A cloud of fog hangs over the mountains as morning begins at the Friends of Cats shelter in Flinn Springs, a small community just west of Alpine.
At 7:00 a.m., the day is already underway at Friends of Cats. The florescent lights are on, illuminating the shelter’s series of rooms, each filled with resident cats. An array of colors and sizes, they lounge and perch and sidle along, some in clumps, others alone.
Friends of Cats started in 1927 as the vision of Maude Erwin, a young animal lover who founded the organization as a means of rescuing all manner of shelter animals from euthanasia before focusing its efforts on cats alone. Called first the Animal Rescue League and then Foundation of Cats, headquarters was in Bonita and then Pacific Beach before the organization moved to its current location in Flinn Springs in 1966. To this day, Friends of Cats remains a no-kill shelter, meaning no cats will be “put down,” unless they are suffering incurable pain.
And cats are everywhere; there are close to 360 of them at Friends of Cats’ facility, a building that, with its series of neatly spaced, off-white rooms and linoleum tile floors looks as if it were once intended as a medical office. The cats lounge in rooms lined with baskets and boxes and carpet-covered structures outfitted with places to bask and hide. There are cats in cages, in outdoor, meshed-in encampments, and at the back of the building in special trailers organized according to their needs; these are low, red-and-gray buildings, complete with screened porches. There are cats in the hallways and cats in the office, a small space at the center of the main building, free-roaming cats that have been made permanent residents of the shelter. They nestle in cage-liner blankets in the linen closet, on top of the microwave in the kitchen, and in little nests strategically placed on the floor.
For both staff and “residents,” the Friends of Cats’ daily routine begins with food. Robin Johnson, the head vet tech, stirs it into a large steel bowl like a chef mixing ingredients. Her auburn hair is cut into a chin-length bob and she wears a yellow-patterned medical scrub top.
“Everything we do is formulated toward what [the cats] want,” she says, as a white shorthair dips its nose into the bowl for a taste. “Generally, since I’m in charge of medical, if I have happy cats, I have healthy cats.”
Within the Friends of Cats’ system, the cats have been broken down into categories. Indoors in the main building are the adoptable cats, the medical cases, the kittens, and, of course, the office cats. Outside, arranged around a small courtyard, are the “cottages,” trailers that house feral or “shy” cats, the older “retiree” cats, chronic peeing and biting cats (known as “the pee-ers and biters”), the pregnant mothers, and the feline AIDS and leukemia cats. All the cats housed there, aside from the mothers and their litters of kittens, are considered non-adoptable .
With paper plates of food on a tray, Johnson makes her rounds, stopping to talk to the cats in each of the rooms.
“Okay, kids!” she greets the Nursery, a small spot containing two cages of kittens, “Hi, boo-boo heads!”
The kittens, a quartet of a brown and three orange tabbies, scamper to her outstretched hands, mewing in an off-tempo chorus. She pets them and continues her monologue.
“You guys grew a lot while I was gone!”
Johnson has been at Friends of Cats for nine years, before which she did merchandising for the Navy Exchanges as part of her father’s business.
“It never was a career that I chose, I just kind of went into it because it was there,” she says. “Then I was seeing my therapist and he said ‘You know you could do whatever you want,’ and I said, ‘What do you mean, whatever I want?’ He said, ‘Well, what do you like to do?’ and I said, ‘I like football and I like cats.’ And he said, ‘I don’t think you’re going to do much in the football arena. Why don’t you find out some more about taking care of cats?’ ”
Shortly thereafter, Johnson started taking classes. At around the same time, she also began to volunteer at Friends of Cats, casually at first.
“It wasn’t long, a couple of months, and I was in love with this place,” she remembers. “Not so much the place but the cats. I just felt like they absolutely needed me and I absolutely needed them and that was kind of it.”
Johnson’s story is not uncommon at Friends of Cats; over the years, many people have felt the same way about the shelter. Dave Abeyta, who is in charge of maintenance for the shelter, began his career with Friends of Cats as a volunteer 13 years ago. A cat lover by nature, Abeyta decided to spend some time at the shelter, to relax during a difficult period in his life. He runs a hand through his salt-and-pepper hair.
“I came out here, and it was an oasis of calm, of peacefulness,” he says, taking a break from cutting wood with a table saw. “I could come out here, spend a couple of hours just petting and grooming the cats, and my week was better. It was very moving and that’s how it started. So I just started coming every week, and then I started coming a little more.…And one thing just leads to another.”
Recently, he was hired to take care of all the repairs and construction within Friends of Cats on a fulltime basis.
Others have become integrated into the Friends of Cats family in the same manner as Abeyta, starting small and quickly getting hooked. Barbara Auckland, the shelter manager, began at Friends of Cats as a kennel worker through her cleaning business. Four months later, she accepted her current title and has been at it ever since. She sits at her desk in the middle of the shelter, a room that serves as a thoroughfare for both humans and cats. Her eyes are sharp but friendly, calm and assured.