“Don’t wear nice clothes,” Penelope Fenyvest warns when she gives directions to her home in rural Monkton. Arriving on the property — about 130 acres next door to an organic farm — one quickly sees this is good advice. Seven dogs, ranging in size from Great Dane to chihuahua, race to the edge of their fenced enclosure, ready to greet visitors with friendly panting and muddy paws.
Welcome to “Camp Chaos,” which is home to Fenyvest and her husband, Jeff; the dogs; about 49 cats; five draft horses bought at auction; three miniature horses and a mule. Many of these animals have the run of the brown-shingled house, its yard and part of the barn. Fourteen of the cats — the dog-leery ones — occupy a second house across the road, where Jeff Fenyvest, a private financial manager, has his home office.
It’s a menagerie right out of a kids’ book, but it’s also a labor of love that costs the Fenyvests an estimated $25,000 in annual vet bills. All the animals are spayed or neutered. Roughly 80 percent of them were adopted from the Addison County Humane Society in Middlebury, and many came to the couple older or ailing.
Fenyvest isn’t eager to unveil her home to the curious, but she’s agreed to this visit because she wants to promote the work of the ACHS, which is in the midst of a capital campaign (see sidebar). Its executive director, Jackie Rose, who knows many of the Fenyvests’ animals by name, has come along to provide context for their efforts.
When TV bombards us with lurid reality shows such as “Confessions: Animal Hoarding,” it’s easy to hear “49 cats” and jump to conclusions. In this case, says Rose, we shouldn’t. “What Jeff and Penelope do is a gift of the heart,” she says. “They can easily be misinterpreted as hoarders, but they’re not.”
The Fenyvests take care of their pets; have a “contingency plan” so the animals will be provided for no matter what befalls their owners; and are “not collecting to collect.”
And they’re not “taking the easy animal,” adds Rose. The couple adopt critters such as Max, an 11-year-old mastiff with a “softball-sized” tumor. Or cats that test positive for feline AIDS. For animals with terminal diseases, the Fenyvests’ home can serve as something akin to a hospice.
“We don’t care if they want to sit on our lap,” says Fenyvest of the animals. “If they just need a good home, and to live out the rest of their life, then we take them.”
Two summers ago, after the ACHS handled three large hoarding cases, the no-kill shelter was “overloaded with cats,” says Rose. She called the Fenyvests, who adopted 12 that day. “Jeff’s not allowed to go to the shelter anymore,” says Penelope with a smoker’s deep chuckle.
Fenyvest, 55, with her trim shape, spiky hair and tattoos, looks like someone you’d be more likely to see hanging out at a Bay Area coffeehouse than in a Vermont barn. The California native gets her urban fix at the couple’s second home in Montréal’s Plateau neighborhood. She’s just back from the Formula 1 races.
The Fenyvests recently celebrated their 25th anniversary — 24 of those years spent in Vermont. They usually travel separately, so one can stay with the animals: The three days they recently spent in Montréal, with a veterinary tech babysitting at home, were the longest they’ve been away together in 20 years, Penelope Fenyvest says.
Fenyvest and the ACHS go way back; two decades ago, she served on the board. But “I’m not a group person,” she says. What she is is an animal person, by lineage as well as by choice. Her “eccentric” mother had unusual pets, including a deer “who used to sleep on my bed,” she says.
While it may not be as stylish as their Montréal pied-à-terre, the Fenyvests’ Monkton house is funky and animal friendly. The slip-covered couches are a playground for yipping chihuahuas. A white cat named Winston drinks from the kitchen faucet beside a green-and-purple fridge. On the fireplace above the wood stove, Fenyvest has memorialized each deceased animal by writing its name on a brick with colored chalk: Achilles, Zack, Soho, Pecan, Ditto, Spike, Romeo.
When they first moved here from a New Jersey rental, the couple had just two pets, Fenyvest says. Then “this cat showed up in our barn.” Soon named Felix, he became the “catalyst, for lack of a better word.” Jeff, who was still working in New Jersey at the time, began rescuing cats from its high-kill shelters and bringing them to the rural refuge.
“It’s sort of like, ‘One more cat, what’s the big deal?’” says Fenyvest. When there were 20 cats, she found herself outside at night calling off names from a checklist. A fenced enclosure was the natural next step.
For five years, Fenyvest owned a clothing shop in Middlebury. Now, the animals are her full-time job. She’s often at the vet, where the dogs and cats get dental care and sometimes more significant procedures, such as thyroid radiation, chemotherapy and ultrasounds.
Point to an animal and Fenyvest tells its story. The black-and-white cat on the porch still sleeps in a pile with his grown offspring. A black cat “had all her teeth pulled.” One chihuahua was thrown from a car in Connecticut. Another, named Wilma, was rescued from the same home as Hobbes, a dachshund who’s now the popular sidekick of morning-show host Bruce Zeman on Addison County’s WVTK.
Tiny, nervous Wilma isn’t scared to provoke Godfrey, the black-and-white Great Dane, who’s still close to puppyhood. He’s one of the few nonrescued animals here, purchased from a responsible breeder in Nebraska. “I never thought I would buy a dog online,” Fenyvest says with a sigh. But after two older dogs died in quick succession, she thought, “Fuck this; I’m tired of this, I’m getting a puppy,” she recalls. Right now, she’s considering adopting a dog from Greece, where animal welfare has deteriorated along with the economy.
There’s no fighting like cats and dogs here. The former patrol the yard and hayloft, or they watch loftily from perches as the latter romp and tussle. The Fenyvests avoid adopting dogs with chasing tendencies, since “the pack mentality can escalate,” says Fenyvest.
What’s it like living with all these animals? “Every day is different,” says Fenyvest. Take the excitement of her latest acquisition, an orange feral cat she spotted wandering on the property and mistook for one of her own. Trapped and released in the bathroom, it scaled the walls and demolished the towel rack, then fled outside, where Fenyvest has set up feeding stations. “We’ve seen him climbing the trees,” she says, clearly curious to see where the feline will pop up next.
Or take Fenyvest’s latest triumph: In the garden, she’s managed to grow tomato plants in a soil-packed shopping cart. That’s the only way to keep them away from the mini-horses, which “eat everything.”
And what’s it like watching so many animals die? Not easy, as Fenyvest’s story about getting a puppy attests.
“I don’t want to say you get used to it,” she says. “But you know you’ve done the best you can. There isn’t anything we haven’t done for them.”