We’ve all heard the term “crazy cat lady” — the colloquial title given to quirky, independent women who actually prefer the company of cats to people — many cats. The usually only half-joking label infers isolation and detachment from society, bringing one to envision a person shut off from the world.
One Connecticut cat lady, however, is dispelling many of these existing stereotypes with the work she’s been doing at a beachside cat shelter for 100-plus cats. The shelter is called Cat Beach, and contrary to what you might be thinking, it’s not on Long Island Sound, but 10,000 miles away on the picturesque shores of Penang, Malaysia.
Sharon native Teviot Fairservis, known as TV for short, has been an animal lover for as long as she can even remember.
“When I was a little girl — 9 or 10 — my cat gave birth to her first kitten in my bed, and she became a wonderful mother,” says TV, now 61, when we recently visited Cat Beach. “That was a profound moment for me. Animals are teachers. They’ve taught me about kindness and happiness.”
Since those early days in Sharon, the former Housatonic Valley Regional High School student went on to be a teacher herself.
After a stint at Waterford’s National Theater Institute, a bachelor’s degree in drama from Vassar College and a theater professorship at Long Island University, TV decided to set her educational sights abroad. In the past decade alone, TV has taught English in China, Thailand and Laos.
After years as an education globetrotter, however, she discovered a country which would allow her to weave her passion for animals into both her education and travel endeavors — a country which she’s since never left — Malaysia.
In 2010, TV moved to the Malaysian island of Langkawi, where she lived for more than two years. In Langkawi, she gained a reputation for caring for and adopting stray cats. When she eventually left for Penang, the small island off the west coast of northern Malaysia, she had a total of eight cats with her on the 75-mile ferry ride
Unbeknownst to her at the time, those eight cats would soon become a family of more than 100!
Settled in Penang, TV began volunteering as a receptionist at 4PAWS, which is a nearby dog shelter that cares for more than 600 dogs.
“Without the volunteers, we couldn’t exist,” says Barbara Janssen, founder of 4PAWS. “[TV] helped out here, but she got more and more cats, so she needed to be in her own place.”
“[People] would call the dog shelter because they didn’t know what to do with the cats,” says TV, whose mother and sister still live in Salisbury. “The other situations that are available are killing shelters.”
Looking to help, TV quickly set up a shelter similar to 4PAWS. Janssen introduced TV to Mr. Nana, a fisherman in Teluk Bahang, a small fishing village in northern Penang.
For nearly a decade, Mr. Nana had been caring for and feeding literally dozens of stray cats on the beaches of Teluk Bahang. Banding together with Mr. Nana, and combining his knowledge of the region with her willingness to organize, the two turned his benevolent hobby into a nonprofit.
Since late 2014, Cat Beach has been home to the Cat Lovers International Society. TV and her now 100-plus stray, abandoned and ill cats now live in and around a simple, wooden beach house in Teluk Bahang, just feet from the crashing waves.
While TV’s long-term mission is to find loving homes for each and every one of her cats, her immediate goal is to get them vaccinated, spayed and healthy. The cats come and go as they please and are only caged when they are sick or in danger.
Making the house a home, each Cat Beach feline is given a name corresponding to one of its most defining trait. One trek down the shores of Teluk Bahang might lead to an encounter with Batman and Robin or Einstein and Picasso.
“Animals are individuals,” says TV. “They all have separate personalities.”
Along with their individual personalities, come their individual needs.
“We’re running about 125 ringgit [$30] a day for food,” says TV. “We need 20,000 ringgit [roughly $5,000] a year for vet care and emergencies.”
To help cover the costs of food, medication and vaccination at Cat Beach, TV organizes fundraisers which are held online, tag sales and holiday parties. In just its second year as a nonprofit, word is slowly beginning to spread.
“We’re becoming a tourist attraction,” says TV. “We were on national television in July.”
With the occasional visitor comes the occasional needed donation and, while inconsistent cash flow makes budgeting difficult, a melting pot of locals, internationals and even old friends from Connecticut help keep Cat Beach afloat.
“A friend from high school is now sending 10 dollars per month to help the cats at Cat Beach,” says TV. “Whenever I run out of money, which happens, or food, which happens, wonderful people show up.”
A GoFundMe page — gofundme.com/catloversintl — has been set up with the goal of raising the goal of $12,000 for the care and feeding of the cats.
However it’s not just money that people worldwide are giving.
Using expat volunteer networking sites like HelpX and Workaway, TV has hosted a handful of international volunteers ranging from places as far away as Pakistan and Turkey. One German electrician has provided electrical work at Cat Beach and another New Yorker has helped with construction.
“If you can wash dishes, we have 150 minimum to do every day. If you’re skilled at medical stuff — that’s another level,” says TV. “We want to encourage people to stay here and spend some time with the cats and get to know them and maybe volunteer.”
While giving volunteers and tourists a fun, meaningful experience is seen just as important for the shelter’s development, the home maintains its seriousness of purpose.
“Success would be getting [the cats] all adopted. If nobody adopts them, this is a permanent solution,” says TV. “This is a sanctuary — a shelter, but shelter should never be permanent.”
As for the “crazy cat lady” stigma, she has truly managed to understand the uniqueness of her lifestyle and embrace the title — at least partially.
“The crazy part, maybe not so much,” laughs TV. “But the Cat Lady — I don’t mind.”