In the past 25 years Faye Hardie has rescued and rehoused hundreds of cats and dogs. And every one of them has a story.
TUESDAY afternoon in Wonthaggi’s Paws Galore thrift shop and a young teenager is sobbing. Tiffany and her mother Liz have brought in their cat Midnight (‘Middy’) because they are moving to a new house and the real estate agent has told them they can’t take the cat there.
Middy’s enormous green eyes, alert and apprehensive, stare out of the cat bag on Tiffany’s knees. Tiffany has dreaded the moment all week and now it’s come. She tries to control herself, as Liz comforts her, but giving up Middy is breaking her young heart.
There’s one consolation in the whole sorry story: a local carer, Georgina, is taking Midnight. She’s come in for the handover and talks gently to Tiffany. Tiffany tells her what Middy likes to eat and explains that the cat will come up and miaou and lead her to the door when she needs to go outside. Georgina tells Liz and Tiffany to call in to visit Middy whenever they like.
Tiffany’s and Liz’s distress casts a pall over us all. After they’ve left, I ask Faye Hardie, manager of the shop and founder of South Gippsland Animal Aid, how she copes with such scenes. “Over the years I’ve had to cope with all sorts of things. Unfortunately that’s a common scenario. It is emotional but we’re very lucky that Georgina rang up out of the blue.”
Humans often trouble Faye – she has seen so much cruelty and ignorance – but she says she’s always loved animals. She remembers her father strapping her when she was young. She was sitting on the step crying, “I hate him! I hate him!” – she felt a great sense of injustice – and recalls her little fox terrier coming up to nuzzle and comfort her.
She has repaid the favour many times over. Since she founded South Gippsland Animal Aid in the 1990s, she has rescued and rehoused hundreds of cats and scores of dogs. Sometimes it seems as if she remembers every one of them. She can’t recall my name when I walk into Wonthaggi’s Paws Galore thrift shop, but she immediately associates my face with the cat I adopted in January. “Mouse!” she says “How is she?”
South Gippsland Animal Aid operates under a no-euthanasia policy, but finding homes for the animals is a constant problem. On their small farm near Foster, Faye and her husband, Bob, care for the cats that haven’t found homes. At last count it was 55, but that’s well down from the peak of 80 in the late 1980s. “If we ever get short of homeless cats, we can start finding homes for ours,” she jokes.
At one stage, Bob sensibly said “No more!’, but he’s never tried to stop her. He’s the one who counts their cats in with a torch at night, all 55 of them, then goes out and rounds up any stragglers.
It’s hard to get Faye to talk about herself. She keeps veering off to talk about the animals or other carers, people like Hazel Swift, “the Cat Lady of Inverloch”, who turns 90 next month and who was in her 80s when she climbed an apple tree to rescue a benighted cat.
I ask Faye how she got involved with cat rescues herself. It started small, she says. People asked for help. They couldn’t afford to get their animals spayed. Her vet in Foster agreed to desex them at a cut price so she used to pick up a load of cats in Wonthaggi and Inverloch and take them back to Foster.
She recalls being told about a cat in Broome Crescent that needed spaying. When she got to the house, there were six cats in the driveway. She ended up taking about 20 cats, and then she had to bring them all back to the owner once they were spayed. Another man had about 20 tom cats. “Of course they stank. I can remember someone saying, ‘Here comes Faye with her smelly old cats”.
Back then she was trying to do it all – the trapping, the caring and the fund-raising – on her own. She would bake all Friday, load up the car with the baking on Saturday morning, drive to Inverloch, set up her card tables outside the National Bank and sell cakes to raise the money to pay for the food and medication to save the cats.
“My sponges were six inches high. And I used to make zucchini and walnut loaves, all recipes out of the Women’s Weekly. The baking used to go very quickly. But it was such hard work. It nearly killed me.”
Her good friend, Flo Cousins, “the Cat Lady of Dandenong”, saw it was killing her and suggested she set up a shop in Wonthaggi to raise funds. So began Paws Galore, which is now in its third premises, in Watt Street, next to the fire station.
On this Tuesday afternoon there’s the usual organised chaos. Volunteers are sorting clothes out the back. Shoppers are rifling through the racks looking for warm jackets or designer-label dresses. Collectors are sifting through the bric a brac for antique jugs. A man drops off two big bags of lemons. Spring cleaners call in with last year’s Boxing Day Sale bargains.
The shop provides the bulk of Animal Aid’s income but they sail close to the wind. At one stage they had a bill for $8000 and no idea how to pay it, then they got news of a $8000 legacy. After Coast magazine ran an article on Faye a few years, they received two sizeable donations from readers. Local vets have also helped, particularly David Cassells at Cowes, Hugh Thomas in Inverloch and, in the early days, Ken Pitt at Foster.
I ask Faye if people have got better about desexing their pets but she shakes her head. They’re as bad as ever. “All that work to try and get on top of it, and people just let their animals breed.” For years, Animal Aid has been pressing Bass Coast Council to make desexing of cats compulsory, with some exceptions, but they have made little progress.
Like most people, I avert my eyes from the endless suffering of the animal kingdom. I’ve always been frightened of the abyss that will open if I learn too much about the caged bear factories in Asia, the annual slaughter of the whales in the Faroe Islands, the battery hens kept thousands to a cage not too far from here, the hundreds of hungry, sick cats on our own streets.
We leave it to heroic people like Faye to face the horror of it and to act in our names. Yes, she agrees, she has seen the worst of human cruelty. She has been literally sick with worry at times over the endless parade of sick, homeless and distressed animals. But she says there is now a good team of carers and volunteers at Animal Aid.
I ask if she ever regrets becoming involved. “Never,” she says. Then reflects. “Of course it’s become an obsession. But it’s a magnificent obsession.”
Her care-worn face breaks into a smile. “Think of all those beautiful animals we’ve saved!”