Topeka, Kansas (pop. 122,000) isn’t generally known for being on the cutting edge in the animal welfare movement in the U.S. It isn’t San Francisco, Boulder, or New York. But right in the heart of Topeka, just off 17th and Gage, you’ll find one of the first cage-free, cats-only shelters in the country.
The Cat Association of Topeka (CAT) is a unique, one-of-a-kind facility designed specifically to house homeless cats in an environment that is comfortable, safe and appealing to visitors. Built in 2003, the shelter’s interior was fashioned after Bob Walker and Frances Mooney’s popular book “The Cat’s House.” Designed as a playroom for cats, the building includes six colorful cage-free rooms with lots of cubby-holes, ramps, ledges, and steps, secure screened-in porches for fresh air and bird-watching, and colorful rolling cabinets to keep litter boxes discreetly hidden. The facility includes a small office, a fully equipped laundry room, a retail store, a basement for storage, and an isolation room with separate air filtration system.
The 2,400-square-foot shelter cost around $300,000 and was paid for with support from private donors, local businesses like Hill’s Science Diet, contractors from Kelley Construction, and volunteer designers and space planners. CAT volunteers helped with construction, painting, and installation of climbing features, installation of the porch screens, exterior painting, and creation of some of the fun cut-outs and cat-shaped windows.
Kitty-friendly sheltering like that at CAT is becoming quite popular in shelters and humane societies across the country. Until fairly recently shelters focused more on dogs and dog enrichment, but now that attention is finally shifting to cats. In a traditional shelter, you often see row after row of nervous cats curled up in a corner trying to hide. But environments designed specifically for cats reduce the stress of being in a shelter. That allows a cat’s individual personality to emerge. According to Kit Jenkins, project manager for PetSmart Charities, “If you can get visitors to perceive cats as individuals, they’ll be more likely to make a personal connection with one.”
So what do cats need to put their best face forward to potential adopters? They need to satisfy their natural instincts. They need vertical space in which to stretch to their fullest and scratch. They need room to stalk, hide, perch, and pounce. They need to feel safe, and they need to feel loved. According to Jim Baker in his article “Feline Good” that appeared in the May/June 2009 issue of Animal Sheltering magazine, these are “the building blocks of any good cat enrichment program at an animal shelter.” CAT provides all these things and more.
There are pros and cons to cage-free sheltering. Jeannie Blanck-Griffith, president of CAT, talked about some of what they’ve learned since opening the new shelter:
- The shelter gives cats a more natural setting where they can play out their natural hunting instincts.
- The cats are healthier because they have room to move around. That helps them maintain a healthier weight.
- The cats have more opportunity for socialization with other cats and with humans.
- The cats show much better to potential adopters.
- Occasionally you encounter a cat that is happier in a solitary environment and simply doesn’t enjoy the company of other cats.
- It’s sometimes difficult to identify which kitty needs medical attention when multiple cats share a litter box.
- It’s harder to corral under-socialized cats in an open room than in a cage.
- It’s tough to get cats on special diets to eat from one bowl and those not on a diet to eat from the other.
All things considered, the general population is happier, healthier, and less stressed. Visitors love CAT and the cats love visitors, so if you’re ever in the neighborhood stop by and say hello. CAT truly is a jewel in the Kansas’ crown.
For more information: Cat Association of Topeka, “Feline Good.”
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Copyright Rebecca Poling 2010. All rights reserved.