New center helping stray cats find homes

       Gathering homeless cats isn't the hard part. The Happy Cats Haven at 1412 S. 21st St has barely opened, and the nonprofit rescue and adoption center is already near its housing capacity of 30-40 felines.

Melissa Shandley (left) and Sara Ferguson play this week with a few of the cats in one of the rooms/ colonies at Happy Cats Haven on South 21st Street. Melissa is holding Crossey while Sara is with Timmy (orange and white) and Ma Rae. All are available for adoption.
Westside Pioneer photo

       The ongoing challenge will be attracting people to go there and take cats home with them, summarized board president Sara Ferguson and shelter manager Melissa Shandley (two of the nine Happy Cats founders) in an interview this week.
       To that end, they and their shelter colleagues - all volunteers - have done what they can to make the Haven homey to the animals and inviting to potential adopters. A retail shop is included. Sara even teaches the cats agility tricks, using what is known as the “clicker method.”
       The public is invited to a grand opening on three days: Thursday, Nov. 17 from 3 to 8 p.m.; and Saturday and Sunday, Nov. 19-20, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
       Regular days are Wednesday through Satur-day, or by appointment.
       The Happy Cats founders, who formed the idea while working together at a shelter in Teller County, share a deep concern about the plight of domestic cats. There are so many without homes, according to Happy Cats educational materials, that nearly 5,000 in the Pikes Peak region “are put to death every year, through no fault of their own.”
       One key entity the Happy Cats group will be working with is the Humane Society of the Pikes Peak Region (also on the Westside), which in recent years has gone to City Council about problems resulting from the increasing numbers of stray and feral cats and even does spaying and neutering at its own surgery center now to help keep down the population.
       At the same time, Happy Cats Haven is trying to be different from the Humane Society by allowing its cats to live in groups of six to eight in large rooms, rather than in small, individual cages. These “cage-free colonies,” as they're called, are more natural for cats and, with various toys and strategically placed places they can jump to, “it's like Disneyland,” Shandley commented.
       The colony structure also explodes a myth, according to the Happy Cats founders, that cats are loners. They like being around other cats and, if shown affection, people as well.
       In all, the shelter has four such colony/rooms - including one just for recently weaned kittens. Elsewhere in the building will be individual “cat condo” structures, for times when cats need to be isolated, such as on first arrival (to be sure they're healthy) or if they get sick (to keep the other cats from getting sick too).
       In starting their own shelter, the hardest part for the volunteers was finding a landlord willing to work with them. Ferguson, a Manitou resident, looked in her town first, but was glad at last to locate the current 1,500 square-foot space in a small commercial center about halfway up the hill on South 21st. One of their goals (in synch with the landlord) is to have a place that's not out of control, smelly and overrun with cats. “We don't want people to walk in and go 'Ehhhww,'” she said.
       She and Standley and other volunteers spent hours tidying and remodeling the unit after leasing it. Work included painting, tiling the floors, putting in trim and installing a second heater for a washer and dryer. An interesting cosmetic touch is the “porthole” windows on either side of the shelter entryway, allowing people to look in on a couple of the colonies or the cats in them to look back.
       As for the agility tricks, Ferguson said that cats who can do them are easier to adopt - an especially important plus for black cats, which (possibly because of lingering superstitions) are the hardest to find homes for. Typical tricks are learning to sit or stand, or to jump from one place to another, or to jump over something or to give a “high-five.”
       Displaying such skills also shows intelligence, helping blow up another myth - that cats can't be trained. They also enjoy learning the tricks, she said, noting in a recent visit how one cat was purring the whole time.
       Happy Cats Haven has already benefitted greatly from donations of equipment or funds. But this will be an ongoing need, according to Ferguson and Shandley.
       For more information, call 635-5000 or go to

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