A Cat-by-Cat Solution to Homeless Pets

NOT many people can say they run a homeless shelter and an adoption agency in their own home.

Sheera Kahn can. Granted, her clients are the four-legged kind - feline, to be exact. The young Boston travel agent devotes much of her time rescuing and rehabilitating homeless cats and placing them with loving owners.

Ms. Kahn is a cat lover whose compassion seems to know no bounds. She also is representative of hundreds, maybe thousands of animal rescuers in communities across the United States and around the world. In their own way, they are helping the animal-control problem, something that costs the United States about $300 million a year.

For now Kahn is caring for 18 cats (five are hers) in her house, a "fixer-upper" in the Jamaica Plain section of Boston. She spends about $100 on each cat, which can include veterinary bills and lots of turkey-and-giblet dinners. Last year, she successfully placed 43 cats - most of which probably would have been "put down" in a shelter.

Kahn sighs at the euphemism for euthanization. There are still so many unwanted litters and abandoned pets, she says. Animal agencies - especially if they receive government funding - should offer low-cost sterilization clinics, in her view.

But this is not a story about pet overpopulation. It's about how one person can make a difference. "If every person did something to better their community, better the world, " Kahn says, "we would be living in paradise."

A visitor to Kahn's house is greeted by Tommy, a spry white-and-black cat that was literally thrown out of a car window onto Kahn's lawn late one night.

Kahn's kitchen is filled with cat paraphernalia. A cat teapot, a cat clock, a Felix-the-cat cookie jar. Columns of cat food cans seem to multiply before your eyes in cabinets and in the pantry.

After making the dinner rounds, Kahn settles into a chair at the kitchen table, and spills a large pile of photos. "They all have their story," she says.

Each "story" begins with a name: Virginia, Pretty Boy, Mr. Fats, Monkey, Cocoa, Bootsy. Some of the stories begin, sadly, with abuse and abandonment. But almost all have happy endings.

Kahn acquires cats through a network of neighbors, friends, rescuers, and others who have heard about her. Sometimes the felines just sniff their way to her house. (The neighborhood kids call her "the cat lady.")

Potential adopters learn about Kahn by word of mouth or an ad in the local paper.

When she gets a cat, Kahn sees that it receives vaccinations (a rabies shot is mandatory in Massachusetts), medical care, and sterilization through a vet who gives her a discount.

Then it's placement time.

Shannon Cleary, a young woman who lives across town, heard about Kahn from her cousin, who recently adopted a cat. This night Ms. Cleary will "try out" a big orange tabby named Sonny, who came to Kahn several months ago, starving and with a broken leg (now healed).

Before she leaves to accompany Sonny to his adoption tryout, Kahn pulls together a care package: a bag of catnip, kitty snacks, a toy, and a spray for furniture to keep cats from scratching.

Kahn has a no-fault return policy: "I always say they can give the cat back. Try another one if this one doesn't work out."

Later, at Cleary's apartment, Sonny gets used to his new home. He inspects the nooks of the apartment before nuzzling up to his new owner, who happens to be opening a can of cat food.

"I've never owned a cat before," Cleary confesses. "But I think this is going to work out."

After a half-hour of casual question-and-answer, Kahn presents Cleary with Sonny's papers and says that she will call in a few days to see how things are going.

Two weeks later, Cleary and Sonny are getting along "fabulously," Kahn says. "I couldn't have had a better report.... Now she wants another one."

While the impact of Kahn's volunteerism is a drop in the bucket, she says, considering the millions of homeless cats, "I view each drop as something very worthwhile to save.

"You look at the big picture, and it's disheartening. But you look at each individual case - especially when you get a letter six months later about how the owner loves their cat, that it's brought so much joy into their life.... It makes it all worthwhile."

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