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photocap: Seen at Whiskers: Hall and friend (r); Ambrose (inset).
Shelter From the Streets
By Shawn Stone
Photographs by Alicia Solsman

Whiskers Animal Benevolent League helps cats in need find homes and—at the very least—happier live


‘Here 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.

Whiskers 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.

“Most 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.”

“What 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.”

“We 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, permanent homes.”

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.

“We 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.

“He’s 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 kitty.

“Usually, 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.”

“We 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 per month.

Needless 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 adoptions.

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 friendly.

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.

Upstairs 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 somebody.”

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.

“We’re 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 years ago.”

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.

“We 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.” 

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