GRAEME COUSINS visits Cats Protection’s Belfast Adoption Centre to find out what goes on behind the scenes in rehoming Northern Ireland’s cats
They all want kittens, but what they fail to realise is the kittens are nuts.
The words of Bel Livingstone, manager of Cat Protection’s Adoption Centre in Dundonald which celebrates 25 years in business this year.
The Dundonald woman’s advice to ‘new’ cat owners is to go for age over cuteness.
She said: “The older cats have been there, done that. The kittens are so excitable, everything is new to them. They may be cute but they’re crazy. They’re much more difficult to cope with for a first time cat owner.”
Bel has been at Cats Protection’s Adoption Centre in Dundonald for 17 years. As manager of the centre it doubles as her home.
She said: “Our receptionist Muriel is coming up on 20 years service and Gill is approaching 19 years.
“We’re the last of the original cast if you like. All the rest of the staff would be relatively new.”
The centre has 13 staff known as CCAs (Cat Care Assistants), who work in different areas looking after cats at different stages of the adoption cycle.
The part of the journey the public will be most familiar with is the homing area where potential owners look at the cats currently in need of homes.
Before they get put in the ‘shop window’ new arrivals will go to the admissions and isolations areas.
Bel said: “There’s two big threats in rescue – one is a flipping nuisance – ringworm – the other is a killer – parvo.
“If anything is flagged up they’ll go to isolation until they see a vet and he gives them the okay to go into the admissions area.
“We have a seven day stray cat policy to allow people to come forward and see if their cats have been brought in before they move from admissions to the homing area. If they’re microchipped we’ll hold them slightly longer.”
Bel said: “Last month we were expected to take in 230, this month so far it’s 150 but we’ve still another couple of weeks.
“The problem is finding the room for them. There’s 16 admission pens and 32 homing pens. Admission pens have a turn over of seven days, but it doesn’t always work out that way.
“We home nearly every day, at least one sometimes more.
“Christmas is the busiest time, but our policy is we don’t home over Christmas. They can certainly reserve the cat and build up to it by buying the bed and other items.
“We’ve had people coming along and asking, ‘can you put it in a box with a bow on it?’ – err no, it’s a living creature.”
In addition there is also a maternity unit for stray cats who have been taken in with kittens on board.
Cats Protection are running a ‘snip and chip’ campaign to allow people who are on benefits or low income to have their animal neutered and microchipped for no more than £10.
Bel said: “The whole thing for us is we’re trying to slow down the number of cats and kittens being born every year.
“Every rescue in Northern Ireland is trying to do the same thing. We’re all trying to stop these unwanted kittens being born.”
Since opening its doors in 1993, the centre has helped nearly 24,000 cats through its rehoming and neutering work, as well as helped provide cat care information to the public.
“What I’d like to see for the next 25 years is another adoption centre, more cats being neutered and more education resource,” said Bel.
Asked what were the main reasons that cats were taken in by the adoption centre, Bel said: “They vary. Lately I’ve seen a lot of older cats coming in, that’s maybe because they’ve developed health issues. People can’t afford costly vet bills.
“Other things would maybe be a family member has died and the family can’t or won’t take care of the cat.
“Landlords come in quite high for the reasons people have to relinquish their pets. Nursing homes don’t allow pets.
“Then you have your strays, in some cases pregnant strays coming in and having five or six kittens.”
Some of the cats who come to the adoption centre have been laboratory animals used for testing.
In terms of homing cats, she said: “We try to match the person with the cat. We would make recommendations though ultimately it’s up to the person.
“Allergies are a huge thing. We always recommend that the people spend some time with the cat here and see if it affects them. If they sneeze or have runny eyes I’m afraid the cat is out.
“We try to educate them a wee bit about the balance between a cat’s needs and a person’s needs.
“An elderly person with a kitten doesn’t work, kittens are mad and would be a trip hazard for someone with a walking stick.
“Parents sometime buy a cat for their child, but the child may not want to interact with the cat at all.
“We make follow up calls to see how things are going.
“It’s a big responsibility that people often don’t realise. When my cat was sick recently I spent £700 in the vets. You need to consider vet costs and how long a cat may live.
“On average cats live to 16 or 17 but they do live longer, it depends on the cat and how long they’re looked after.”
Gill Miller, one of the longest serving members of staff at Cat Protection’s Belfast Adoption Centre has four cats of her own.
It is a significant downgrade from the 30 cats she used to keep at her house.
She said: “I was very lucky because I’m out in the country so they’ve lots of freedom to run about. I love to have cats about the place, especially the unwanted ones, the no hopers. 30 was the most I’ve owned. Four cats suits me about right now.”
Gill is one of the longest serving staff members with 18 and a half years’ service.
Of her experiences at Cats Protection, she said: “I’ve seen some horrific things over the years. I’ve been sent out to collect cats in terrible states. Cats with broken backs, cats that had been tortured and beaten by gangs of young people – they’d been hanging them on a clothesline and beating them with baseball bats.
“A lot of people just don’t have respect for animals, but not all people are bad.”
She added: “It’s hard to switch off when you’ve seen the things I’ve seen. Some things affect you worse than others.
“I always figured over all these years working here that if you can rescue a cat that’s been hurt, and take them off the street, at least it’s not dying out in the cold.
“The other thing is you’re bringing stray cats into a nice home that haven’t had one before.”
Centre manager Bel talked about some of the myths surrounding cats.
She said: “I think some people have this old fashioned idea that you put your cat out at night and it will catch enough mice to keep it going. Studies have shown that a cat would have to eat eight mice in a day, so it’s important that it gets food from its owner as well.”
She continued: “People think cats just sleep all the time, but there’s so much fun to be had with a cat.
“People won’t take black cats because they’re unlucky, they’re also associated with witches – what nonsense!
“There’s always been this vision of the mad cat lady, but there’s also the mad cat man as well. I’ve tried to bring more male staff on board here to represent that.”
She said: “Owning a cat is a completely different experience to owning a dog. I personally think a cat is viewed as a second class animal. They’re so far behind dogs when choosing a pet.”
Of the challenges facing Cats Protection, she said: “We don’t receive government or lottery funding. The bulk of money comes from donations, gift aid, fundraising. We couldn’t run this centre without that. As you can imagine over 25 years the bills have got bigger and bigger.”
Cats Protection’s Belfast Adoption Centre in Dundonald will mark a quarter of a century of helping cats in need by holding a family fun day this Saturday.
The centre will be open from 1pm to 3.30pm for a celebration which will include refreshments, stalls, children’s games and activities, as well as a chance to meet some of the cats looking for new homes.
Children are invited to bring along their own toy cats for a feline twist on a teddy bear’s picnic and there will also be Halloween-themed stories, puzzles and quizzes. The event is free, but donations towards the cost of caring for cats at the centre will be gratefully received.
The celebrations will continue when Belfast City Hall is lit up with the charity’s colours of yellow and blue on Monday night.
Deputy Lord Mayor Emmet McDonough-Brown said: “Cats Protection’s Belfast Adoption Centre has carried out great work during its 25 years.
“Animal welfare is an issue people feel passionately about.
“Thanks to groups such as Cats Protection, the lives of so many of our four-legged friends have undoubtedly been made better over the past 25 years.”
Cats Protection is the UK’s largest cat charity, helping around 200,000 a year through a network of over 250 volunteer-run branches and 36 centres.
Founded as the Cats Protection League in 1927, the charity adopted the name Cats Protection in 1998.
More information about the work of Cats Protection can be found at www.cats.org.uk