A 3-year-old cat named Nala plays with a 3D-printed ring made by Proxima Design Cat Toys at the Greater Androscoggin Humane Society in Lewiston on Tuesday, May 2, 2023. Humane Society volunteer Jacquelyn Mansfield came up with the non-toxic design based on her own cats' love of milk jug rings. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

LEWISTON, Maine — Jacquelyn Mansfield doesn’t remember a time when cats weren’t an important part of her life. Mansfield even has a photo of herself as a baby sleeping in a cradle with the family cat, a Siamese named Sammy, standing over her.

Later, another family cat, Larry, was her constant childhood companion.

“He used to take baths with me. He would eat Doritos. He slept with me every night. He was just the best cat,” Mansfield said. “I’d dress him up in my doll clothes. He was bombproof.”

Now, all grown up, cats are more important to her than ever.

Mansfield owns two cats of her own and volunteers twice a month at the Greater Androscoggin Humane Society. She has also transformed a pandemic passtime, sewing fabric catnip toys together, into a thriving, online cat-centric business.

Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

Now, Mansfield is releasing a new line of innovative, 3D-printed cat toys based on everyday objects felines find fascinating, starting with a kitty-safe, biodegradable, sparkly version of many cats’ favorite non-official toy — the milk jug ring.

“Everyone knows cats like to play with trash,” Mansfield said. “The rings are a huge favorite in my household. I wanted to make something that I knew was non-toxic and safe for cats to chew on.”

Her safer version of the milk jug ring is a little larger and squishier than the real thing. It’s also been cat-tested and approved by many tabbies at the shelter, as well as her own cats at home.

“I have Miss Marbles — she’s a big, chunky, sassy potato — and then there’s Proxima Midnight,” Mansfield said. “She’s a tiny, little black cat. She’s the sweetest creature on earth but she hisses at delivery people.”

The business is called Proxima Design Cat Toys, after her midnight-hued, furry roommate.

Mansfield’s operation has roots in the pandemic.

Greater Androscoggin Humane Society volunteer and cat toy designer Jacquelyn Mansfield holds a homeless feline in Lewiston on Tuesday, May 2, 2023. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

Faced with a mask shortage in the early days, she began to hand-sew them for herself, friends and family. While she was at it, Mansfield took needle and thread to cat toy ideas as well, stuffing them with catnip. Before long, she’d taught herself to operate a fancy sewing machine and started an Etsy page, to see if anyone would be interested in buying her cat toys.

They were.

Mansfield’s felt and cotton toys, shaped like toaster pastries, watermelons, carrots, mice, rainbow flags, burgers, fries, avocados, bats, stars and half-peeled bananas caught on right away.

“It blew up,” Mansfield said. “Now, I make, on average, 50 to 100 toys per week.”

She got the idea to expand into 3D-printed toys after meeting a man with such a printer at a craft fair last year. Now, Mansfield gets the rings made out of a special thermoplastic polymer which is free from any chemicals that could interfere with endocrine or hormone systems in humans or animals. The same material is sometimes used to make human child teething toys.

Mansfield’s next 3D design to hit the market will be a treat puzzle. It’s still in the design phase, however.

Good toys are important for a housecat’s mental and physical health, she said. Without stimulation, cats can get bored, be destructive or develop bad eating habits which can lead to health problems.

A year-old cat named Maddie plays with a 3D-printed ring made by Proxima Design Cat Toys at the Greater Androscoggin Humane Society in Lewiston on Tuesday, May 2, 2023. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

“With enrichment, puzzles and brain teasers, they’re going to be happy — and a happy cat is a good companion,” Mansfield said.

Shannon Martin, Community Engagement Supervisor at the Humane Society, said her cats play with Mansfield’s rings all the time.

“I have two very particular cats at home. They’re calicoes with spicy temperaments and they love her toys,” Martin said. “They didn’t need any coaxing. The rings are so simple — but so ingenious.”

Even with business booming, Mansfield is sticking with her day job at a grocery store, for now, while making cat toys by night and volunteering at the shelter. It’s a lot to juggle but it’s worth it, she said, for the cats, if nothing else.

“I’ve lived with cats all my life and they are my greatest joy and best friends,” Mansfield said.

Troy R. Bennett is a Buxton native and longtime Portland resident whose photojournalism has appeared in media outlets all over the world.