Thursday, August 13, 2009

Finding cat heaven

You would think that after Sunday’s heartbreak, the last place I’d want to go for awhile would be another animal shelter. But the Universe sometimes pulls me in certain directions, and I dare not resist….

I finally got around to buying a new washing machine on Monday. (I highly recommend the Sears Outlet on Vineyard in Ontario—I got a $849 Whirlpool for $400; it had a nearly imperceptible ding on one corner.) I had to go to the credit union, so I headed there first, then turned the little Tacoma in the direction of Vineyard, meandering along side streets, looking at houses. (It’s a weird addiction, I know.) I ended up east-bound on Mission Blvd. A long forgotten memory surfaced… and I started looking along the south side of the street. There it was: West End (as in the west end of Ontario) Animal Shelter. Just out of curiosity (or because I am really into self-punishment), I pulled in.

At one time, Ontario was a fine city, equal in status to its close neighbor, Chino, but larger, and boasting its own library (not a branch in the San Bernardino County system), among other points of city pride. But something happened over the years, and the city fell into decline for awhile—to the point that one would have to step around all the homeless people in order to do research in the library. In the years since, it has sort of been the red-headed step child to neighboring Upland and Claremont. I took some deep breaths before entering this shelter, expecting the worst.

As I walked through the door into the lobby, I woke the young man who was dozing behind the counter.
“I’m looking for cats,” I said quietly.
“Oh,” he said, pointing and yawning, “through that door, outside, follow the path, it’s a long white building.”
I found the building, and a door, but when I opened it, it led into something like an anteroom. There was a beautifully decorated bathroom adjacent, and I thought at first I must have inadvertently walked into an ‘employees only’ area. But then I saw two double doors ahead, with a sign reading, “Cats are like chips; you can’t have just one.” I opened it and stepped inside.

My first impression was of severe pain in my left big toe. I looked down to see a small white cat biting me.
“Hey!” I told him laughing, “no toes!”
“I’m sorry,” a voice said. I looked up to see a young man in shorts, t-shirt and baseball cap approaching. “That’s Cameron. Cameron, no,” he said, turning to the kitten and gently picking him up. “This one’s got a motor on him!” And he placed the little cat in my arms. I was immediately nuzzled, cuddled and licked. “Let me know if you have any questions,” the young man said.

I was standing at the end of a long corridor. At first glance, all I could see were cats everywhere. Cats and cat toys and scratching posts and tall, carpeted towers. Cats strolling, cats skittering, cats curled in baskets, cats grooming happily.

“Yes,” I said, “I do have a question. How do you do this?”
The young man, a serious expression crossing his face, replied, “Well, we know that many of these cats may not get adopted for a very long time, if ever, so we try to make them as comfortable and happy as we can.”

Yes, dear readers, I knew then that I had just found cat heaven. On either side of the corridor, there were “cages” (a misnomer, as these spacious studio apartments each contained a cat tower, large covered litter box, baskets filled with blankets—and a window to the outside world) with one or two cats inside. Another 30 or so roamed the corridor. I still hadn’t taken more than a couple of steps inside. Another white cat greeted me. She was sitting on a cat pedestal, but reached a delicate paw toward me. I petted her head, and she began to purr immediately.
“That’s Laverne,” the young man said. “Her sister is Shirley. Looks just like her.”
“Um… I’m kind of looking for a black cat,” I said, which caused the young man to turn quickly and assess me. “My black male recently died….” I explained.
“Oh,” he said, looking relieved. “We’re careful about who we adopt black cats to.” Yes, and for good reason, I thought. Good for you.
“Well, we have several black cats,” he said. “This is Dean,” he pointed to another cat pedestal which was topped with a gorgeous black cat. “We have Drew and Pepper. They both look a lot like Dean, but they’re smaller. Drew had a broken hip, and he’s still recovering, so he’s a little shy. But he’s doing fine.”

As we walked down the corridor, more cats trotted up to greet us. As they did, the young man would introduce me.
“That’s Vivica. She’s really sweet. That’s Chesterfield. He’s my favorite because he’s really playful. Oh,” he added, “some of the cats are outside.” At the end of the corridor, a door stood open to the outside. Puzzled, I walked down and looked out. A play yard for the kitties had been created by fencing in a grassy area with soft chicken wire. The fence was curved along the top so that no one could climb out. The landscape was dotted with more toys, towers, pedestals, scratchers and hideouts. A dozen or so cats were sitting or sprawled or curled in the morning sun.

I asked the young man his name.
“Angel,” he replied.
I told you I found cat heaven.

Angel has been working at the West End shelter for nearly a year. He is “the cat guy” (‘cat whisperer!’ I thought, as he said this). His sole job is to care for the 150 cats (mas o menos), clean their apartments, feed and water them, and offer them affection. From what I could tell, Angel is doing a tremendous job at all three duties.
“Some people don’t like doing the 9-5,” he told me. “Me, I love getting up in the morning to come to work because I love my job.”
And I love you, Angel, I thought.

After sitting on the floor for a half hour, playing with a half dozen different cats and getting covered with cat hair and kisses, I remembered I had to go get a washer. I told Angel I’d be back the next day, and I did return, dragging my good buddy Doug along with me. He, too, lost his beautiful black male, “Scout,” a year before I lost Boo, and we’d grieved together. Doug had the same trepidation I’d had in entering the shelter, but after awhile, he had to agree that we’d found cat heaven, and we spent an hour there, playing with Drew and James and Chesterfield, who seemed to really like Doug a lot. Finally, it was near closing.
“How do you think Angel gets these cats to go inside their apartments?” I asked Doug as we sat outside in the sun with various kitties around us.
“I think he just calls them and they know where to go,” Doug answered. Of course. As we walked back inside the building, Angel was moving down the hallway, opening cage doors and calling cats.
“Come on,” he’d say quietly, and a cat would quickly slip inside. Amazing.

So. No, I haven’t chosen a kitty yet to be Sugie’s new brother. I found myself partial to Drew, one of the black cats, but it’s hard to tell how playful he will be once his hip is fully healed, and she needs someone she can tear around the cabin with when I’m not here. Beyond that, I have a pretty intense moral dilemma. My daughter, in her profound wisdom, has already told me that I “have to” adopt from the Upland shelter, because I know, now, what hell those cats live in. She has a point. But it’s infinitely more difficult to assess personality in those cats, precisely because they’re living in those conditions. If I adopt from Upland shelter, though, I will be truly ‘rescuing’ a cat in the fullest sense of the word.

What to do!?! I’m still thinking it over. For now, though, it is enough to have found what a shelter can do when the humans in charge truly care for the animals they’re sheltering. This began some serious healing in my heart. While I decide which kitty, from where, I will be writing a letter of commendation for Angel, our cat whisperer. Bless him forever and all the other folks involved with West End shelter who decided long ago that the cats’ needs should come first. Amen to that.


  1. I am so happy that you found this wonderful place, Kay. Thank you for sharing it. I know you will make the right choice, but it's a tough one. I can appreciate both your and your daughter's perspectives on the subject.

    There is another cat sanctuary 4 hours north of Los Angeles that is also a "cat heaven." Here are two links to the Cat House on the Kings:
    It is so encouraging to know that such dedicated, loving people are out there looking after animals. The woman who started and who manages this sanctuary is truly amazing!

  2. JP, thank you for the links!! Let's all support the angels out there!! And, while I'm at it, thank you so much for rescuing all your kitty babies!! Loved the photos you sent! (BTW, feel free to post a link to your photos as a comment here--bet folks would love those pictures as I did.)