Michigan town hisses as puss gets the boot

Francis X. Donnelly
The Detroit News

Lyons– The most famous inhabitant of this farm town has a fondness for books that isn’t slowed by her inability to read. She is a cat who lived at the public library.

People from surrounding towns came just to see her, bearing treats. In a barren downtown, her unusual home was a bevy of activity. She made the forlorn village smile.

Alas, the queen of the stacks was remaindered last month. Puss got the boot. Some patrons had complained about allergies.

Aww Kitty did not go quietly. There was gnashing of teeth, flashing of claws, and not by her.

Residents signed petitions, planned a boycott and made threats, which led to the posting of police at library board meetings.

Leading the charge was Katie Chambers, a 15-year-old who faced off against a board of 60- and 70-year-olds.

Call it A Tail of Two Kitties, one loved and one loathed.

“She was just a stray that walked into our lives,” said Chambers, a sophomore at Ionia High. “She brought our community together.”

Aww Kitty was one of 39 cats that lived at libraries in the United States, said the American Library Association. She now lives at a resident’s home.

Board members insisted they’re no Cruella de Vils. They said they had to look out for all library patrons, not just the cat-loving ones.

“If it’s people versus a cat, people are going to be the one I vote for,” said board member Marilyn Huhn.

This central Michigan village has always struggled to catch a break, residents said.

First the railroad passed it by and then the highway. The company town lost its company in 1979 when Chrysler closed a trim plant.

Isolated amid fields of corn and soybean, the closest medium-sized city, Lansing, is 37 miles away. The population is 789.

When Joe Farrington moved here in 2013, he described Lyons as the Meth Capital of Michigan.

There were thefts, home invasions and junkies roaming about at all hours, he said. Two years later, 21 homes in the rural county were condemned because they were contaminated with methamphetamine residue, county officials said.

Now the most pressing concern is a library cat. Farrington, now a village trustee, counts it as progress.

“It’s a testament to the people of Lyons,” he said.

Still, the cat should have stayed, he said. By removing her, the library board took something positive about the village and turned it into a negative.

A stray moves in

The small Lyons Township District Library has 19,000 stories crammed onto its shelves, but apparently had room for one more. It arrived on four paws in February 2015.

The gray-and-white stray, a year or two old, had often made the rounds along the sleepy, two-block downtown, said residents. She sometimes was fed by a bar and VFW post. A worker at Lyons Bar named her after the reaction she received from locals.

One day Aww Kitty, skinny with matted hair, appeared at the library’s glass door entrance. The staff let her in and she began returning with increasing frequency, staying longer and longer.

Patrons were instantly smitten. For an animal known for its persnickety personality, she was downright gregarious, residents said. She brought warmth to the antiseptic surroundings.

“Everyone adopted her, and she adopted everyone,” said Alison Irey, who is chairwoman of the Lyons Downtown Development Authority. “She just became part of the family.”

Aww Kitty jumped on laps, lay on keyboards and clambered over the circulation counter. The fur ball somehow wedged herself into a small plastic bowl and fell asleep. When she perched on a shelf, the uninitiated might wonder: Did that book just purr at me?

The confines were definitely more hospitable than the building’s last tenant — an archery shop with a shooting room in the back.

The fluffy feline became a mascot, figuring prominently in the library’s marketing on social media.

On Election Day she exhorted everyone to vote. On St. Paddy’s Day she sported green beads. And, of course, she was forever encouraging people to read.

She has her own Facebook page, which has 140 followers compared with 303 for the library.

“MY KIDS LOVE THAT CAT!” Ari Peabody, a Meijer pharmacy tech from Lyons, wrote on Facebook. “THEY WILL BE HEART BROKEN.”

Aww Kitty played inside and out of the library, scratching at the door when she wanted to come back in. She sometimes brought a mouse, which might be alive. At night she slept in the library director’s office.

A donation jar on the counter paid for her food, litter and medical care.

Emotions run high

The bad news arrived on the same day as Santa.

In December the library board voted to remove Aww Kitty after saying board members received complaints from patrons who were allergic to her. It shared the news with the library staff, who had become close with the cat during their three years together.

Several hours later, the library hosted Santa as part of the village’s Christmas by the River celebration. Cocoa and cookies were served.

Board members declined to say how many people complained or who they were. “Several people stopped coming to the library,” board chairwoman Carol Simon told The Detroit News.

The library staff has been told by the board not to discuss the issue.

The library board, which normally meets to an empty room, was suddenly facing a town revolt.

During a special meeting last month, two dozen people filled a small back room of the library and spilled into the hallway. Several held photos of Aww Kitty attached to a stick.

Also attending was a sheriff’s deputy, requested by the board after it received threats over the matter. The board declined to elaborate.

“It’s a shame the small town came to this point,” said resident Jackie VanDyne, whose grandchildren always insisted she bring them to the library to visit the cat. “The board wouldn’t listen to the voices of many instead of the voices of a few.”

An online petition by Chambers asking the board to keep the cat was signed by 2,700 people. On her Facebook page, the teen calls herself “that lovable thorn in your life.”

The start of the Jan. 25 meeting, where the board would reconsider its December decision, was delayed when the secretary forgot to bring her tape recorder. She ran home to retrieve it.

During the 15-minute wait, little was said between the seated board and the standing crowd. Some had known each other their whole lives, but hard feelings abounded.

When Farrington asked Simon if she had shared an email he sent her with other board members, she said it wasn’t the right time to discuss the issue. “It’s just a yes or no question,” Farrington said.

Unanimous vote for eviction

With the meeting underway, Simon said she had received two letters in favor of keeping the cat.

One was addressed to Aww Kitty c/o Lyons Township Library and the other to the Lyons Township Library Complaint Committee. The Aww Kitty letter, written on a greeting card, continued on the back, signing off “Best of luck & meow to your sweet kitty!”

The crowd didn’t address the board, having made its case at an earlier meeting, when 20 people spoke in favor of keeping the cat.

They said she helped draw people to the library, comforted people who couldn’t have pets at home and shouldn’t be removed from a place she’s grown accustomed to.

“Cats are people, too,” said resident Rosemary Adams.

During the earlier meeting, one person said Aww Kitty should be removed. The person, village trustee Max Darling, said he had attended more in support of the board than in opposition to the cat.

Darling, who had nominated one of the board members, said public service isn’t easy.

“It’s a ticklish thing,” he told The News. “You try to make everyone happy, and you just can’t do it.”

But Darling also said he grew up on a farm and knew the mischief a cat could create.

“When you go out the door, they climb all over the place,” he said.

At the Jan. 25 meeting, the board quickly rendered its verdict. Without comment, it held a roll call with all seven members voting to oust Aww Kitty. The meeting was adjourned.

As the board walked out of the library, Irey, still clutching a photo of Aww Kitty, left them with a parting shot.

“Don’t run over any cats on the way home,” she said.