Kelleigh Rudolph never aspired to become a 'cat lady' but, with a phone that rings red-hot, coupled with a kind heart, her home is bursting with over 30 kittens.
But she's not your average cat lady; For the last few years Kelleigh has been on a mission to reduce the unwanted cat population, fielding an ever-increasing flow of requests for help with stray cats and kittens found on properties.
"I've always loved animals since I was a child," she explains. "After seeing how many unwanted puppies and kittens there are and how the shelters are always overflowing with them, I started a Facebook page called M.A.D. Mission Animal De-sexing about four years ago to help people de-sex their dogs. Then dozens of people asked me to help with stray cats and it's been non-stop since."
Kelleigh, who recently moved to Whangarei from Auckland, deals with hundreds of cats and kittens a year and features regular photos and video updates on her Facebook page.
She says, while it's helpful when people can trap the cats themselves and take them to the vet she is usually required to go to the property to come up with a trapping plan.
"Once they're trapped, I assess their condition, take them to the vet for de-sexing, treat them for parasites and hopefully return them back to their home. In cases where they can't be returned, I need to work something out. The kittens I tame, fix and rehome.
"Some of the kittens are wild or in terrible condition. If you don't get the kittens while they are young, they become wild and can have a pretty hard life as a stray, if they even make it that far, and then have kittens of their own in a few months. It's a terrible cycle that starts with people not de-sexing or abandoning their cats."
Kelleigh's mission has become a full-time voluntary job and, although she gets help with some of the de-sexing costs in Auckland, she funds the rest herself. The kittens are adopted out for a small adoption fee to help with some of the other costs, such as traps, cages, bedding, petrol, kitty litter, food, treatments and medications and vet bills.
Her phone has turned into the 'cat phone', she says, and, not only have the cat calls followed her, she is now getting requests locally. "So many people need help catching stray cats and kittens and, now that I've moved to Whangarei, I've started getting messages from people here but, the problem is, I'm yet to find somewhere in Whangarei to get these cats de-sexed. I have to take them back to South Auckland to get it done because it's much cheaper."
Over January, she has taken in more than 50 kittens and currently has around 40 in her care with some at foster care and more waiting.
"That's way too many but luckily adoptions are good at the moment and a lot of people like the idea of adopting a rescue kitten that's had a rough start. My goal is to get these kittens fixed up and into homes to be cared for."
Describing the scene at home, Kelleigh says: "They demand their breakfast as soon as I open the door in the morning, litter trays and cages need cleaning, bedding needs washing and medication to be administered – it can take hours and doesn't take long before you have to do it all over again – all while people are asking for help with trapping or adopting enquiries. It sure keeps me busy!"
As for pets of her own – Kelleigh and her husband have two dogs and a cat Freddy, who luckily, don't seem to mind their guests. In fact, Freddy welcomes all the newbies by running up and cleaning their faces.
"He was one of my sickest rescues a few years ago so it's like he knows what they are going through," Kelleigh muses.
There have been many similar success stories.
"I often get kittens who are on death's door and somehow manage to nurse them back to health. I've had emaciated, starving kittens so, to later be adopted and then get awesome update photos of them looking rather round and settled in their homes, is a pretty special moment considering I've seen where they've come from. The sickest ones are my favourites - when they pull through, I'm so relieved."
But perhaps the biggest success story is the starving stray kitten who went on to become a tv celeb.
"Champagne was living in a garden in South Auckland. Her mum was a wild stray and Champagne was so starving she had been eating the wood chips in the garden, which had blocked her bowels.
"Champagne couldn't poop and dribbled wood chips out of her back-end for weeks. She had to be manually emptied at the vets but wasn't getting better. After the fourth visit, the vet said: 'We can't go on like this, you might have to think about euthanizing her'.
"I remember having a meltdown in the vet carpark and, as a last resort, decided to message Anne Batley Burton from the New Zealand Cat Foundation. Anne took Champagne on, somehow fixed her and Champagne now lives in a mansion and featured on The Real Housewives of Auckland show eating cooked chicken from a silver dish on the table!
"Seeing them a part of someone's family makes all the hard work worth it. Some people are still dumping or disposing of unwanted kittens when there's no need to. There are people out there who want those kittens and will give them a great home."
Of her role, Kelleigh says: "It's time-consuming and hard work but needs to be done – you can't just leave them there like that to breed and starve."
# If you are interested in sponsoring a spay, fostering or adopting cats or kittens, visit Kelleigh's Facebook page: M.A.D. Mission Animal De-sexing/Kitty Catcher.
Kelleigh is this month's nominee for our Local Legends $100 New World Gift Card, thanks to New World Kerikeri. If you know of a suitable nominee, email: email@example.com