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A Higher Calling


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By Tori Marlan

Dandylion was found in an alley near a garage where a man was drowning kittens. Serape was hurled like a baseball between two boys on bikes. Summer suffers from epilepsy, asthma, and something like cerebral palsy. Spunky feeds through a stomach tube. 24 Karat Gold has inflammatory bowel disease. Cali, who is perfectly healthy, had an appointment to be euthanized. Now they all live on the north side with a nice salt-and-pepper-haired lady named Marijon Binder. But while she may have saved their lives, some might say they have ruined hers.

Of course Binder, a former nun in her late 50s, wouldn't say so--she runs a nonprofit organization called Cats-Are-Purrsons-Too, which besides rescuing stray felines like these six helps elderly people take care of their own pets as long as possible. The 60 aging, ailing, and abused cats she ministers to in her home are her life. She knows them all by name; they blanket her bed each night and flock to her like pigeons when she scatters catnip or bits of turkey on the floor.

But when Binder came to Chicago in 1975, she was catless. After 21 years in a California convent, she'd been dispatched here to write teachers' guides for the Denoyer Geppert map and globe company. Later she founded an educational consulting company called Global Concerns Center, enrolled at Northeastern Illinois University to get her master's in geography, and settled in a house just west of Andersonville that belonged to her religious order, the Sisters of Saint Joseph of California.

Many of her neighbors there were elderly, and as she got to know them, she became increasingly concerned for their welfare. "Several of them had very serious problems," Binder recalls. "They should have been in some kind of retirement home or assisted-living situation. But they all said, 'What would happen to my animals?'" So she began helping them walk their dogs and change their cats' litter boxes.

She developed a close friendship with one neighbor, an arthritic woman who had been feeding stray animals for 30 years. Eventually it became too difficult for the woman to bend over to put out food, and one fateful day in 1983 she called Binder, distraught. "There's a little white ball of fur under my back stairs," she said. "What am I going to do?"

Binder went to take a look. The kitten was only about four weeks old. When she reached under the porch to pick it up, she discovered two littermates. She took them all home.

When word got around the neighborhood that Binder was that kind of person, the phone started ringing off the hook. At first she protested. "I don't need another cat," she'd say. "Well, this cat needs you," one caller replied.

She was hosting 25 cats in 1989 when the mother superior of her convent summoned her back to California. Because she was given only 30 days to move, Binder went to the media, hoping to reach people who could adopt them, but the public responded with money instead--some of it tucked inside notes that urged her to leave the convent, not the cats. When Binder took a leave of absence to buy more time, the mother superior wrote to Rome, and Binder was expelled from the order.

Binder was dumbfounded. She'd believed that her work with the elderly and the animals was a direct application of her religious teachings--she was caring for God's creatures, after all. But the church didn't see it that way. "According to the theology, if you're not a human or an angel you don't count," Binder says. "Animals are below people, and they were put on earth to serve people. Well, I don't believe that at all. It says in the Bible that God created all things in his image and likeness, and certainly all living things reflect the image of God. Cats speak to us so much--of gentleness, of patience, of loyalty, of caring, of needing one another, of cooperating."

Binder's respect for animals began long before she entered the convent. Her father was a construction worker who moved the family whenever he started a new job, and every time they packed up, Binder had to give away her pets. Her mother had a strict rule--no animals in the car.

But in 1948, when she was nine, the Binders' car broke down in Perris, California, near an abandoned farmhouse. They moved in, fixed it up, and for a while called it home. One day Marijon and her father ventured into a barn on the property. They heard rustling in the rafters, then an insistent caterwaul. They looked up and saw a large feral cat standing protectively over a litter of kittens. Binder's father ushered her out, closed the door, and forbade her to enter the barn until the cat had moved on. She was there first, he told her. "My dad didn't say I'm going to get a gun and shoot it or I'm going to call the authorities and have it out of here," Binder recalls. "That was a lesson that has always stayed with me."

After her expulsion, Binder continued to keep her vows, but found herself feeling more and more like many of her cats: abandoned and fighting for survival. For 35 years, Binder's earnings had gone to the convent--she'd run the Global Concerns Center under the auspices of the church. She had no insurance or pension plan. And the mother superior had put the house on the market.

Fortunately, though, a wealthy, animal-loving older woman bought it with the express purpose of enabling Binder to continue her animal outreach. She and her husband resold the house to Binder for about $88,000 and gave her a private mortgage, on which she would have to pay only the 3.5 percent interest until July 2001. After that, the principal and any remaining interest would be due in full. But Binder's attorney at the time explained to her that the couple's unwritten intent was to leave her the house when they died. With that vote of confidence, and with donations from the public, she founded Cats-Are-Purrsons-Too. Since then she has sheltered about 1,500 cats and found homes for most of them.

Her own home is a cat's paradise. Though the animals roam freely on both floors of the house, the upstairs is completely given over to carpeted climbing structures and cages for the new, sick, and nursing. The backyard also belongs to the cats: Binder built them a large screen house, which they enter via a ramp connected to the sunporch. The sunporch used to be Binder's office, but now it houses bulk bins of cat food and litter, cat dishes, and seven litter boxes. There are also litter boxes in the bedrooms and the dining room; there are nine along the west wall of an alcove upstairs, which Binder refers to as the "necessary room." Binder's bookshelf is lined with such titles as Cat Angels, Ways of Drawing Cats, What Is a Cat?, and Tales to Read Aloud to Your Cat.

She's also done some remodeling to accommodate her 83-year-old friend Eleanor Fuchs, who uses a wheelchair. After Fuchs suffered a massive stroke three years ago, Binder widened some doors, attached a wheelchair ramp to the front porch, and put down smooth linoleum floors. Then Fuchs and her 12 cats moved in.

About ten volunteers help Binder groom, manicure, medicate, and feed the cats. Before the stroke, Fuchs was Binder's best volunteer. Now the honors go to Kolbjorn Haugen, a retired man who lives next door. He comes over every morning at 4:30 and works for six and a half hours, putting out 60 plates of food, changing water, and scooping litter. Some volunteers do nothing but clean--the floors are scrubbed every day to keep the odor down--while others help Binder care for the pets that belong to the elderly. Binder often makes the rounds herself and occasionally finds a little more than she has bargained for.

"One woman couldn't take care of her cat and two turtledoves," Binder says. "Eleanor and I went over there every day. We saw her getting worse and worse, and finally we encouraged her to go to the hospital and get some tests. The day after she was supposed to have gone I called her and there was no answer. I went over there and she was dead. So of course I took the cat and the birds and arranged for her burial." Binder believes she gave the dying woman some peace of mind. "I'm sure that as she breathed her last she must have felt better knowing I'd be coming the next day and would take care of her animals."

About 15 desperate people call Binder every day. I can't take another stray, they plead. The baby's allergic. My new landlord won't allow pets. My mother died and left behind two cats. But lately, unless she's keeping a promise to one of her elderly clients, Binder only takes a cat if the person who brings it in agrees to support it financially or make a "sizable" lump donation to Cats-Are-Purrsons-Too. In fact, with the ailing Fuchs to care for now, too, Binder relies entirely on donations to keep the organization afloat. "I check my post office box every day," she says. "If I only have $67 in the bank and there's a check for $25, at that point that $25 is like $25 million."

Even so, the money goes fast. Binder's vet bills average $1,000 a month--she has a standing appointment every Tuesday at the Arlington Cat Clinic in Arlington Heights, which has allowed her to run up a tab that now hovers around $2,000. Food and litter, when they're not donated, also average a grand a month. When the occasional caller wants to take a cat off her hands, she asks for an adoption fee of about $100 as reimbursement for the cat's initial vaccinations, flea bath, feline leukemia and FIV tests, and spaying or neutering. But if she feels sure the person will give the cat a good home, she'll often take whatever they offer.

Binder's been behind on her mortgage payments since March, and while the couple who sold it to her might have been sympathetic, the woman is now in her 90s and has had several strokes. "Her husband isn't well, either," Binder explains. "So their son has taken over their financial affairs, and he sees this property as a total loser." If she can't come up with about $7,500 within 90 days of being served a notice of foreclosure (according to court files, several unsuccessful attempts have been made), he will be within his rights to take the house back.

But Binder has reason to believe it won't come to that: Fuchs has volunteered to sell off some antiques, and someone recently donated some serigraphs worth about $9,800. "I guess my years as a nun served me," she says. "I learned then to live by trust and faith, and I still do. But it gets really scary sometimes." o

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Marijon Binder photo by Jane Gleason.

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