By June C. Straightjstraight@cdispatch.com
Tuesday, September 25, 2007 10:57 AM CDT
CALEDONIA - She was not an animal activist in 1987; then she was just Kay McElroy, a retired school teacher who loved horses and ran a small home medical business.
Twenty years, 200 cats and a newspaper ad later, McElroy is a top 10 finalist for Animal Planet's Cat Hero of the Year award, an award established by the channel to recognize one individual out of thousands, who have demonstrated extraordinary service to cats.
The winner will receive $5,000 for an animal welfare organization of their choice and an opportunity to be filmed showing how the donation was used to benefit the organization receiving the donation.
Founder of the Cedarhill Animal Sanctuary, McElroy said looking back 20 years ago, this career choice and award were the furthest thing from her mind.
"This is not something I grew up wanting to do. I still have never been to a zoo." McElroy said. "It just evolved."
McElroy said her career in animal rescue began while trying to find a home for an abused cougar, Zack.
"I rescued a cougar in 1987; he was for sale in the newspaper. The guy wanted $1,000," she said.
McElroy answered the ad out of curiosity and ended up funding her first animal rescue.
"I had just moved here, and ... I didn't have any money, so I traded the only tractor I had at the time," she said.
"I rescued him thinking I can place him in a zoo, and after weeks of research, I found out that I could only put him to sleep or build a place for him."
McElroy built a place for Zack and, she said, before she knew it she had become an animal activist.
"One day I looked up and I had 200 cats. That's when I knew I had to get serious."
She began lobbying for the animals and raising money for their refuge. In 1997, a law she authored, the Exotic Animal Welfare law, was passed making it illegal to hold exotic auctions or canned hunts in Mississippi.
"It took me four years to get the law passed," she said.
Now McElroy has dedicated her life to running and funding Cedarhill, which was the first sanctuary to be accredited by the Association of Sanctuaries and currently houses more than 300 animals, including 12 tigers, five lions, four cougars, two bobcats, one wolf and more than 200 domestic cats, 30 dogs and six horses.
It costs nearly $1,000 a day to care for these animals, according to McElroy.
Nominated to the competition by Genie Talbott Adderson, McElroy said she feels ! honored to be among such stiff competition.
"I'm the only one who made it into the top 10 that has exotic cats," she said.
Other finalists include a veterinarian, other foundation owners and private citizens who have dedicated large amounts of time and money to rescuing cats.
Though a special panel voted her into the top 10, McElroy said it is now up to the public to decide if she wins. Votes can be submitted online at http://animal.discovery.com/convergence ... -poll.html
Voting is open to the public today through Oct. 8. The winner will be announced Nov. 1. McElroy is currently No. 2 in the competition with 19 percent of the votes.