BEALS ISLAND, Maine — When Cheryl Tibbetts makes a promise, you can bet your bottom dollar that she’ll keep it.
Just before her sweetheart, Grover Faulkingham Jr., died last May, Tibbetts promised to take care of his cats — all 15 of them. These cats were part of a feral colony that has multiplied throughout Beals Island and is now estimated at more than 200.
The 15 cats that Faulkingham loved had been hanging around his house for years. He provided food and a small shelter — a box really, just a place to get out of the wind and weather — and kept an eye on them.
“It was horrible,” Tibbetts said. “They would have their faces and their whiskers all frozen and iced up. If people only knew what happens when they abandon these cats.”
So when Faulkingham died unexpectedly, Tibbetts turned her heartbreak into action, making sure she kept her promise.
On a small piece of land by the sea on Beals Island, Tibbetts converted a former crab-picking shack into a feline retirement home. She built individual “apartments” for the 15 cats, put in climbing shelves, beds, scratching posts and food. Each “apartment” has its own door to an outside, enclosed pen. A new furnace was installed last fall.
She built a cat trap from lobster wire and caught all of Faulkingham’s feral kitties.
She had each of the male cats neutered, and here they will live, sleeping on soft blankets, for the remainder of their lives.
One of the cats was rescued after it was found caught by its head in a lobster trap. Another is blind. A third is diabetic.
Tibbetts cares carefully for each of them, mindful of their illnesses and temperaments, and of the promise she made to her dying sweetheart.
“I’m not a crazy cat lady,” Tibbetts said. “I’m just keeping my word to Grover. To me, it’s no big deal.”
Twice a day she checks their food and water and cleans their litter boxes. She stops and rubs ears, pats tummies and talks softly to the cats.
“Some of them, you can’t really get close to,” she said. “They were all feral at one point.”
It cost her a lot to renovate the crab shack.
It costs her more to feed and provide veterinary care.
From inhaling so much dust while changing the litter boxes every day, Tibbetts developed bronchitis this winter.
But never, not once, not even for a minute, has she thought of abandoning her promise.
“If people only knew how some of these cats suffered,” she said. “It is a wicked shame and a heartbreak.”
Tibbetts isn’t alone. Her neighbor Danny Davis helps feed at least 30 more cats, part of the larger colony. Other islanders help as they can.
“The cats are everywhere. People think kittens are really cute but when they are fully grown, they ship them right out, often without ‘fixing’ them,” she said.
“There are a lot of people on the island helping to feed the feral cats, especially in the winter,” said Sarah Davis of the Jonesport Animal Assistance Society, which also serves Beals Island.
“JAAS provides some funding when we can to help neuter them, but we need a more organized effort.”
Davis is hoping to launch an effort this spring to trap, mark and release as many of the feral cats as possible.
“This would give us an accurate count,” she said. “I personally feel the root of the problem is the constant breeding. We should be neutering them all. They will be healthier and less apt to fight.”
JAAS is also looking for volunteers who can help with the cat count. Davis can be reached at 497-2251.
Donations to JAAS can be sent to JAAS/Sarah Davis, 882 Mason Bay Road, Jonesport 04649.