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  The Westsider, February 12-18, 1998

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The Cat Lady

New York City is the land of services, a place where you can get your tuxedo dry-cleaned at 3 a.m., have kosher-Pakastani food delivered to your doorstep or arrange for a personal trainer to work with you at the office during lunch. If you can imagine it, it probably exists in this city. And if you've got a kitty, say, and you've got to leave town and have nobody to turn to, Anita Francis of the Upper West Side is your ticket. She's been the maven of felines for nearly a quarter of a century.

Last summer I could've used her expertise. I was saddled with the care and feeding of my neighbor's Abyssinians for two weeks. I'd always assumed cats were low-maintenance animals. What was there to know? You fill the water bowl, you clean the litter box, and you put out food two or three times a day. Easy, right? I'd never taken into account the contrary nature of the cat, or the havoc they can wreak when displeased with their lot. These cats were little Beelzebubs--they turned my life upside down. When my neighbor returned, it was as though the cats ratted on me, warning the next time he leaves town, find a real cat wrangler, or else.

That's when Anita Francis took over. Cat wrangling, or, as she terms it, "cat care," has been her profession for the past 23 years. On an average day she visits four homes. The residents are usually out of town. She does the requisite tasks, then adds her personal touch. She'll spend up to an hour playing with the pets, exercising them with the Cat Dancer, a two-foot long coil of wire with catnip skewered on it. She regularly talks to the cats and even sings to them in her church choir-trained voice. It's a remarkable coincidence that Anita bears the surname Francis, the same as the patron saint of animals. Her gift for communicating with cats seems preternatural.

Clients are often impressed by the miraculous change in their pets' attitudes, after just a few days in Anita's capable hands. However, Anita downplays her apparent prowess with cats, emphasizing the importance of care and individual attention--something any person can do if they are willing to put in the effort.

"I think many people take their cats for granted," she says. "They don't play with them or pay them mind. A cat knows if a person comes just to pay attention to them and to talk to them, and didn't come to do anything else."

This belief of Anita's is reiterated in the anecdotal report she leaves for her clients after each visit. Her reports are not unlike what an attentive kindergarten teacher would write for parents: "Today I was very pleased with Boots, he shared the catnip and then slept peacefully in his favorite sunny spot by the window. He needs work with the litter box; we're going to address that tomorrow."

Anita is the model of dependability, and she takes satisfaction in her spotless track record. "I work alone, year 'round, in all weather," she says. "Neither rain nor snow, heat nor humidity, has kept me from visiting--even the day last year when the post office didn't deliver."

Clients say that when they're out of town, her diligent work habits give them peace of mind. "People trust my judgment, my reliability and my experience," she says as if she'd want it to be her epitaph.

When Anita decided to go into cat care, it was a very obscure profession. Now she has at least twenty-five colleagues in Manhattan alone. It is typical of Anita to attribute her success to solid work habits and to ignore the fact that people and animals simply gravitate to her. "I like knowing there are still folks around like Anita," a client says. "You know, a real New Yorker, an original. You couldn't find her anyplace else but here."

"I'm concerned about security," she explains. "When I visit, I visit alone. I keep keys in separate envelopes with only the cats' names. I don't answer the door or the telephone. I don't use the television or the radio. I spend every second talking, playing, brushing, petting and massaging. I also bring in newspapers, packages and water the plants."

Anita doesn’t remember a time when cats weren’t essential to her happiness. As a child in the city, she'd bring in strays off the street and care for them. She found it painful to separate kittens from their litter, so she was never at home with less than eight cats. "We were like a big family," she says

When Anita recounts the great cats she's known, her face glows. She gets a kick out of describing the more notable ones: "Cross-Eyed Pete," a grizzled Siamese with cauliflower ears and a criminal bent--he had a penchant for stealing other cats' food and getting caught; "Fat Cat Riley," who hit the 30 pound barrier by the time he was two--"He's so big," she says, "once a child saw him and asked, 'Is that still a cat?'" In the case of the late Maurice, her voice quakes. He was already old and weakened by illness when they met, but they quickly developed a strong bond. She had difficulty accepting his death--until one night, when he came to her in a dream looking young and healthy. "It was as though he were saying, 'Stop worrying, I'm okay.' I don't understand it but it was Maurice, and it brought me peace."

In Anita's kitchen, pasted to the wall, is her "Cat Hall of Fame," a mosaic of hundreds of cats that she's cared for over the years. At her present pace she will probably achieve her career milestone: 1000 cats by the millennium. "I'm on 981," she beams, "but I'm picky. I'm taking it one cat at a time."


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