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Brighton’s Gifford Cat Shelter cares for cats one by one

Posted by boston.com  April 8, 2014 11:13 AM

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Adam Virnelson

Shelley stands atop one of the few shelter at the Gifford Cat Shelter. Cats at the shelter are left free to roam to reduce stress and allow them to stay healthier and happier, which in turn makes them more readily adoptable.

For a cat in need, the Gifford Cat Shelter is a safe haven unlike any other. The Gifford Shelter, which bills itself as the oldest cageless, no-kill shelter in the country, offers a home for any feline, no matter how infirm or unfriendly.

Take Amber, the cat born with undersized eyelids that required reconstructive surgery and medicated eye drops three times per day. Or Barney, the cat with feline immunodeficiency virus, who has needed repeated medical procedures to treat a chronic ear infection.

“That, I think, is what makes us a lot different than other shelters,” says Stacy Price, the shelter’s development manager. “We treat each cat that comes in for whatever they need.”

Founded in 1884 by Ellen M. Gifford, a local philanthropist, the shelter was opened as a refuge for any abandoned or unwanted animal, and it is part of the Brighton-Allston Women's Heritage Trail.

After World War II, the Gifford Shelter was forced to limit its housing to one type of animal.

“People make fun of herding cats,” says Debbie Schreiber, the shelter director, “but they’re easier to wrangle than other animals.”

Today the herd is substantial. In 2013, the shelter took in 310 cats, 248 of which were from the street. Of the cats there now, 68 of the 78 were once strays.

The cats can spend anywhere from days to years at the shelter, located at 30 Undine Road in Brighton, before being adopted, according to Price. Most stay for a few months.

To cover medical expenses, the shelter sometimes turns to online crowd funding sources. Barney’s last surgery was paid for with contributions made through FundAnything.com.

“People really responded,” said Diane Toomey, the assistant shelter manager. “People love to get behind a specific cause for a cat.”

The shelter also holds events to bring in funds. In March, the shelter held an event called A Feline Affair, a silent auction that raised over $30,000—about half the year’s medical costs. They will hold another event in the fall.

The shelter includes a feral cat enclosure that houses a small colony of about a dozen cats, most of which will probably never be adopted. According to Price, a cat that spends more than about six months on the streets will likely avoid human contact for the rest of their lives. These cats are largely left to their own devices, though they are spayed and neutered.

In an effort to cut back on the feral population on the streets, Schreiber works to TNR —trap, neuter, and release — feral cat colonies in the local stray hotspots, such as Dorchester or Mattapan. The traps, made of wire mesh and baited with food, are a newer take on an old trapping method.

“It’s the old-fashioned box, stick and string,” says Schreiber. “You wait for them to go under, then you pull the string and the thing drops.”

The work they do to control the population is vital; cats can get pregnant at six months old, and the pregnancy only lasts eight weeks. The mothers nurse the kittens for eight weeks, and then they can get pregnant again. That means a single female stray can produce a litter every four months.

Schreiber attributes part of the problem to college students who get a cat for a year then release it, expecting it to fend for itself. She is working to educate students on the responsibilities of owning a cat in the hopes that they will refrain from adoption if unable to properly care for a pet.

Abandonment — illegal under Massachusetts law — translates to a lot of work for the shelter’s employees and a lot of new residents at the shelter.

Volunteers are encouraged to go and help out by working with cats that may be wary of people, cleaning up the facilities, giving tours to families, and serving as adoption ambassadors when the shelter is open to the public.

The shelter logged about 8,000 volunteer hours in 2013, by about 100 volunteers. The shelter has no age limit on volunteers, either; families can come in, children and all, to work with the cats.

This article is being published under an arrangement between the Boston Globe and Emerson College.

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Adam Virnelson

Abby and Grady stand in the outdoor feral cat enclosure at the Gifford Cat Shelter. About a dozen feral cats, most of which will probably never be adopted, live in the enclosure. A cat that spends more than about six months on the streets will likely avoid human contact for the rest of their lives. These cats are largely left to their own devices, though they are spayed and neutered.

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