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