as told to Annee Tara
Coastal Journal Contributor
If you had asked me when I was a teenager if I would have started a cat rescue group, I wouldn’t have had a clue.
It’s a long time ago now, like over 20 something years. One night – there was a market called Burgess’ Market, over where Amato’s is now – and I was walking my very old husky. There was a big dumpster out in back. I saw a cat up in the dumpster throwing out scraps, and there were seven little kittens. Of course, as soon as they saw us, she jumped out, and they went under the Chocolate Church.
The next night, we took that route again, and I saw her doing it again. And then the third night, I brought food. It turned out there was a basement window that was open. She was a wanderer, I’m sure, and she had found a place to get in out of the cold and to have her kittens. And she also picked a place where there was a possibility of easier food, and that was the dumpster. So she was a pretty smart girl.
What I learned over time was the mother cat was wild; the kittens weren’t. And I started taking out kittens and taming them and finding homes for them.
She stayed there for 15 years or so and producing new kittens for 10 years. And for most of that 10 years, I was able to take her kittens and tame them. If you take wild kittens when they’re about five or six weeks old, they have a chance of becoming domestic animals.
Then other cats showed up there. People dropped them off, other wanderers ended up coming there, because there was food and warmth.
At that time, it was pretty much my mother, my father, my sister and I that did it. It was a pretty amazing thing. Some people would think “Why would you do that? What do you get out of it?” I must say that with feral cats, you don’t have touch, but there are so many other ways that they communicate. Every day, when I came with their food, they’d run out, dance around, really be so glad to see me – no matter what kind of day I had, they were joyous that I – and their food – had arrived!
As Paw in the Door grew, it wasn’t just a family thing anymore; more people who were really dedicated became involved. Our whole program is made up of volunteers. We don’t have a facility and we don’t have a paid staff. We do have a great group of people who act as our advisory board. We have a good network of foster homes. We have people who are volunteer drivers who take animals to the vets and bring them back.
We started out just using our own money to do this. After a while, you realize “I’m not a rich person, one person can’t do this.” Over the years, we’ve become pretty efficient at fundraising. All through a lot of small things. We just had a yard sale , raised $1,400. We have a live and silent auction; we usually make $12,000 with that. We go to fairs and festivals and sell catnip bags and mice. We have some products, hats and aprons. And we have a membership. And then, occasionally, someone who knows of us will leave a bequest in their will, and that’s a huge boost to us, because we usually spend about $50,000 a year. For an all-volunteer organization, that’s a substantial amount of money to come up with every year.
In the beginning, I just took cats from that location. Once word got out, people started dropping cats off at my house. From that grew an awareness that it was really about spay/neuter. That is really the key.
We devote a very large portion of our funds to spay/neuter services. You know, it’s often people who are out of work, have a medical issue, are on a fixed income, have a bunch of kids, can’t afford it. We target low-income people; I do think that the money is one of the reasons they don’t spay/neuter their cats. So we devote a lot of our resources to that.
And then we have cats in our program for a lifetime, and many of those are cats who have a medical issue, and the only way that they can go to their new home is for us to cover their medical expenses for the rest of their lives.
Another thing we do is provide food to people who it makes a difference between keeping their cats and having to give them up. That started when we had an elderly lady that called. She was very upset, and she said she had to give up her cat: “My daughter came over, and the only thing that was in the cupboard was the cat food.” She would feed the cat before herself. So she became someone that we helped with food and litter every month. That was what her daughter really cared about, was her eating too. The cat was like 12 or 13 years old. Why would you want to break up a family over some cat food and some litter?
We have foster homes. We have a lot of cats that have been harmed, that have been neglected and abused.
We also work with Pet Quarters at Cooks Corner, Wags & Whiskers here in Bath, and Ames True Value Hardware in Wiscasset. They are places where our cats that are adoptable go to be seen and to be adopted. At our store sites we provide all the food and litter and so forth for the cats that are there. Other than our expenses to advertise an event or send out a mailing, all of it goes directly to veterinary services or those other kind of programs that I mentioned.
All our cats have been thoroughly vetted before they’re available for adoption, and in good health. For us, that includes leukemia testing, all their vaccinations, spay/neuter, and a guarantee that we will spay/neuter for any kitten that’s adopted that’s too young. They’re de-wormed; if they have any kind of ear mites, or their teeth need to be cleaned or extracted, whatever, their toenails clipped. Our application process – we ask a lot of rather personal questions, about who’s in your household, how many other pets are there, does everyone in your household agree to adopt a pet? If you have a landlord, do you have the landlord’s permission and can we call him or her? If you have other pets, we need permission to call their vet to make sure their pets are all up-to-date on their vaccines and in good health. We ask if other pets have passed away, what have they passed away from? And now we’ve started asking if people smoke in the house, because there’s definite scientific evidence now that cats get more skin-related, gastrointestinal and lung problems, and its incremental growing as you go from one smoker to two in a house. So people don’t think of cats having the same medical issues as people from smoking, but in fact they do.
I think we’ve done a couple hundred spay/neuters last year. I think about 100 adoptions in a year.
I have six cats. And they all came through A Paw in the Door. Over time, I’ve had different numbers. Sometimes I’ve had more; never less. And all my cats are fairly ancient now. I used to foster a lot, but toward the end, my cats started being very unsocial to cats who were being fostered. And I understood that they’d had enough, so I stopped being a fosterer and other people picked up.
We probably have about 25 or 30 volunteers. Our core group is about 12, and then we have people who volunteer for different things beyond that. It is a lot of work for 12 people.
We can work longer with cats, and we can spend more money on them. If they have health issues, if they have emotional issues, we can spend longer helping the animal get healthy again.
I’ve worked a lot with our lead vet, Peter Smith at Yarmouth Vet Center, and I’ve learned a huge amount from him. He’s one that really acknowledges and understands the dispositions of cats and their emotional makeup, and how that contributes to their health or takes away from their health and well-being. So I think I’ve been tutored by someone who I admire greatly, who studies constantly. I do read articles about cat psychology and physiology and all that stuff, but I haven’t had any formal training.
As I see the future of Paw in the Door, I don’t think we’re really looking at becoming a shelter-like organization. The service, especially the spay/neuter service that we provide and the home-finding, I see us continuing to do that, and maybe on some kind of a escalating level, because that’s what’s happened to us so far.
Right now we’re trying to develop an opportunity for people to make bequests, because that would allow us to do more of what we already do. One of our goals for this year is developing a package for lawyers to have, so that when people are making plans, they can include us. I think if they knew about us and the work that we do, that they would want to consider us anyway. So I see us trying to strengthen the fundraising arm.
I think the root of the problem is spay/neuter; and then it’s always about education. So I’d like to see us work with maybe a school group, get more young people involved. Those are the areas I think we might like to strengthen.
It’s a real commitment. Sometimes I think anyone who does that degree of volunteer work thinks, “What would my life be like, without doing this?” I think that my life has been better and more fulfilling because I’ve done this work with animals. One of the things I really like about the Paw in the Door story is it really shows that if you do what you can do, you can make a really big difference.