When it's all about the cat

At the centre of the main indoor space of the Cats Protection League shelter, two couches sit in a V-shape, as they might in anyone's lounge. I am about to lower myself on to one when I notice a sign: "Please check for CAT UNDER BLANKET".

Just as well the sign is there: when I shift a cushion, a little round lump twitches under the blue fleece blanket. League volunteer Iona Anderson nudges back the blanket to reveal a sleepy, blinking white cat named Bella, the possessor of priority access to this couch.

On the furniture and in every other way at the Cats Protection League, cats come first. Since 1982, the league has looked after displaced or unwanted cats and helped find new homes for them, funded by donations and bequests and staffed wholly by volunteers.

On the day I visit the league's shelter at the end of a suburban cul de sac in Wellington's hills, 30 cats are in residence. The first one I see is Rosie, staring one-eyedly at me. Iona and fellow volunteer Stephanie explain to me that Rosie, like all cats that come to the shelter, had a full medical check - but she turned out to have a benign tumour, removal of which cost Rosie her left eye.

Still, Rosie seems to be doing fine, accepting face-rubs from an unfamiliar guest.

All the cats I meet at the shelter seem to be in fine health. They're attended to by vets, have plenty of food and daytime human company. But however calm they seem in the relaxed, secure, homelike atmosphere of this shelter, many of them are at a traumatic point in their lives.

Every cat there has its own story. The cat whose elderly owner could no longer safely look after it. The cat whose human family has had to move to a place where keeping a cat is impossible. Cats whose owners have gone into care or died.

   Cats Protection League volunteer Iona Anderson with Rosie.
Often the cat is brought to the SPCA or to a veterinarian, who, rather than euthanise a healthy animal where the only problem is lack of a home, calls in the Cats Protection League.

So these are cats that are parted from their homes and from their familiar people, perhaps for the first time in their lives. There's bound to be some stress.

When a cat arrives at the league's shelter it spends a week in what Iona calls the newbies' room - "it's for quiet time and treatment". There the cat stays in a cage in an atmosphere of nerve-calming Feliway scent, but with the door to the main space left open. Other cats can and do wander in and meet these newbies.

In most cases, the newbie cats transition well to being part of the shelter's feline community, where they'll stay until adopted out. "They're so stoic," says Iona. "I'm always amazed at how well they cope. If they've got space, fresh air, warmth and places to hide, they'll be all right."

***

The shelter, all up, is roughly as big as a roomy house. Multilevel cages line the walls. Each cage has a bed, a scratch post, bowls and litter tray. But like delinquent airline passengers, most of the cats seem to have drifted away from their allocated spots. Instead, they sleep or groom in any of the cat-baskets lined with blankets that occupy every available elevated place in the room.

Cat spaces are everywhere: couches, boxes, baskets, scratching posts, play chutes. Rising like a peak in the centre of the room is a tall climber full of ramps and platforms. At the top is a little black and white girl named Cleo. She poses Ed Hillary-like for a photo (right).

In my search for a place to sit, I eventually find a cat-free place. Over tea, Iona and Stephanie tell me about the league, the shelter, and its cat tenants, current and previous.

The thing they emphasise, and that comes out of everything I learn about the group, is how it's all about the cats. That means it's important to see each cat as an individual and to get to know it well. This approach comes out in the little notices that dot the cages and walls, saying things like "Please put Iris in her cage overnight to ensure she gets her CD biscuits," or "Please keep Teddy out. He is chasing Fluffy!"

Volunteers stay vigilant for signs of cat aggression but once the cats are settled, there's not much to be seen, says Iona. There's a closed-off room for what she calls "timids", and they have their own outdoor space.

The aim is to create a gentle, safe-feeling space for the cats, says Iona. "People sometimes expect to see sad cats here - but they'e amazed at how relaxed it is."

***

As I listen and ask questions, a little black-furred visitor named Buddha plants herself on my lap. I realise I haven't had a cat on my lap since Merrick died 20 months ago.

Then I hear a voice, and a third volunteer arrives. He moves quietly around the main space and the rooms that run off it, giving the cats their afternoon feed. (The cats have quality kibble available all the time, and two daily feeds of supermarket canned food for variety.)

It's the 60 to 70 volunteers who keep the league aloft, and there's always room for more, says Iona, given also that the league runs a volunteer-based thrift shop. The longest-serving volunteer is a 13-year veteran, she says. She herself had been involved for seven years, and Stephanie for six.

I'm here on a weekday, when only rostered volunteers are around. At the weekends potential adopters arrive to meet the cats and, crucially, talk to the volunteers whose job it is to help find homes for the cats.

As Iona describes the adoption process, it's not a formalised, questionnaire-and-interview type of thing. The important thing is for the volunteer "homers" to get to know the adopters, what their lives are like, and see if they're a match for the particular cats at the shelter. Because, remember, this is about the cats, not a retail arrangement to suit customers.

Cats typically stay here for a matter of weeks or months. The league runs a foster programme that enables it to find homes for cats over 13 years old by covering their vet bills for the rest of their lives. Younger cats with chronic conditions that need continuing vet care are available for fostering as well, and vet costs associated with that condition are covered.  

***

Iona and Stephanie give me a tour of the rest of the shelter. There's an isolation room warmed by a column heater; the timids' room and sunny outdoor run; the main outdoor area full of shelves to climb and baskets to claim. Through the protective mesh that keeps these areas contained, I see a rotary clothesline full of fleece comforters and crocheted blankets drying in the wind.

Everything here is light and clean. But it's not a sterile place. The volunteers have made this place a home for cats who are temporarily without a home. They've made it a place where the cats are still loved and put first.

I take my hat off to the volunteers. It was inspiring to meet Iona and Stephanie, to hear about the work that volunteers do, and to see the fruits of their efforts.

But this is all about the cats, right? In that case, I must mention one-eyed Rosie, Doris the swipey one, Teddy, Jeremy the blanket spoiler, Sylvester-in-a-box, Buddha the smoochy one, Frida the sun lover, Cleo the climber, Molly, Precious, leggy ginger M&M, and of course Bella, who's probably still under that blanket. They're once-loved, and still-loved.

May this weekend bring someone who's a perfect match.

Let's meet some of them. This is Fluffy:

Doris seemed displeased by the intrusion on her sleeping time, high on top of a cage:

Iris was greatly interested to be visited by Four Legs Good:

Frida knew her lighting was favourable:

Sylvester had a box and a couch all to herself. Yes, herself:

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