During a Chicago blizzard, a black and white shorthair cat, who later would be named Madonna, was found shivering in a dumpster. Suffering from dehydration, her ears and tail were frozen.
While most cats in such condition would have died, Madonna was one of the lucky exceptions. Rescuers brought her to Tree House, a unique animal shelter in Chicago dedicated to helping cats other shelters probably would put to sleep.
Off the Streets
"Tree House focuses on the abused, abandoned, injured and sick cats – animals who have lived their lives on the streets and would probably have either miserable or shortened lives if we didn't give them a second chance," says Christina Eichmeier, director of development at Tree House.
One of the things that sets Tree House apart from other shelters is their no-kill philosophy.
"We won't put an animal down because of age, temperament or injury," Eichmeier says. "We'll try to rehabilitate the cat and adopt it out. And if that doesn't work, the cat has a safe sanctuary here for the rest of its life."
Alternative to Euthanasia
Tree House was founded in 1971 by several Chicago humanitarians for the purpose of giving sick and injured homeless cats an alternative to euthanasia. About 30 full and part-time staffers work at the shelter, which is bankrolled by individual donors from across the United States. Since its inception, more than 10,000 cats have been treated and placed in adoptive homes.
The shelter is housed in an old two-story Victorian home and can accommodate about 300 cats at a time. "That's our capacity, but even if we're full, if an animal is brought to our door and it's in need of immediate emergency care, we'll do whatever we can to help," Eichmeier says.
When a stray cat is admitted to Tree House, it is given a thorough physical examination and checked for feline leukemia and FIV, then vaccinated and spayed or neutered. New cats stay in Tree House's isolation wards until officials are certain they are healthy and not carrying any contagious diseases.
Free in Tree House
In an unconventional arrangement, most of the feline residents roam free in the house, rather than being confined to cages. The only cats in cages are those who are sick or recently have been admitted to the shelter.
"A new cat arriving here probably feels a bit overwhelmed, so rather than just throw a new cat into the general population, we'll put it in an introduction cage to give it some time to adjust," says Sandra Newbury, manager of Tree House's socialization program.
"We will usually introduce cats in short outings from their cages, or we'll leave the cat's door open so it can decide whether or not to come out," Newbury says. Once the cat seems comfortable, it will get to stay out all the time, she adds.
About a third of the cats admitted to Tree House go through the shelter's socialization program. "A lot of the animals that come to Tree House either haven't had much experience with humans or the experience they've had has been negative, so they are fearful of people," Newbury says. "Our goal is to rehabilitate the cats and get them used to being around people so they can be adopted."
One way Tree House socializes cats is through play therapy. Volunteers come in daily and play a variety of games with the cats, to get them used to being touched and show them that interacting with humans is fun. With more timid cats, the volunteers may come into the socialization room and just sit by the cats and talk softly to them.
"We go very slowly and we don't try to push too much too soon," Newbury says. "We try to get a sense of a particular cat's personality – what it likes and dislikes – and try to make the cat feel as comfortable as possible."
Once a cat has been nursed back to health and has gotten over the fear of people, it is ready for adoption. Tree House has regular adoption hours Wednesday through Sunday, and usually 40 to 50 cats are adopted each month. Adoption counselors work with prospective pet owners, making recommendations based on each household's particular needs.
"We usually know each cat's personality pretty well, so when people come to adopt a cat, we act as matchmakers and try to find a person who will suit the cat and a cat who will suit the person," Newbury notes.
Two weeks after the adoption, a Tree House counselor makes a follow-up phone call to the new pet owner to make sure the cat is adjusting well to its new home and to answer any questions. Tree House's policy is that if the cat isn't working out, it needs to be returned to the shelter.
"We don't want people to put the cat out on the streets if things aren't working out," Eichmeier says. "We want to make sure that Tree House cats get homes for life."
"I like working at Tree House because I know I'm doing something to make life better for animals and indirectly for people too," Eichmeier says. "For every animal we do something for, there's a person at the other end. You never know how many animals you can touch by giving a prospective pet owner information on how to care for cats or being able to admit a sick animal. It's like a ripple in a pond: Sometimes the smallest thing we do can help a lot of animals."