Woman leaves estate for cats

Photo provided by Flathead Spay & Neuter Task Force -- Gail Sheffield, formerly of Covington, bequeathed most of her estate following her death in October to groups that work with feral cats in Madisonville and Kalispell, Mont. In this undated photograph, Sheffield, right, volunteered her time at the Montana center that spays and neuters about 3,000 animals a year.
Photo provided by Flathead Spay & Neuter Task Force -- Gail Sheffield, formerly of Covington, bequeathed most of her estate following her death in October to groups that work with feral cats in Madisonville and Kalispell, Mont. In this undated photograph, Sheffield, right, volunteered her time at the Montana center that spays and neuters about 3,000 animals a year.

Former Covington resident Gail Sheffield was held dear by friends for her sense of humor, her modesty and her brilliance — “She was Google before there was Google’’ long-time friend Julia Sims said. But what Sheffield held most dear was feral cats.

They were her passion in life, Sims said, and she took care of them in her death by bequeathing the bulk of her estate to two groups that work with feral felines. She left $100,000 to the Feral Cat Consortium, based in Madisonville.

And she left the home that she owned in Kalispell, Mont., valued at about $300,000, to the Flathead Spay & Neuter Task Force.

Sheffield, who had a law degree, worked for a time as first assistant district attorney in Tangipahoa Parish and later went to Tulane University to earn a doctorate in anthropology, Sims said.

But she also devoted herself to the cause of feral cats and efforts to trap them, spay and neuter them, and then release them.

“She would call me sometimes from Montana, it would be 2 in the morning, and she was outside a bar trying to trap a feral cat. I would say, ‘Gail, are you out of your mind?’’’ Sims said.

Sheffield died in October after a sudden illness, and Sims’ husband, the superior to whom she had reported while she worked at the DA’s office, was the executor of her will.

Henry Sheffield, of Baton Rouge, her brother-in-law, said it was no surprise that she left her estate to feral cats. His brother, Charlie Sheffield, had told him that if he died first, “Gail’s leaving everything to the cat people,’’ Henry Sheffield said.

Charlie Sheffield’s death preceded hers by about a year, Henry Sheffield said.

Henry Sheffield said that she felt that helping the feral cats “gave her life meaning.’’

Gail Sheffield’s bequest will go a long way toward helping feral cats in St. Tammany Parish and in Kalispell, Mont., where she lived for the last several years.

Mimi Beadles, founder and executive director of the Flathead Spay & Neuter Task Force, said it’s the only program of its kind in Montana and spays and neuters about 3,000 animals a year.

Beadles said that Sheffield’s generosity will take some of the fundraising burden off the task force and ensure that it will continue well into the future.

Beadles described Sheffield as a skilled watercolorist whose work was sought after. But she didn’t describe herself as an artist or lawyer.

“She’d say, ‘I’m just a cat trapper,’” Beadles said.

That in itself takes skill and persistence, she said, noting that cat trapping involves going to Dumpsters and other places late at night.

Wendy Guidry, one of the founders of the Feral Cat Consortium in Madisonville, said that she met Sheffield shortly after the group formed a decade ago, and they realized immediately that she was “the missing piece.”

She handled grant-writing for them, and her administrative skills helped the group get organized, Guidry said.

Trapping feral cats is labor-intensive, Guidry said, and the money will mean volunteers can spend more time on that work and less time raising money.

She also said that the bequest will enable her to proceed with plans to aggressively trap cats this month while a woman from England is visiting to learn the ropes in hopes of launching a similar program there.

Sheffield also left money in her will for the care of her pets — three cats and a Welsh corgi, all now adopted by friends and relatives.

Sims, who has Annie, Sheffield’s dog, said no one who took on one of Sheffield’s pets would accept the money, so that $20,000 will be divided between the two feral cat groups.

Two weeks before her death, Sims said, Sheffield talked about funerals and said she hoped someone would raise a glass of wine and say, “She was a good old gal,” but ever modest, Sheffield said, “probably only two people will come.”

But Sims said that 200 people crowded Sheffield’s home in Kalispell for her last rites. The task force there plans to name its building the Gail Sheffield Memorial Clinic, Beadles said.