Elain Harvey with Samson, a 9-year-old Maine coon
Back in 1994, when Elain Harvey shopped at the now-closed Goodwin’s Greenhouse in Germantown, she saw many animals who found sanctuary at the nursery. Many were kittens who were kept in cages, and Harvey — unbeknown to the owners — started tending to them. A few days later, when the owners noticed her acts of kindness, they asked if she’d continue caring for the cats and finding them homes. After three months of tending sick kittens from her own income, she posted a note on the bulletin board at the Germantown Kroger store asking for volunteers. Those first four volunteers — Deborah Pottkotter, Grace Alexander, and Gayle and Sara Jones, all part of Harvey’s Puddy Tat Protectors Volunteer Group — helped Harvey clean 12 cat cages every morning for two hours and made sure the felines received food and medical attention at Harvey’s expense.
About a year later, when Goodwin’s had to close for failure to pay back taxes, the animals would probably have been put to sleep if a husband of one of the volunteers, an attorney, hadn’t stepped up to sue the state of Tennessee to prevent harm to the animals. A TV news station heard of those efforts and sent a reporter to cover the story. As a result, numerous cats were adopted, and a new owner took over the greenhouse.
At that point, Harvey decided to take the cat rescue program a giant step forward. In 1995, she opened House of Mews, a combination cat-rescue/retail facility with a goal of finding ideal homes for the felines and helping local craftspeople display and sell works on consignment. Twenty years — and an amazing 9,000-plus adoptions — later, House of Mews is a well-known landmark and, as the first no-kill all-cat rescue in Memphis, has generated more such rescue groups in the city and its environs.
At a youthful-looking age 70, as Harvey reflects on two decades of hard and sometimes heartbreaking work, she is ready to pass the torch to “responsible leadership.” In this interview she talks of highs and lows, doing what it takes, and the kind of person she sees as her successor.
How many cats did you start with at House of Mews? And where was it?
We found the retail space at 944 South Cooper the last of June 1995. The grand opening was October 23rd. We brought the remaining 30 cats from the greenhouse with us.
How many volunteers did you have back then?
Probably about 25.
Did you ever think House of Mews would grow into the place it has become — and last so long?
I did not think it would last this long, but I had high hopes that many people would walk in the store and be inspired by such an endeavor and that we would be a good role model [for those] wanting to start up rescues of their own. And yes, I saw and continue to see people experience the store and be amazed that so many cats can get along well together.
Now you’re located at 933 South Cooper, a smaller space. How many volunteers?
We have between 15 and 20 at any given time, caring for more than 110 cats. Most of these volunteers have full-time paid positions elsewhere; I think only two are unemployed. I’m inspired by seeing the many walks of life these volunteers come from — we have attorneys, prosecutors, corporate executives, teachers, police officers, military people, zoo employees, rape crisis counselors, public relations specialists, TV personalities, housewives, students.
What do they do?
Early morning for around two to three hours, they mop floors, clean cages. feed the cats, and look for signs of illness. They rarely have extra time to play with the cats unless they finish their workloads early, so we have to count on our customers to give the cats love and attention, and that happens often. Volunteers do come in on their off-times to play [if they have flexible work schedules]. And we have to look for extra volunteers for our annual 5K Meowathon Run/Walk.
You still work very hard yourself. How have you managed — physically and emotionally?
Yes, I still work many hours. Passion for the work helps keep me going. Over the years when volunteers have not been available, sick, out of town, I clean the store and care for the kitties myself. It can be exhausting. At times I have found myself feeling depressed and actually just break out in a good cry that more people don’t want to care for these homeless animals. It’s easy to get angry about the way people treat them like trash or throwaways. But then there are times when my feelings soar high and I am elated seeing the kindness that people have bestowed on our store and all the fine people who have opened their hearts and adopted a cat. And more than that, knowing that we are seeing more rescue organizations start up since House of Mews opened — that absolutely thrills me to see: kindness for helpless and homeless animals.
How have you managed financially?
I have had to rely on my credit cards, refinancing my home, using my retirement money. I raise funds through donations in all kinds of events, with our friends and volunteers. I have to do what it takes. These animals are my responsibility and I don’t take that lightly. I am normally a shy person, but this work calls for me to be bold when necessary. It’s easy to feel that way for animals who cannot help themselves.
What was your work background before you opened House of Mews?
While living in Michigan, I transcribed court proceedings for state Hearings Judges. When I first came to Memphis in 1980 I worked as a medical transcriber for cardiologists and then as administrative assistant for senior executives. In 1988 my [then] husband and I started a transportation business. I grew bored with that and in 1994 started the store.
Did all your work and commitment to House of Mews affect your marriage?
In the end, in 1998, it did play a part in our divorce, as my husband had always counted on me as his sounding board as well as his travel partner. With the burgeoning workload of developing House of Mews as a business, it made things more difficult for our relationship to survive. He loved the cats, though, and in the beginning he even helped remodel the store before we moved in. I couldn’t close the store to satisfy him, as I had more than 60 cats then that had no place to go ... We have three [grown] children living in other states.
You’ve been wanting to pass House of Mews leadership on to someone else for a while now. How is that going? And what are you looking for in that person?
My picture of the perfect successor is someone who walks in, tears up in amazement at the thought of this kind of place, is full of enthusiasm for the work, and has high energy and some financial stability — because you must be prepared to fall back on your personal finances if you can’t find other ways to keep the store going. This is not to say the new director would not get monetary compensation, quite the opposite, but you have to know how to raise, save, and allocate money so that the animals receive a decent level of care. Hopefully that person would be willing to start as a volunteer and learn the ropes for six months to a year.
What kind of response have you had so far?
In the past I have had a few who offered, but when they started to train, they would not show up as promised. Some others just wanted to boss people around and not carry the workload with the volunteers. Still others did not have financial stability or the talent and experience to raise the needed funds.
How do you feel about all House of Mews has accomplished, and its reputation?
I do know that many veterinarians and others recommend our place to adopt and also bring cats to us. I am happy that we keep our word with our customers and once we have a qualified adopter, we go out of our way to match them with the right cat. Many times over the years, we have had people bring a sick kitty to us that they rescued and we have either given them meds or sent them to our vet and paid the bills. Yes, some have been unhappy with us, mostly because they have been declined for adoption. Yes, we have a reputation for being strict and it has created hard feelings sometimes. But I did not start this business to please everyone. I wanted to feel we could do the right thing by the animals in the best way possible. If I couldn’t make it better for the animals than it had been in the past, then I didn’t want to do it.
What do you most want people to know about you and House of Mews?
I do not think I am your typical “cat lady person” as I don’t have to talk about cats all the time or constantly show everyone in my personal life my cats and their pictures. I try to see House of Mews as a business and maintain it that way. I know better than to take on more than I can handle, and I don’t want to go down in history as a cat hoarder. I have my limits. As for the store, I hope people continue to be inspired and energized to do something great on their own to help animals. Talk less and take more action. Animals are dying needlessly. Take a chance, be creative, and help.
When (if) you are able to pass House of Mews to someone else, what do you think you will do?
Probably pass out from exhaustion for a while after moving to Lexington, Kentucky, where my daughter lives. Then when I get my second wind I’ll help her open a House of Mews in Lexington if she is up for the sacrifice and dedication. If she isn’t, I may do it anyway, or do some major volunteer work. It depends on how old I am when all this happens. I was 50 — a late bloomer — when I started House of Mews here. I guess after helping two ex-husbands establish their careers, I started thinking of what I could do before I kicked the bucket that might make some impact.
How have you kept your sanity in really hard times?
You are assuming I have kept my sanity ... I bet many would say I have not. But I’ll say one thing. I am so proud of myself for doing this work. It’s the hardest thing, and the most worthwhile. And I am very proud of the fine volunteers we have kept with us over the years. They must see the good they do and feel they are needed or they would not continue.