From the Streets
Seen at Whiskers: Hall and friend (r); Ambrose (inset).
By Shawn Stone
by Alicia Solsman
Animal Benevolent League helps cats in need find homes and—at
the very least—happier live
he is! ”In one of the shelter’s rooms for special-needs cats,
a volunteer opens a cage and lifts out a small black cat.
He still has the look of a kitten about him, and his coat
is shiny,—seemingly a sign of good health. Placed on a circular
cushion, the cat moves erratically, but settles down as he
is showered with attention.
codirector Carol Bessette had described the nearly year-old
kitty earlier, on the phone: “We have a little cat, Brandon
Michael, who was born with a severe neurological disease.”
Here’s his story: Brandon Michael was adopted from a local
humane-society shelter at 7 weeks old. After a few weeks,
the person who adopted him noticed that he was having trouble
walking, and returned him. The humane society called Whiskers,
“because,” Bessette explains, “they knew there was something
really wrong with him.”
A visit to Whiskers’ regular vet didn’t clear things up, so
Bessette contacted a friend of hers at Cornell University;
she thought, logically enough, that if there were feline neurologists
anywhere, they would be at Cornell. Sure enough, one of the
feline neurologists in the country agreed to take a look at
a video of Brandon Michael. The news wasn’t good. It turned
out, unfortunately, that the cat has a progressive neurological
disorder for which there is no cure. Eventually, he may have
to be euthanized.
Right now, however, though he can’t really control his hind
legs, Brandon Michael’s condition has stabilized. As Bessette
points out, he eats, plays and shares his cage with another
cat. The volunteers take him out regularly and have rigged
up a special toy for him. They make a point to pay him special
attention. He has, she explains, a good quality of life.
The severity of Brandon Michael’s condition is not typical
of most cats in the no-kill shelter run by the Whiskers Animal
Benevolent League, though it does take in many cats that are
not generally considered easily adoptable. The careful way
he is being treated, however, does seem typical.
of these cats,” Bessette explains, “if they went to another
shelter they’d be put down immediately. We pride ourselves
on the fact that we think they deserve a chance.”
I think is special about Whiskers,” treasurer and board member
Marcia Nagengast says, “is that we do welcome the old, we
welcome the injured, we welcome the quote ‘unadoptable,’ that
other shelters, due to lack of space or lack of potential
for adoption, can’t take in. Or they can take them in, but
not keep them.”
very rarely,” Bassette notes, “get in a cat that’s perfectly
ready, perfectly normal and ready to roll.”
Founded in 1982, Whiskers is, as per its mission statement,
a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization dedicated to providing
“abandoned, abused and stray animals with a place of comfort,
safety and health and ultimately finding them loving, responsible,
In addition to its Albany shelter (address withheld in the
interest of common sense), Whiskers has a network of foster
homes in which other cats are cared for. At any one time,
there are between 75 and 100 cats at the shelter, and nearly
as many in the foster-care homes.
have probably about 12 foster ‘parents,’ ” explains Mary Gardy,
who administers that program. “It goes up and down, depending.”
Foster care is designed for mothers and kittens that are especially
vulnerable to illness, and cats whose care is too specialized
to be practically attended to in the shelter.
Gardy herself takes cats into her home: “I’ve fostered close
to 200 cats and kittens over the last four years, and found
homes for them.”
One staying with her currently is Rocky, who has a heart condition.
She took him in at 6 months; now he’s almost 2 years old.
an absolute love of a cat,” Gardy smiles. “He’ll stay with
us until he finds a home.”
Bessette describes the process when Whiskers takes on a new
somebody calls and says ‘there’s a stray cat in my neighborhood,’
or ‘there’s a cat that’s been hit by a car,’ or ‘a cat just
showed up on my doorstep and there’s something terribly wrong
with it.’ ”
Whiskers will then tell the concerned person to “grab it and
get it to our vet, and we’ll take it from there.”
Occasionally, cats are also left on the shelter’s doorstep—which
is the excellent reason for not giving out the address.
There are all different scenarios, Bessette notes—including,
of course, cats found by Whiskers volunteers. (“I have two
colonies of cats I feed every day, so I’m always finding someone
who’s hurt or needs something,” she says.)
Once a cat comes in, it’s seen by Whiskers’ veterinarian to
be assessed. It is tested for feline leukemia and FIV, gets
its required shots, and is spayed or neutered. If there’s
anything else wrong, “they’re put back together.”
have wonderful volunteers who do all this running around,”
Bessette says, “because nothing’s just five minutes away.”
Once the surgery is over and the cage rest is complete, the
cat will be ready for adoption.
It’s a formidable effort to make sure the shelter is always
comfortable, clean and (most especially) cat friendly. Every
week the cats go through 240 pounds of clay cat litter (it
can’t be the clumping kind because the boxes are scrubbed
daily). Also, they use up 200 cans and several large bags
of cat food per week. Their veterinary bill averages $10,000
to say, this translates into formidable financial requirements.
Whiskers codirector Carol Hall says it’s difficult to get
grants for a few reasons, including the fact that Whiskers
doesn’t have an open-door policy; it can’t take in all the
cats people want to bring in. Whiskers fund-raising efforts
include a walk in May, a gala evening in April, gift-basket
sales in summer, and setting up a table in Crossgates Mall
around the holidays. It also gets donations from the public,
both large and small—one woman in Pine Hills who regularly
returns bottles and cans donates the proceeds to the shelter.
Whiskers definitely does not make money on cat adoptions.
It asks for an $80 donation to adopt a cat; usually, Bessette
notes, Whiskers spends around $150 on each cat. It’s willing
to lose money on the deal in order to, of course, encourage
Visiting the Whiskers shelter is an unusual experience, even
for a cat person. One thing you notice right away—particularly
if you have a cat (or cats) at home—is how clean the place
is. This is evidence of the numerous volunteers who keep the
place fresh every day.
It’s certainly not like most shelters. On the ground floor,
which is set aside for the healthy animals most likely to
be adopted, the cats pretty much have free rein. Except, of
course, in the entry room, where the free-roaming cats are
side-by-side with newcomers still kept in cages. This allows
the new arrivals to become comfortable in their cat-centered
surroundings, and adjusted to having dozens of their fellow
felines around them. It’s a socialization process that seems
to work well, as their sense of territoriality fades away
after a few weeks.
The main room, in fact, is like a wonderland for cats: A system
of shelves, carpet-covered cat furniture, blanket-filled baskets
and commercially-made cat-beds provide a comfortable space
for each kitty. One prize location is a small hair-washing
sink, left over from the building’s earlier incarnation as
a salon; on this visit, a tabby mix named Trixie is luxuriating
in this cozy nook. The cats are all around you, under you
and above you. It would be disconcerting if they weren’t so
This laid-back vibe persists even through the commotion of
a press visit, with four folks from Whiskers, a photographer
and a reporter all elbowing around each other. The amused
disinterest of most of the cats is, well, amusing. As the
photographer clicks away, a cat named Hyacinth nudges at my
elbow, eager to make friends.
There’s a method to this layout, explains Hall. The numerous
levels allow the more feral cats to hang out on the highest
shelves, as far away from humans as possible, while the more
domesticated residents on the furniture and lower shelves
have access to the ministrations of the friendly volunteers.
It creates a feeling of—believe it or not—harmony.
is the “infirmary,” a series of rooms reserved for the special-needs
cats (here, a frisky cat named Muggins took it upon himself
to climb up my leg). There’s an FIV room for the cats with
feline immunodeficiency virus; they all look pretty healthy,
as cats can live, symptom-free, with FIV for years. There’s
a separate room for cats with feline leukemia. There’s a specific
infirmary room for cats with minor illness like upper respiratory
problems, and space for cats on special or restricted diets.
One newer arrival undergoing an unusual adjustment in the
infirmary is Lord Byron. Bessette spent a few hours on a recent
Sunday evening keeping him company, which is not an unusual
experience: “You think you’ll be there for an hour, in-and-out,
and then four hours later you’re still doing something with
Lord Byron is blind. He has been there only for a few weeks,
and doesn’t really know where he is or what’s going on yet.
He’s also an older cat, found on the streets of Troy—Bessette
shudders to think what that life must have been like. At first
it was thought that his blindness may have been diabetes-induced,
but the test came back negative.
waiting on an appointment with an ophthalmologist,” Bessette
says. “I can’t quite figure out if he can see anything, or
just some things, it’s hard to say.”
Bessette, like many of the people involved with Whiskers,
has been around long enough to have had experience with something
like this before: “I had a blind cat that I fostered several
There’s also a senior room for older cats. The older cats,
Hall explains, are not likely candidates for adoption. (Or,
as Nagengast puts it, “People want a 6-week-old fluffy kitten.”)
But the older cats are charming nonetheless: There’s 12-year-old
Zoë, 15-year-old Diva, and the Grande dame herself, 20-year-old
Calico Cat. The latter, despite a reputation for being curmudgeonly,
is kind of sweet on this visit.
As a no-kill shelter, Hall says, Whiskers only euthanizes
for health reasons, never because of age or temperament. They
respect their charges.
have a committee of three people, plus our veterinarian, who
all must agree before a cat can be euthanized. If everyone
doesn’t agree, then it doesn’t happen.”
Whiskers will also take back any cat they’ve placed. For example,
Jodi Bell, who was adopted in 1993, recently returned when
her owner developed a serious cat allergy.
There is, of course, a limit to the number of cats Whiskers
can take care for at any one time. For the cats they serve,
however, it’s all about quality of life; and they people who
run this shelter clearly love these animals.
As Bessette says, “We have the greatest cats.”