• Letter to Editor
  • Pin it

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.

“We attract people who love cats, people who hate people, oddities, rarities, quirky, flaky, fruity, and some normal folk,” Auckland says with a laugh. Her voice is tinged with an inflection that gives away her British origin. “Some of us here fit into one or more of those categories.”

Cats rove in and out, jumping up to get some attention before moving on. Auckland barely notices; she is, obviously, used to this. She pauses at times to talk to the cats, each of which appears to listen.

Meanwhile, at the back of the shelter, Johnson must administer medications to all the cats with medical issues, which many of them have. She keeps track of who requires what on a large dry-erase board on which she’s written the names of the cats, the medications they need, and a space to check off whether or not they’ve received it.

In the medical room, a small space set up with a steel-topped table and bins of supplies, Johnson lines up a series of needleless syringes containing oral medications, some of which are for hyperthyroidism, others for upper respiratory issues.

In addition, Johnson must contend with a handful of diabetic cats, whose conditions range in severity.

“They’re very, very high maintenance and also very expensive,” Johnson says, filling a syringe with pink liquid. “The [glucose test] strips are a fortune. Strips are like a buck apiece. It’s crazy.”

With all the feeding, watering, and especially medical care that Friends of Cats provides in its facility, expenses add up. Friends of Cats pays for its overhead not only via adoption and lifetime care fees but through donations, monetary and otherwise. In addition to receiving funds, they have a squad of dedicated volunteers who donate time and labor, and they also participate in shelter-specific programs with pet-supply manufacturers. This allows them significant discounts — Science Diet’s program charges 25 cents a pound for dry food, for example. A local vet provides low-cost services when needed, which is often.

There have also been sizeable donations of a different origin; Friends of Cats has received some funds as the heir to several estates. The resulting sums have been varied, and oftentimes Friends of Cats is willed the deceased’s feline companions.

“People pass away and leave $10,000,” says Auckland. “People pass away and leave cats in their will a set fee of $5000 dollars per cat. People pass away and leave a house and no cats. I’ve seen a few people pass away who’ve left us a house. We sold. There have been two; one we got half of the funds, and one we got about two-thirds.”

Auckland, who has been the shelter’s manager for seven years, estimates that one of the houses brought in around $200,000 to the organization. The house contained, however, she says, approximately 40 cats, most of which were feral. Some were able to go to homes; many, though, remain in the Shy Cottage.

Cats, when their lifetime care is totaled up, make for expensive pets and, within the shelter system, expensive residents.

“When we divided [the inheritance] amongst all the cats we had also received, and their care over the years, I think it worked out to about three dollars a cat,” Auckland says.

While a number of older cats are placed in lifetime care, a program in which an owner pays or wills a set fee per cat to have it cared for over the duration of its life, most of the cats at Friends of Cats are given up by their owners and are not paid for. Auckland, with seven years of experience under her belt, cites myriad reasons why they might be and have been relinquished.

“People need to give up their cats because they’re moving, or their owner is allergic or has had a lifestyle change, “ she says. “[They’re] traveling, or somebody in the family died.”

A white Persian catapults onto the desk.

“This is Molly,” Auckland says, by way of introduction. “Molly is a lifetime-care kitty. She was given to us by an owner who was getting married, and new daddy was not a cat guy. Apparently Molly liked to pee on things, and new daddy wasn’t going to put up with that, so Molly’s mommy paid for us to care for Molly. She didn’t want her adopted out. She wanted to know that she would be here and be safe forever and ever.”

In addition to Molly, there are several other lifetime resident cats allowed free reign of the shelter. Some are lifetime-care cases; others are simply un-adoptable cats that have made their home at the shelter. Perhaps the most well known is Nefertiti, a small Tonkinese with startlingly blue eyes and a nasty upper respiratory disease, who serves as the shelter mascot. Unadoptable due to her medical condition, Nefertiti spends her days on top of the washing machine or climbing on staff members’ — and visitors’ — shoulders.

There’s also Tabitha, a 25-pound gray shorthair that was adopted from Friends of Cats as a kitten and subsequently found, years later, abandoned in a plastic tub in San Clemente. At the time, according to the vet who ended up with her, she was so large she was unable to escape. Back at Friends of Cats, as a lifetime resident Tabitha now has her own spot in the office, a towel-covered nest next to a filing cabinet, with a sign reading “Tubbitha the Diva” to mark the spot.

In addition, there are a bunch of others, each of whom has a unique personality and a set of medical or behavioral issues to match. Angel, a white Persian, has cancer. Ophelia, also a Persian, has asthma. Clorox, a white shorthair who was dumped off at the front gate one night, is deaf. Flaco, who hops up onto Auckland’s desk, is a multicolored, ill-tempered yet still loved “pee-er.” Leonardo, who joins him on the desk, is a lionlike Maine Coon mix that Auckland adopted but later relocated to Friends of Cats due to his frequent urination — “He basically thinks we moved here,” she jokes — to become part of the gang. Down the hall, in his “apartment,” is Houston, who, according to Auckland, has a form of “kitty dementia” that causes him to become disoriented.

Of all the 360 cats at Friends of Cats, few are strays. It’s shelter policy not to take them in, as it’s hard to “start from scratch” without some sort of medical history. There have, however, been exceptions. Not long ago, Auckland recalls, a homeless man came to the door explaining that he had a kitten for them to take in and that he’d been spending his limited funds on cat food. The kitten, hidden in his backpack, was small and orange, and despite the no-stray rule and lack of medical personnel onsite, Auckland caved.

“He said, ‘Here’s my dilemma. I have a dollar and something to my name,’ ” Auckland says. “ ‘It’s going to be either buy the cat a can of food, or take the bus. I can’t do both.’ So we took the kitten.”

There have also been other special circumstances where Friends of Cats has taken in an unusual resident or, in some cases, a bundle of them. During the height of the Hurricane Katrina disaster in 2005, Friends of Cats accepted 40 new cases from New Orleans after corresponding with a displaced weblogger writing from a Winn-Dixie parking lot in the area. Most of the cats, which were driven from New Orleans in a horse trailer, have been adopted.

“We met with them in San Bernardino in the rain and picked them up,” Auckland recalls. “That was crazy.”

Katrina aside, Friends of Cats is no stranger to disaster, having tackled several on their own turf. Perhaps the scariest was the Cedar Fire of 2003, which came extremely close to the shelter’s compound.

“You could actually look across the street and the flames were so high, they were higher than the trees,” Dave Abeyta says. “I remember how here in the courtyard, we were putting cats in carriers and the sky was a dark gray…And it was hot, very, very hot, it was like everything was radiating heat, and the only light was coming from across the street where the flames were.”

The fire just missed the shelter, leaving everything — and everyone — unharmed.

“We had just received a donation of 400 cardboard carriers that arrived the day before the Cedar Fire hit,” Auckland says. “We were unprepared to evacuate, and if we hadn’t received that donation, we would not have been able to get all the cats off the property.”

Most recently, Friends of Cats was threatened by the Witch Fire and its offshoots, which, according to Auckland, came within three miles of the property. Veterans of the Cedar Fire (and a smaller fire that flared up just past the freeway), the Friends of Cats staff and volunteers caught, caged, and evacuated all the cats to a warehouse in Barrio Logan owned by Rebuilding Together San Diego. Auckland, Johnson, the kennel workers, and volunteers spent the day before the evacuation chasing down cats so they would be ready to leave when the calls came.

“It was controversial for us staff-wise, the keeping them in carriers in preparation,” Auckland says. “But the fire came within three miles of here, and if we had made the decision at ten o’clock that night to evacuate and we didn’t have the carriers ready or the cats even in them…Then we would have been working through the night.”

The cats were returned, safe and sound, after 12 hours at the warehouse.

In addition to the disastrous times, there have also been some miraculous events in Friends of Cats’ history. Five years ago, a woman called the shelter looking for a white kitten for her granddaughter, who was dying of a brain stem tumor.

“All this little girl wanted for Christmas was a white kitten,” Auckland says, “and right after the phone call we got another lady calling saying ‘I have a litter of white kittens I need to give up.’ So we called the grandmother back and we coordinated with her to bring in her granddaughter, who was in a wheelchair/gurney type thing, and the little girl couldn’t even speak anymore. She just communicated with eye motions, and we all stood around and cried as she picked out, by eye motions, which [kitten] she wanted.”

The little girl died eight months later, and her grandmother, as a token of gratitude, sent Friends of Cats her granddaughter’s rain boots with a plant inside. They remain to this day in the Friends of Cats herb garden.

Another unusual case was that of a kitten brought in without eyes, possibly the discarded prey of crows.

“She was just this tiny little thing,” recalls Johnson. “We got her eyes fixed because although her eyes weren’t there, you don’t want to leave a big hole. Stuff can get in there and get infected, so you have to do another surgery that closes the eyes shut. And through the whole thing she was the best little kitten.”

Miracle now lives with one of the Friends of Cats board members, as a foster cat.

Auckland’s desk has become a cat haven. Flaco and Leonardo sit, cleaning themselves, as Nefertiti purrs her squeaking purr from her nest in the corner. Johnson, done with feeding and medicating, tends to a cage full of new kittens. They squeak at her playfully.

“A lot of [the cats] don’t know any other home, and now this is just their home,” Johnson says. “They don’t know they’re in a shelter.”

The cat-friendly atmosphere must be credited to the tireless staff.

“You could talk to anybody here, including the kennel workers, and we all know that we can go somewhere and make more money than we’re making now, that’s a given,” says Abeyta.

He looks off into the distance.

“But we do this because this is what we’re good at,” he says. “This is what we do.”

Rosa Jurjevics

  • Letter to Editor
  • Pin it


Sign in to comment

Let’s Be Friends

Subscribe for local event alerts, concerts tickets, promotions and more from the San Diego Reader