ST. HELENA — The St. Helena Public Library had a small problem — one that involved little four-legged creatures with tails and whiskers.
“We had mice,” said library Director Jennifer Baker in that way that librarians sum up vital information succinctly.
Last spring, Baker and her staff noticed some “very bold” mice scurrying around their back office, in broad daylight no less, as the staff went about their work.
“We joked, ‘Let’s get a cat,’” Baker recalled saying. But when the mice continued to play in the office, Baker realized that her joke about a cat might not be so farfetched.
Meanwhile, at the Napa animal shelter, an almost all-black cat had recently been surrendered by a family that had lost its home and could no longer take care of her. Four months had passed and the black cat remained unadopted, just waiting for the right owner to come along.
In what now seems like kismet, cat and the St. Helena library director crossed paths, meeting at the Napa shelter at precisely the right moment in time.
There was something about the cat that captured Baker’s attention. “She had lived with dogs and children,” Baker noted, and “she’d always been an indoor cat,” which was important for the library, its visitors — and its mouse problem.
After no objections from the city manager or the library board, Baker adopted the black cat with one small white spot on her tummy.
They named her Elsie the Library Cat.
Today, Elsie has become the library’s mascot, earning her own devoted following from both locals and visitors. She has her pick from a trio of soft baskets to alternate napping in, a drawer full of cat toys to bat around, and wears a red collar studded with rhinestones. “Red is her signature color,” said Baker.
A black tag dangles from the collar. “Elsie the library cat,” it reads. “I’m not supposed to check out.”
Elsie also has her own Facebook page, a celebrity cat boyfriend, and she even stars in her own videos. Elsie devotees send her messages, leave her tins of Fancy Feast and donate colorful collars.
“She’s made herself at home,” said Baker. “She’s been a really good fit.”
Elsie’s name can be explained two different ways, said Baker. She’s officially named after library benefactor Elsie Wood. But if you read her name phonetically, it can also be interpreted as “LC” or “Library Cat.”
Believed to be 8 years old, Elsie has a number of favorite spots to hang out, Baker said, including the front desk, on top of the DVD shelves, the attic, and on top of a printer. The feline looks cuddly, but it turns out Elsie, like many library patrons, is independent-minded.
“She’s not a lap cat,” Baker noted. “She doesn’t jump onto people’s laps, and the only thing she’s afraid of is toddlers who chase her.” Library patrons have come to know and expect to see Elsie, said Baker. “She’s part of the library tour now.”
Locals often look for her in one of many favorite lounging spots, she said. Fans have even come to the library just to meet the cat, Baker said. “We had a lady from Phoenix last week,” she said.
Elsie spends the night in the staff’s office area, lest she set off the motion sensor alarms inside the main library rooms, Baker said. Her litter box and multiple food bowls are located next to Baker’s desk in the library administration area. One of her favorite napping spaces is a basket on a window that gets plenty of sun.
Elsie might have enjoyed a relatively anonymous life at the library, but then Baker had another idea.
“I thought it’d be funny to create a Facebook page for her,” she said.
Little did she know just how popular Elsie the library cat would become online. “I put up a couple photos and it just took off.”
These days, more than 2,100 Facebook users have “liked” Elsie, including humans from all over the world, but also dogs, other cats, and even a sheep.
Her “personal interests” are described as such: “Sleeping, exploring the library, meeting new people, sleeping, cat treats, watching birds out the window, sleeping, laser light pens, being brushed, sleeping.”
Her job description? The library cat “persuades mice to find other accommodations, greets staff in the morning, gives a daily report of nighttime activities, helps to unpack boxes, investigates file drawers as needed, welcomes library visitors, conducts regular ‘management’ by walking around and dictates bi-monthly Friends of the Library newsletter column.”
Elsie is in a Facebook “relationship” with the cat that plays Lord Tubbington on the TV show “Glee” (real name: Aragon). The two felines even exchanged Valentine’s Day greetings, Baker said.
“She has a lot of people that follow her very closely” on Facebook, Baker said. The cat answers questions posted online via spokeswoman Baker, uploads cat jokes and photos, and even comments on authors, books and animal-related movies.
“She had a big crush on Richard Parker,” the tiger from “Life of Pi,” said Baker knowingly. “Kitty cam” videos of Elsie’s roaming between bookcases and library carts have been filmed and also posted on Facebook.
During Elsie’s early days of residency, “We were concerned we’d get complaints but haven’t had a single complaint,” Baker said. To make sure Elsie doesn’t aggravate patrons with allergies, staff uses special cat wipes to remove dander and excess fur, the director said.
Baker, who also has cats at home, also consulted an allergist and had HEPA filters installed in the building, “just to be on the safe side,” she said.
The St. Helena library has always been a pet-friendly place, Baker noted. Animals, from dogs to birds, are welcome inside as long as they are well-behaved.
And Elsie is well-behaved. “She’s never scratched anyone,” Baker said. The cat occasionally will nip when irritated, but she doesn’t bite, Baker said.
The director speculated that Elsie may have come from a home with smokers. “She’s really attracted to cigarette smoke on books,” Bakers said. If a book is returned and she can smell smoke, “she just goes bonkers. It’s better than catnip,” the director said.
Lest anyone think taxpayer dollars are subsidizing Elsie’s feline lifestyle, the Friends of the St. Helena Library pay for the cat’s expenses, estimated at $600 a year.
“We were delighted to do it,” said Connie Egan, president of the Friends of the St. Helena Public Library. “Cats appeal to a lot of people. It seemed like a natural to take that on and keep her in Meow Mix and cat litter,” Egan said.
“I think she’s fitting in extremely well. People bring their dogs in the library and it’s not a problem. She’s quiet, and a very good library patron that way.”
Egan said she was surprised to find that Elsie has so many fans.
“I think that’s a phenomenon of the whole online community,” Egan said. “She has a very capable voice in Jennifer,” the library director.
Egan said the Friends are considering creating some Elsie-related merchandise to sell at the library, such as T-shirts.
“I am hopeful people will love it. Elsie and the library can use every donation they get. Who knows? It could be more popular than we anticipate.”
Facebook friends and fans aside, since Elsie moved in, there is one other bit of good news at the library.
“The mice are gone,” Baker said. “But she had nothing to do with it. We called an exterminator.”