It was dinnertime late one afternoon at a house in Springs, and hamlet resident Pat Lillis was preparing the meal, solo and in a rush. From a kitchen cupboard stacked top to bottom with nothing but identical cans of cat food, she seized several and started a methodical sequence. Open. Scrape. Plop. The only interruption was a few swear words slipping from her salty tongue.
The cats were waiting, and there were many mouths to feed.
As the founder of Elsa’s Ark, a non-profit animal rescue operation named after her mother and made up of volunteers, Ms. Lillis tends to at least 200 animals per day, by her count.
The staggering number of creatures needing care—mostly cats, but also dogs and chickens, among others—equates to a hectic pace for the 62-and-three-quarters-year-old, who, yes, includes the fraction when asked her age. Just one of her quirks.
Whether it’s pet food to be served or a litter box to be cleaned, Ms. Lillis zips about as though an invisible whip is about to crack behind her.
She mentioned in passing that day that she has multiple sclerosis, quipping that it causes her to “stagger without a drink.” But she didn’t slow down. Rather, she challenged one to find a volunteer a quarter her age who can keep pace.
Ms. Lillis tends to go to bed around 6 a.m. and rise just a few hours later. And not a day passes without a trip to the dump to dispose of all the “shit, piss and vomit,” a phrase that she crudely jokes that she should leave as her answering machine greeting, as it occupies so much of her time.
For this busy lady, who estimates the number of animals in her home to be somewhere under 100, this is a chore that always runs up against the clock. Closing is 5 p.m. She arrives in her old Volvo wagon, like clockwork, only in the nick of time.
Elsa’s Ark aims to protect and care for abandoned, infirm and injured domestic and farm animals. It cares for feral animals and provides free spaying and neutering and free heated water bowls designed not to freeze in winter. It is also, according to its founder, “so broke, it’s unbelievable.”
The mission is one she is wholeheartedly devoted to, but not—as one might believe—because she loves animals.
She does not.
“The word ‘love’ makes me pure vexed,” she said in a later interview, launching into tales of how many self-professed animal lovers—especially the wealthy—have taken in animals, only to decide a short time later they no longer want them. An elderly man who lived in a south-of-the highway mansion in Amagansett, she said, took in kittens in his old age, but died shortly afterward. The house was bulldozed, but the cats remained.
This type of behavior disgusts Ms. Lillis.
“When you die, there will be plenty of swoopers,” she warned. “But none that will swoop to scoop the poop.”
Rather than attribute her efforts to love, Ms. Lillis, a native of County Clare, Ireland, quotes a news program she once heard. “The Irish jump in where the need is greatest,” she said.
After cracking open several cans in Springs that recent afternoon, she lay them out for the feral cats that roam the backyard. She was not at her own house, but one that is owned by Elsa’s Ark. After its owners died, it became a house devoted to animals, she explained, moving all the while. Cats lounge in the front, and their feral counterparts wander out back. Ms. Lillis rushes between them.
Elsa’s Ark rescues animals, but it never takes babies from their mothers, Ms. Lillis stressed. If a kitten needs rescuing, its mother comes too. If the organization has a little extra dog food left over, it goes to the food pantry, she said. The ark allows people to foster its animals—and pays the veterinarians’ bills for them. If someone adopts an animal from the ark, but no longer wants it later, Ms. Lillis takes it back on the spot. “I don’t want any of our animals abandoned,” she reasons.
Wearing a T-shirt that screamed “SARCASM” in all capital letters above a subhead: “just one more service I provide,” Ms. Lillis, having fed the cats that day in Springs, wasted no time in returning to another task, fixing a filter in the backyard fish pond, plunging her bare arms into the cold water.
“I don’t love animals,” she said. “I don’t love anything. …You just do what has to be done.”
She applies the same motto to picking up garbage. On a rare day she gets to the beach, she spends it picking up others’ trash—because it needs to be done.
“We have a rule in this house, me and the animals,” she explained while scooping out a litter box in her own kitchen, after having driven the windy roads back to her house on Crystal Drive. “If you fall down, see what you can do when you’re down there.”
About a dozen felines peered down at her from their perches.
For someone who describes her own upbringing in Ireland as an easy one of privilege, one that included badminton championships, hang gliding and other diverse pursuits, Ms. Lillis and her ark, now a continent away, are living the life of endless and often thankless and dirty volunteerism.
But she would have it no other way.
“As Nelson Mandela said, ‘It always seems impossible until it’s done,’” she said.
Tomorrow, she will do it all over again.