The Cat Lady

Written by Harold McNeill on November 27th, 2011. Posted in Police Notebook


Photo (Web):  Back in the 1960’s there were still plenty of homes in Oak Bay which could be dressed up like this. On this night I happened to pick one.

Have you ever dreamed you were drifting into a scene that might have been plucked straight from the pages of a Stephen King novel? In the dream you come face to face with a decaying, paint peeling mansion, blanketed in darkness; a cold wind is blowing and rain pelting down as you pick you way through the leafless, gnarled trees in a weed strewn garden. With each step you can’t dispel the feeling that death lurks in the darkness, but on this night you are given no choice but to enter that dark, forbidding place. Then, suddenly, the nightmare becomes reality.

With less than three months on the job, with very little training and working alone on night shift, I found myself climbing a set of stairs directly into the novel. Why was it that people often waited until the wee hours of the morning to call the police to check on the welfare of their loved ones?  In this case they hadn’t spoken to the woman for several weeks.

My Sergeant, the only other person on shift, was booked off downtown visiting his cronies in the Victoria Police Detective office.  Over the two months I had worked with this Sergeant, he often disappeared for hours on end and officers who worked with him were expected to pick up the slack. By now he and his friends likely well into an order of Chinese food while sharing a few drinks in some non-descript back room in Chinatown.

When I climbed from my cruiser, I could barely see the residence, perched high above Beach Drive about 500 feet back from the eastern banks of the boiling waters of McNeill Bay. As I surveyed the scene, spray from the giant breakers pounded against the seawall, flew across Beach Drive and onto the nearby homes.

The ‘South-Wester’, roaring with gale force off the Strait of Juan de Fuca and over Trial Island, also brought with it sheets of pounding rain. As I tooked at the long, brush-strewn, darkened stairs that stretched through the shadows toward the residence, I knew there could be nothing good at the other end. While I was not a particularly fearful man, this place sent tingles up my spine as I made my way up the moss covered steps with a flashlight in one hand and my dated Webley .38 in the other.

While climbing, I occasionally stopped to scan the darkness and listen, but could hear nothing beyond the howling of the wind and pelting of the rain. At the top, I found the veranda piled high with rain soaked newspapers, books and bags of garbage while somewhere around the corner a shutter was banging in the wind. I knocked hard and hollered, never expecting an answer. I tried the door, then pushed it open on rust crusted hinges.

Inside the stench of cat feces and urine was nearly overwhelming. It was place fit only for the walking dead as no person from the world in which I lived, could possibly find comfort in this place. Fortunately, it was early winter and had been near zero for several days, so the acrid smell was somewhat suppressed. It was not possible to imagine how badly this place might have smelled during the heat of summer.

After trying a several light switches, it was clear the power was off and while making my way across the living room, the hardwood creaked with every step. I stopped and stood frozen for a moment as I heard scurrying noises in the background. Scanning the room, my small flashlight captured the ragged outline an emaciated cat, running past a doorway. Cats I can handle, even emaciated ones, but rats are another case. I could only hope those poor, sickly looking cats had taken care of any rat that might have tried to invade into this decrepit house.

In the kitchen, over a dozen haggard felines scrounged inside the open cupboards among the dishes, pots, pans and open jars and tins that contained mold crusted scrapes of dried foodStarving Cats particles. Many of the cats seemed near death and scanning the garbage strewn around the floor, it was clear a few had already succumbed. Those still living were willing to take whatever meager scrapes they could find and it seemed certain that someone, likely a very dead someone, must be in this house as no one would have deliberately walked away and left the cats to starve.

Photo From the Web: This scene is very similar to that in the house on Beach Drive. Over the years, this was not the only house found to be in such a desperate condition where an elderly woman lived with dozens of cats. 

After giving up on avoiding the feces, I went back to the living room where a narrow, winding staircase, lead to an upper floor. As I climbed, several pairs of eyes reflected back from the darkness below…perhaps they knew something that I did not.

On the way up I called out several times but never seriously expected anyone to answer. At the top and on approaching the first door along the hall, I paused only for a moment to listen, gave one last call, and then pushed it open with my foot. Holding my gun in one hand and flashlight in the other, I slowly scanned the room and although I expected the worst, it still startled me when my light illuminated a human arm hanging from the side of a bed.

On closer inspection, the arm was attached to the body of an elderly woman who apparently had died in her sleep. While there was no immediate evidence suggesting the death was anything other than natural, it was still an unsettling experience to be standing there in the darkness next to a dead body (my first on police call), while not having any backup and with no radio contact to the outside world.

As procedure required a Doctor attend to pronounce death before the body could be removed, I spent a few minutes searching for the phone, but finding none, retraced my steps from the house, down the stairs and back to my patrol car where I radioed the office telling the dispatcher to contact the duty doctor and to shake loose the Sergeant from his nighttime revelry. Thirty minutes later both the Doctor and a disgruntled Sergeant, arrived at the scene.

When the investigation was complete, photos taken and body removed, I made a quick trip downtown to Government and Fisgard to the only all night convenience store in the city, grabbed a bag of cat food and headed back to the residence. After dumping the full bag on the floor, I put out water and left those cats to finally taste something better than scraps on which they had existed over the past few weeks.

A few days later, the medical reports arrived and, as expected, listed the cause of death as natural, likely due to heart failure. It was also learned that while the woman was of considerable means, over the past several years she had absented herself from her family and friends, preferring instead the company of her cats. It seemed sad for this woman to die while all alone, but not likely as sad as a call I attended just a weeks later.


Link to Loneliness, Life’s Last Companion


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  • Harold McNeill

    August 16, 2019 |

    Many thanks for reviewing the article Elizabeth. There are so many areas of our society in which populism carries the day, although I think what is happening with the ICBC is that groups having a vested interest in private insurance would dearly love to dislodge ICBC from their preferred position. That being said, I think was a good move to have only portions of the insurance coverage in BC being held by ICBC and other portions being made available through private enterprise.

  • Elizabeth Mary McInnes, CAIB

    August 15, 2019 |

    It’s a breath of fresh air to see a resident of British Columbia look to review all the facts over believing what is reported in the news or just following along with the negative stigma of the masses. Your article truly showcases that with a little reform to ICBC’s provincial system – British Columbia could be a true leader for other provinces in Canada. Very well written article!

  • Harold McNeill

    August 13, 2019 |

    August 13, 2019. The Insurance Bureau of Canada (IBC), a private enterprise group not unlike the Fraser Institute, is again on the campaign trail. They state ICBC rates are the highest in Canada, but, thankfully, Global BC inserted a section indicating the Insurance Bureau cherry-picked the highest number in BC and the lowest numbers in AB, ON and other Eastern Provinces. If you take a few minutes to check reliable sources you will find BC rates, are the lowest in Canada.

  • Andrew Dunn

    May 14, 2019 |

    Thank you so much for all your help thus far Harold, aka. Tractor guy! I could not have done without you!

  • Harold McNeill

    April 25, 2019 |

    I find it interesting to contemplate how a small community evolves in general isolation from the rest of the world. We have a similar situation in the northern communities in Canada to which access is limited. The inclusion of the world wide web and mass media has changed things, but these communities are still left pretty much to their own devices when it comes to personal interaction.

  • Harold McNeill

    March 19, 2019 |

    Hi Dave. Not that I am aware and I have a fairly comprehensive family tree for the McNeill side of the family. I will pull it up and scan. Cheers, Harold. Great chatting with you and I will give Ben a nudge.

  • Dave Cassels

    March 16, 2019 |

    Were you related to Guy McNeill who owned the Bruin Inn in St. Albert in the late 40’s or early 50’s? Guy was a close friend of my father-in-law who was the first President of the Royal Glenora Club. My phone number is 780 940 1175. Thank you.

  • Harold McNeill

    March 15, 2019 |

    So glad you found the story and enjoyed. Indeed, they were memorable times. I did a fair amount of searching but never managed to contact any of the Murffit kids. However, it was neat to make contact with the Colony and someone I knew from back in the day. I have enjoyed writing these stories from back in the 1940s and 50s and have made contact with a lot of friends from those early years. I will give you a call over the weekend. Cheers, Harold

  • Yvonne (Couture) Richardson

    March 7, 2019 |

    I enjoyed your story. I too, lived in Pibroch in 1951, as my parents owned the hotel there. I was a very close friend of Bonnie Murfitt at the time. I moved to Edmonton in 1952, however, and have not seen her since. I would like to be in touch with you to talk about your story. My email is listed above and my phone number is 780-475-3873.

  • Laureen Kosch/Patry

    March 5, 2019 |

    I grew up in Pibroch and would not trade those years for anything. “ Kids don’t know how to play anymore” Never was a truer statement made. During the summer we were out the door by 8am, home for lunch, and back when it got dark. For the most part our only toys were our bikes and maybe a baseball mitt. I will never forget the times when all the kids got together in “Finks field” for a game of scrub baseball. Everybody was welcome, kids from 8 to 18. I didn’t know it then but I guess I had a childhood most dream of. Drove thru town last summer. It all looked a lot smaller.