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For this animal lover, caring for feral cats is not silly at all

  • Al Cilley holds a photo of ‘Shorty’ one of the cats he feeds over on Storrs Street in Concord. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Al Cilley has a gift with animals with his quiet, calm way. Besides feeding the cats around Concord, Cilley feeds the pidgeons near Storrs Street across from the back of the Holiday Inn. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Al Cilley has a gift with animals with his quiet, calm way. Besides feeding the cats around Concord, Cilley feeds the pidgeons near Storrs Street across from the back of the Holiday Inn. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Al Cilley has a gift with animals with his quiet, calm way. Besides feeding the cats around Concord, Cilley feeds the pidgeons near Storrs Street across from the back of the Holiday Inn. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Cilley has a gift with animals with his quiet, calm demeanor. Besides feeding the cats around Concord, Cilley feeds the pigeons near Storrs Street across from the back of the Holiday Inn.

  • Some of the pidgeons sit on the Department of Transportation shed off of Stickney Ave. in Concord. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • One of the cats that Al Cilley feeds over off of Storrs Street in Concord. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Al Cilley works on the shelter he has constructed for the cats around Storrs Street in downtown Concord. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Two of the cats that Al Cilley feeds on a regular basis near Storrs Street in Concord. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Al Cilley walks over to the cat feeding shelter he built near the Department of Transportion in Concord. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

  • The pidgeons huddle against the cold on the wires along Storrs Street where Al Cilley feeds the cats and birds. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Al Cilley tries to call out to one of the cats at the shelter he built for them near Storrs Street in downtown Concord. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Al Cilley gets as close as he can get to a feral cat out near Storrs Street in downtown Concord on Thursday. GEOFF FORESTER photos / Monitor staff



Monitor columnist
Friday, January 26, 2018

Like mail carriers, neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stops Al Cilley from his daily routine.

But mail carriers, I presume, won’t break the law and risk arrest in order to complete their mission.

Cilley will. And, in fact, did, right before Christmas.

The 69-year-old retired auto body shop owner provides food and water and love to feral cats across the city, in spots where few people go or even know about.

Secluded and desolate, some homeless people call these areas home, and lots of homeless cats do, too.

Switch to the Friendly Kitchen parking lot last summer. According to Cilley’s version of events, he rescued a cat from a car there, peeling back plastic spread across the back window to save it from turning into a cat roast.

Six months later, the cops busted him for criminal trespassing and breaking and entering. He was cuffed, fingerprinted, photographed, the works.

Last Monday, a judge imposed no fine and told Cilley there will be no punishment if he stays out of trouble for one year.

“I realize the police have a job to do,” Cilley told me this week on a frigid, nose-dripping afternoon under the Loudon Road bridge. “But it was a 90-something degree day, and the only thing I was thinking about was the cat.”

That, essentially, is all Cilley thinks about during this stage in his life. We visited Cilley four years ago, once word spread that a man was braving all forms of weather to make sure feral cats in the city’s forgotten areas had food, water and shelter.

I found someone who spoke in hushed tones, sometimes impossible to hear above the howling wind or nearby whoosh of traffic. His soft-spoken nature fit nicely with who he is.

“He’s just very dedicated to his love of animals,” said his daughter, Donna Tilton of Pembroke. “He can’t bare to see them fend for themselves. He wants to be there and take good care of them. He tries to make sure they’re comfortable and they don’t freeze.”

He’s a married man with three grown children. He paves and landscapes with one of his sons in the summer, at which time he also cares for feral cats.

He does it in the winter as well, no matter how cruel it is outside. He said he does it 365 days a year, about four hours a day, and I believe him.

Earlier this week my hands numbed quickly as I tried to take notes below the Loudon Road overpass, near the old DOT building. It’s part of a row of dilapidated buildings that have a rich history to tell but, sadly, sit silently, wasting space.

Cilley hadn’t met me there. He was already there when I called him. I was following a tip that he had been arrested.

He’s been doing this since 2004, every day, he insists. He said he buys 44 pounds of cat food a week.

“I wouldn’t want to keep track of the money I’ve spent,” Cilley told me. “It adds up.”

In the distance sat a pair of plastic totes with a piece of plywood running between them, forming a shelter and home base for the cats that live under the building. There’s hay and straw inside the totes. There’s an American flag, flowers and bowls for food and water. Cilley leaves hand warmers, hoping the cats will figure it out.

A couple of cats showed up, feeling secure because we were 30 yards away. But Tilton said she’s seen the bond between the cats and her father, whom she calls the Cat Whisperer.

“He has tele(pathic) communication with them,” Tilton told me. “I have been down there after work and he’s showing them to me and they would run when I went over there, but they started coming back with him and he can hand-feed them.”

Cilley does this in lots of places: a hidden pocket on Manchester Street, behind the Concord Hospital, behind a gas station, behind a pizza place.

Sometimes he sets up humane traps and delivers cats to the Pope Memorial SPCA. Sometimes those cats are adopted. He’s named a bunch of them – Checkers, Shorty, No Tail, Shadow, Spirit, Scout.

And one day, while feeding strays under the Interstate 393 bridge, near the Friendly Kitchen, Cilley saw a cat in a car – owned by Susie Goodwin, court documents show. Cilley said it was a hot day and he was worried for the cat’s safety. The cat was leashed to a headrest.

He said he pulled some plastic off the window and freed the cat, then brought it to a parking area and gave it to Carla Cochran, who works with Cilley trying to help residents of this hidden whiskered community.

Goodwin said the car was parked in the shade with the windows down, and Cilley had no right to touch her pets. That’s why she reported him to police.

“He was trying to divest me of my animals,” she said. “That’s why the police agreed with me.”

Six months later, on Christmas Eve day, Cilley was arrested after police noticed his car parked illegally on Constitution Avenue during one of his feeding sessions. His license plate showed there was a warrant out for his arrest.

“It was the first I knew about it,” Cilley said. “I was shocked.”

“No judge is going to look at that and say he was intending to commit a crime,” Tilton added.

She was right. Earlier this week the judge cut the cat burglar some slack. Keep his paws clean for a year, the judge ruled, and he faces no fine.

Meanwhile, Cilley will continue to do his thing, which includes feeding pigeons as well. They crowded around him on that freezing day, hovering, landing on his arm and eating near his feet. Others waited on a nearby power line in a scene right out of The Birds.

Down below, a pair of cats moved slowly toward their lone source of food and shelter. They ate from the bowl and sat inside, under the plywood.

“How do they do it each winter?” Cilley asked himself. “I don’t know.”

Editor’s note: This article has been updated to include comments from Susie Goodwin. She was unable to be reached Thursday.