Heads turn when The Catmobile drives by
Millie Reddig will tell you she’s not your average crazy cat lady.
And she isn’t.
The 71-year-old Boise woman has learned how to trap feral cats to ensure they’re spayed or neutered. She paints portraits of cats — her cats, other people’s cats, cats for local pet adoption fundraisers, and yes, even dogs. And then there’s her car: a 1993 Toyota Camry she’s painted and dubbed the Catmobile.
At one point this summer she had 21 cats — and a dog named Rusty — living in various spaces around the house and in a converted kennel in the backyard.
That space was intended to be her art studio, but she saw a greater need: to give rescued cats a better life.
With help from her husband Duane Reddig, Millie converted a series of sheds and shelters into Sally’s Sanctuary, named in honor of a close friend, Sally Jones, who also shared a love for cats and animals. She pursued a kennel license that she renews annually.
Some of the cats at the sanctuary were left behind by owners who passed away, others were rescued from bad environments and destined for euthanasia.
“I’m proud to be involved with (animal) rescue,” the 71-year-old Boise woman said. “Yes, I have too many cats. But somebody has to do it.”
Caring for cats
Millie has what she calls the “unadoptables” — feral or abandoned domestic cats, many with health problems, that nobody else would shelter.
Nina, a Russian Blue who now prances carefree through Millie’s home, was one of those feral cats.
“We thought she might have neurological damage when we first got her.” Today, Nina is one of Millie’s most curious and active cats. When she’s not jumping among the many cat runways and platforms created by Duane, Nina settles for a comfy spot next to her favorite human.
Nina’s right ear is clipped at the tip.
“They do that so we know a feral cat has been spayed or neutered,” she said.
And aside from her own cats like Nina, Millie manages a feral cat colony where she provides a bit of shelter and visits every day or two with food and water.
Millie discovered the colony near her daughter’s new home in West Boise, which was part of a redevelopment project.
Originally from Georgia, Millie moved to Idaho from Alabama 10 years ago to be near her daughter in Boise. She discovered cats were being displaced and living under a construction shed near the home.
“I had never heard of a feral cat,” she said.
One day she saw that a kitten had been run over and decided something had to be done. She got in touch with local organizations Spay Neuter Idaho Pets, or SNIP, and Stop Pet Overpopulation Today, or SPOT, at the Idaho Humane Society.
Then Millie learned how to trap — managing to trap and fix 15 feral cats at her colony to help control its population.
And she’s not alone. In the last year, the Idaho Humane Society said it has spayed or neutered 2,133 feral cats, and many like-minded cat lovers manage similar adopted colonies around the Treasure Valley.
“I have a lot of friends that I work with, and a lot of different rescues,” she said. “We all work together to try and help solve the cat problem — which is really a people problem.”
Lianne Yamamoto, of Nampa, a trapping and rescue comrade, said she prefers to use the term community cats for cats that don’t really belong to anyone.
Many of the cats likely belonged to someone once, but now they’re out on their own trying to survive in local neighborhoods, at dairies or Lake Lowell.
“People just feel like, ‘I can dump any animal there and they’ll be fine,’ which is not true,” she said.
To control a colony’s population, volunteers trap feral cats and take them to local clinics to get spayed or neutered — often with discounts or vouchers provided through SNIP or SPOT and supporting veterinarians.
“The best thing to do is trap them, get them fixed, and just let them be. Turn them back to where they were,” Millie said. That might raise the eyebrows of some people who simply want to get rid of cats.
“There’s a reason why they are there,” Millie said. “They have a food source and they have shelter. If you get rid of the fixed ones, then more are going to move in. And they’re not going to be fixed.”
The cycle will only continue with more feral kittens.
Some rescues create a conundrum for animal advocates, especially when property owners just want to be rid of the nuisance. After trapping them, Millie and friends know the reality of what happens to unwanted cats — especially ferals.
You can usually tame kittens, Millie said. But it’s much harder to domesticate adults, which is another reason to fix them and return them back to their habitat.
“A lot of my friends will try and tame feral adults because it’s such a better life for them if they can have a home and all that,” Millie said, but she’s not quite convinced that’s always possible.
“I think ferals are happy being ferals,” she said.
When still living in Alabama, Millie adopted Frasier, her first rescue cat.
“He was my soulmate,” she said. She learned years later that among other health problems, his jaw had been broken in two places. It required a feeding tube to mend and after two days of Frasier being miserable, Millie made a tough decision.
“I said, ‘that’s enough,’” Millie said, holding back tears, “So we let him go.”
An artist in college, Millie picked up her brush and started painting again. “(Frasier) was the first painting I did,” she said. “He was just special.” Frasier’s colorful portrait is printed on one of the countless cat themed T-shirts Millie wears.
“Maybe that’s why I got so involved in trying to help cats that need to be rescued,” Millie said. With age and a bad hip, Millie doesn’t trap as often now. Instead, she paints pet portraits to help raise money for animal advocate groups. For a friend she painted a series of cat portraits in the style of famous artists like Vincent van Gogh and Jackson Pollock.
“I do try to have fun with my art,” Millie said. There is an element of sorrow when dealing with animal rescue and tending feral cat colonies, so she tries to balance that with bright colors and humor in her paintings. This fall, the Idaho Humane Society’s See Spot Walk fundraiser will even feature Millie’s art.
Inevitably someone in her circle of friends loses a pet. To console them in their grief, Millie spends an afternoon painting.
“When I do portraits of dogs and cats that have passed, I always put a smile on their face and a little heart,” she said. “I just want their owner to be happy when they see their painting instead of sad.”
“And that’s why I did this,” Millie said pointing to her ‘93 Toyota Camry. “People think I’m crazy. But it makes some people laugh and smile.” The car’s paint was pealing off, so she started painting The Catmobile herself. “I’ve had people tell me it just makes their day, and so that makes it worth it.”
A heart of gold
Among her many cats, Millie has been known to take on impossible foster cases. In 2013, she took in a rescue kitten named Leo.
“He had fleas. He had ringworm. He had upper respiratory infection,” she said. Leo would need to be isolated for up to three months until the ringworm was gone.
Then a friend who is a veterinarian, Talitha Neher from West Valley Humane Society, called. “She said, ‘Have I got an offer for you!’” Millie laughed. She had another kitten with ringworm that needed care.
“I’ve known Millie for years,” said Nina Trenwith, a vet tech at Ada Veterinary Hospital that helps Millie with her cats. She knew Millie already had a kitten with ringworm and was able to provide care for another that would otherwise be sent to the shelter, and likely euthanized.
“Everyone’s terrified of it because they think it’s this terrible worm thing, but it’s not,” Trenwith said. “It’s a fungus that’s just so contagious — especially among the young and old.” In a shelter, it spreads quickly and can be transmitted to humans.
So Millie introduced the young kitten Phoebe to Leo in quarantine. “It’s not that it’s the end of the world,” Millie said. “It’s just time consuming, and you have to be real careful.”
During the same summer she fostered six rescue kittens with feline calicivirus, another highly contagious disease.
“They were in the garage. The ringworm babies were on the side of the house,” Millie sighs. “(Trenwith) said if you do this without somebody else getting calicivirus or ringworm, you deserve a medal,” she smiles. “We did it.”