From Tooele to Grantsville, Naida Parkinson is known to many as “the cat lady.” Parkinson has been working to control the stray cat population in Tooele County for the past 15 years. A passionate animal lover, she works hard to reduce the number of stray cats between Tooele and Grantsville in a humane way.
“These cats didn’t ask for this life — do you think they like digging through a garbage can for scraps to eat?” she said. “They didn’t ask for this and unless we help them, they’re just going to slowly die.”
Parkinson practices what the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) calls “Trap-Neuter-Return.” Every day, she and a couple of volunteers, Celeste Clark and Mickie Bradshaw, put out food for stray cats in 40 different locations. Parkinson sets traps for the cats and takes them to Salt Lake City where she gets them spayed or neutered.
Best Friends Animal Society donates vouchers to Parkinson so she can get the surgery for each cat free of charge. Out of her own pocket, Parkinson also pays for the cats to get vaccinated against rabies and distemper.
Whenever she can, Parkinson helps to socialize feral kittens and find them good homes. Taking care of approximately 200 cats is exhausting and expensive, and Parkinson is happiest when she can get one off the street.
“It’s rewarding when I can get little kittens out of the sewer, so to speak, and into a good home where they’re loved and fixed and taken care of,” she said. “It makes it all worth it when I can save a life.”
When Parkinson first moved to Tooele in March 2004, she had no idea what was in store for her. At her previous home in Holladay, she wasn’t allowed to have pets but she helped care for a few stray cats in her neighborhood.
When she got an opportunity to build a house in Tooele, she jumped at the chance. She hadn’t been in the city long before her life changed forever.
“When I was building [my] house … I was out here with no kitchen so I ate out a lot,” Parkinson said. “I’d see all these little kittens at the drive thru. I asked, ‘Where did these kittens come from?’ People said, ‘Oh they come from the trailer park; there’s thousands of them. It’s a real problem in this town.’”
As she watched the kittens try to pull taco shells off the pavement to eat them, Parkinson said her heart broke.
At the same time, she became aware that one of her new neighbors had about 15 cats that weren’t fixed and were starving. Her other neighbor and the city animal control had tried to get involved, but the neighbor consistently refused to accept help.
“It was just really sad because the cats were inbred,” Parkinson said. “It was a really sad situation.”
She knew she had to do something.
“I kind of got started helping them [my neighbor],” she said. “I convinced them to let me fix their cats — I did it out of my own pocket — and then I started working on the trailer cats. I got to know the neighbors … and suddenly, I kind of became the cat lady.”
Fast forward to the present. People call Parkinson constantly to let her know about new street cats, recently abandoned cats and people with large numbers of cats at their property.
Every night, Parkinson distributes about 50 pounds of cat food to various feeding stations around Tooele and Erda. She checks to make sure the shelters she’s set out for the cats are in good condition and keeps an eye out for any sick or injured kitties.
“Best Friends [Animal Society] provides these great big styrofoam shelters covered in hard plastic and I have a handyman who builds rubber covers for them,” Parkinson said. “They’ll last five, eight, 10 years sometimes.”
She continued, “If I’ve got cats in an area, I always get permission from the homeowner or business owner to locate a feeding station on their property. Most of time they’re really nice and say yes. … On very rare occasions, if the cats are really sick or injured and they’re not going to have a good quality of life, I do the humane thing and [take them to be euthanized].”
After years of getting food from her, the cats have come to recognize Parkinson and her car.
“They depend on me. They know they’re going to get food every night — it’s their one meal a day,” she said. “I’m pretty burned out. Sometimes at night when I get in my car [to feed the cats], I just want to cry, but [they depend on me].”
With the hungry cats in mind, Parkinson goes out in all kinds of weather to make sure they have supper.
“There are some nights when it’s four degrees outside or a blizzard,” she said. “[There are] rare occasions, one or two nights a year, when I can’t leave my house on time, but I can usually get out by three or four in the morning.”
Even on those late nights, Parkinson said the cats are always there waiting for her.
According to Parkinson, the key to ending the cycle of neglect and hunger for cats is sterilization. In addition to trapping and fixing street cats, she frequently helps people who can’t afford to fix their pets.
“If I can get somebody’s cat fixed for them who can’t do it themselves, then there’s one less female out there making babies,” she said.
Sterilization is critical to controlling the cat population because cats are prolific breeders. A study by the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) found that on average, feral cats have 1.4 litters every year. Of each litter, approximately three kittens survive.
The Solano Feral Cat Group in Solano, Calif., did the math to find out how many cats would come from one pair of feral cats in seven years. Based on the AVMA’s numbers, the group found that a single pair of breeding cats and their offspring could produce 420,000 kittens over a seven-year period.
“People have a hard time with this statistic,” Parkinson said. “I didn’t believe it at first either, but now I know it’s true. I’ve probably fixed about 2,000 cats in the past 15 years.”
She added, “When you consider that if you fix two cats you’re saving a lot of babies from being born that will never have a home. 98% of these cats live out their lives in suffering and misery because they don’t have food and aren’t well cared for. I do my best to try to fix them.”
Parkinson said her crusade to save Tooele County’s cats often feels overwhelming. She gets so many calls asking her for help.
“One time in Grantsville, a guy had 80 cats in his backyard, all from just two [unfixed cats],” she said. “There were dead kittens just lying on the patio. It absolutely broke my heart. He just left them there; he stepped over them. He thought he was trying, but he couldn’t feed them [the cats] near enough and most of the cats were sick and diseased and basically starving. I spent a couple weeks cleaning that up.”
But not everyone is supportive of Parkinson’s mission.
“There are mean people out here and they’ll do anything they can to hurt the animals or hurt me because I help the animals,” she said. “I think every single station of mine has been vandalized or stolen at some point.”
Most recently, one of the nicest feeding stations Parkinson has — an old camper shell with styrofoam shelters inside — was vandalized.
“A couple of guys came in middle of the night and smashed all the windows but one on the side — which they broke out the next week,” she said. “When I arrived the next night, I was horrified to find the cats were walking on an inch of glass and the food and water dishes were full of glass. I said a couple words that night and tried to clean it out. … All we could do was board up the windows with wood.”
The vandals likely knew exactly what they were smashing up, Parkinson said.
“If people get that close, they know it’s a cat rescue,” she said. “It was just disgusting to see. It cost me a couple hundred bucks to have the thing fixed … and it cost this guy like 10 hours of work [to fix it]. … It just kind of broke my heart; not only did it cost me a lot of money but it endangered these cats because they probably got glass in their paws.”
As a retired editor, Parkinson doesn’t have a big income to make ends meet. Buying cat food alone typically takes about half her monthly retirement check.
“I don’t know what I’m going to eat in 10 years but at least the cats are fed,” she said. “My main thing is just trying to take care of them well enough and get the kittens off the streets. … If it weren’t for other people donating at least a little bit, I couldn’t do this. I’m very grateful for everyone who’s helped me. Dr. Joe [Roundy] at the vet clinic has been pretty good to me over the years, and I’ve had a couple of really good volunteers.”
Anyone interested in volunteering to help feed cats or donating to Parkinson’s cause can contact her at 435-882-2667.
“I’m always in need of volunteers and money and cat food,” she said. “It’s not about me. It’s about helping these cats.”