NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) Crazy cat lady or world class musician? Both, if you’re Dorian Rence.
Born in Oklahoma to a father who was both a farmer and a clarinet player, Dorian Rence started piano lessons at the age of five and then violin lessons. After acceptance to the prestigious Curtis Institute of Music as a violist, she won her audition with the New York Philharmonic at age 21, entering one later. In the 40 years since, Rence has played with all the great conductors and soloists including Leonard Bernstein, Pierre Boulez, Zubin Mehta, Luciano Pavarotti, Isaac Stern, Yo Yo Ma, to name a few.
In the year 2000, a chance encounter with some stray cats changed her life.
Rence was on a chamber music tour with colleagues from the Philharmonic in Greece. She and a cellist Eileen Moon were walking to their hotel in Santorini when she says they heard “urgent mewing”. Rence told 1010 WINS, “We went into this vacant lot and there under a bush under the midday bruising hot sun, was a little kitten whose eyes were completely encrusted shut.” She says they asked around and found the one veterinarian on the island. “As they were cleaning her eyes”, Rence went on, “I saw that one eye was yellow and the other was blue, and I was totally falling under the spell.” The Vet suggested they go back to the site and search for littermates, which they did, and found a second kitten who was in even worse shape. Long story short, the kittens were successfully treated, and then put on a plane to Athens, where Rence and Moon were performing.
The rest, as they say, is history. Each adopted a kitten which they brought back to the United States, and the dramatic overseas rescue inspired Rence to help stray animals back home in New York. In 2001 she started the Artemis Project, with the mission of rescuing, primarily, animals that may be considered beyond hope, because of age, medical condition, behavior or just difficult circumstances.
Rence also cares for community and feral cats, and was tending to a group living near the Amtrak train tracks under the West Side Highway in an area which also houses a rarely used dog run. Filmmaker Markie Hancock happened to bring her own dogs to that playground in 2013, took notice of Rence, and was intrigued. “She had seen that I went out every day, sunshine or hurricane or blizzard,” Rence told 1010 WINS. “I think, frankly, she thought I might have been homeless but she found out from some other people that took their dogs to that run that I actually played in the Philaharmonic.”
Hancock confirmed it, telling 1010 WINS at first she thought Dorian was just a crazy cat lady. “But when I learned more about her I thought, there has to be a story here. What followed was two and a half years of filming, and what I discovered during that time was a woman who not only is a world-class musician, but is someone who doesn’t make a distinction between feeding feral cats in the underbelly of New York City and playing on all of the world’s great stages. Both worlds have beauty and meaning and I think that’s powerful.”
For her part, Rence says her biggest joy and personal lesson in caring for the cats has been unconditional love. She admits it’s odd seeing herself on the big screen, and while she chuckled at the thought of what her fellow musicians might think, she admits that thanks to the internet, it’s become pretty cool these days to be a “crazy cat lady”.
“Feral Love” is being screened as part of DOC NYC, America’s Largest Documentary Festival, which comes to Manhattan November 10th through the 17th. It will be shown at the IFC Center on Sixth Avenue and West 3rd Street on Friday, November 11th at 1pm and Wednesday, November 16th at 7:15pm.
Click HERE for ticket info.