Volunteers take over daily duties for Al Cilley, Concord’s cat man


Monitor columnist

Published: 01-15-2023 6:39 PM

Al Cilley Sr. looked tired this week behind the old Department of Transportation building off Storrs Street.

He made a special appearance Wednesday at the DOT site, his first visit in about three months, shuffling slowly, hunched over a bit, wearing his trademark smile and pushing nervous laughter out as he watched his allies continue what he began 20 years ago – once-a-day visits to seven wooded areas around the city to feed, catch and shelter homeless cats.

Four volunteers – Carrie Phelps of Penacook, Kathy Pierce of Auburn, Julie Schroeppel of Contoocook, and Sandy Dustin of Concord – affectionately touched Cilley’s back and held his arm to guide him over the bumpy, frozen ground, in a little deeper beyond the row of trees.

They checked on the makeshift shelters and left food and water. They’ve continued Cilley’s 20-year operation, leading a seamless transition to a new era.

“If it weren’t for (my health), I would be out there all the time,” Cilley said. “But (Phelps) calls me all the time and says not to worry, that they have plenty of food and water.”

Cilley is 75 and weak. He has trouble breathing and sleeping and says his heart works at 20 percent capacity. He spent a chunk of the holiday season in the hospital with congestive heart failure.

The women coordinate schedules among a pool of volunteers who must cover the entire week, each day a four-hour commitment, in any and all weather.

Snow in the woods, slowing your attempts to resupply the cats? Shovel a path. Just like Cilley used to do. Day after day, week after week, year after year, for around 20 years. Right now, each day through the week is accounted for.

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“Some of these girls have known Al for 30 years,” Phelps said. “Al has been feeding cats there for a very long time. We want another seven people to work so it would be once every two weeks. It’s miserable getting out there in the winter, and the winter hasn’t even really started yet. Al used to shovel paths, and he was by himself.”

Phelps said Cilley was feeding a chipmunk from his palm the first time she met him. “Even wildlife depended on him,” she said. “I think he kept working just to make money to feed the cats.”

He was a mechanic and he drove a truck. He was working at Young’s Paving before the illness that had already knocked him off his feet for a while came charging back.

By then, though, Cilley had created a concentric flow, with him standing smack in the middle. Word got out, that a gentle Concord man with a quick smile used plastic totes with a piece of plywood running between them to build small shelters.

He placed hay inside to create a mattress and hand warmers underneath, hoping the cats would be drawn to the temporary warmth. He’d leave an American flag, flowers, anything to create a more pleasant dining atmosphere for the cats.

He had bags of crunchy food stacked high in his van and stash cans of soft food in other areas.

From there, the cat community in the greater Concord area knew that Cilley was saving far more than nine lives. Agencies, organizations and animal lovers created a network of support and fundraising, with Cilley evolving into the voice, albeit a soft one, of safe trapping and humane treatment.

Agencies such as Animal Allies, Kool K-9 Doggy Daycare, both in Manchester, and Live and Let Live Farm in Chichester took notice. Once captured feral cats are spayed and neutered and often find a new home as a barn cat somewhere else. The effort to find homes for tamer cats has expanded, thanks, in part, to Cilley.

Then he got sick. “He said he needed help,” said Pierce, who owns a doggy daycare business in Manchester and is on the board of Animal Allies. “He showed us all our locations. This is what he lives for.”

Cilley had suffered four heart attacks before his most recent scare. He said that sometimes he sits on his bed late at night, rocking back and forth, seeking a rhythm that might open his lungs and offer relief.

He seemed at peace. Asked Tuesday if he’d consider returning to the cat world one day, Cilley, with his trademark laugh, said, “I don’t know if I’ll be around.”

Perhaps not. Little else, though, could keep Cilley from making his daily rounds.

As Pierce said, “He obviously has a heart of gold and he will do this for the rest of his life.”

To donate money or volunteer to help feed and care  for the city’s h0meless cats, call Carrie Phelps at (603) 340-5774.