, it looks filthy."
"Sigi truly is extreme in her devotion saving cats," Callan-Jones said. "There's nothing she won't do for the cats."
Sigi is unapologetic about her efforts to take feral cats off the streets and bring them into her home.
"I'm the Mother Theresa of these cats," she said.
Diane, 65, spent most of her career as a high-powered banker. But when she was forced into early retirement, this workaholic turned her efforts towards another passion: cats.
A year ago, Diane shared her home with 123 cats. Her goal is to save them from a life on the streets. She feeds them and nurses them back to health and continues to trap feral cats. Diane knows that she's taken on more than she can handle at times.
"This is now too much for me. I'm at risk for the law; I'm at risk for my health; I know I'm doing a good thing but I think it's a little too much now," she said.
Like Sigi, Diane lives in squalid conditions.
"I wish there was a smell-o-meter," said Callan-Jones. "The smell just takes your breath away, because it's, it's the ammonia in the cat urine. I guess it's almost like if you were maybe sticking your head in a litterbox, I mean it's very, very overwhelming. But you get used to it very quickly."
Callan-Jones likens Diane's devotion to cats to an addiction. Even Diane herself says, "I have to stop; I need to solve this, I can't live like this. It saves the cats but it doesn't save me."
And she yearns for the life she had before becoming addicted to "cat rescue."
Callan-Jones described a moment in the film when Diane listens to a message from her nephews.
"She's listening to this message from almost a year ago of them singing 'Happy Birthday' to her," said Callan-Jones, "and just like the joy in her eyes, and you can see, I -- I could see her thinking, 'Oh my God, this was my life before and ...' then she says, you know, 'This is my life now.'"
Diane watched cats crawl about, in and out of every space in the home.
"I'd like to see my family," she said. "I'd like to see those kids. I resent what I'm doing. Sometimes I go out there and don't want to come back here."
Since the documentary finished shooting, Diane bought a house in the countryside. But the day before she was to move all her cats into the home, someone told her that there were bylaws that limited the number of cats one could have. So Diane says she was forced to put the new house up for sale and is still in the same home.
Diane says she doesn't get much sleep because she spends her nights trapping stray cats. She wants to find another house and is thinking about moving to Calgary, where the government is more cat-friendly, she said. She wishes there was more access to low-cost health care for cats, including vets who would donate their time to spaying and neutering. It would make her life and all cat rescuers' lives a lot easier, she said.
[Anyone wishing to help Diane with her cat-saving efforts can contact the documentary producers HERE.]
The film ultimately explores this intense relationship between women and cats. Vargas noticed that for some of the women, that relationship was beyond simple devotion and love. "When do you cross the line from being a cat lady to being a crazy cat lady?" she asked.
"I think the line is, from cat lady to crazy cat lady is when, you are no longer taking care of yourself," said Callan-Jones. "And your health perhaps is in jeopardy, your mental health is in jeopardy, then...you've definitely crossed over the line and perhaps you need professional help."
In the end, the filmmakers hope that the audience won't think these women are "crazy." They realize the stereotype of the cat lady is pervasive in our culture, but Callan-Jones says it's not such a big deal.
"People spend hours on their computer, and no one questions that," she said. "But spending hours with your cats, uh-oh, you're a crazy cat lady."
CLICK HERE for more photos inside the hidden world of women who hoard cats, and CLICK HERE to learn more about the documentary.