Liz Pease, Director of Operations, Merrimack River Feline Rescue Society
February 1, 2011

1. Can you describe your typical day at MRFRS?
Oh, if only there were a typical day! You just never know what a day is going to bring around here, but it generally will involve some combination of handling surrender requests, working with adopters to match them up with just the right kitty for their household, talking with donors and supporters who come in to say hello, ordering supplies for our Catmobile program and our shelter cats, helping my healthcare coordinator process new cats (which means giving them vaccines, testing them for FIV and FeLV, treating them for fleas & worms, microchipping them, etc.), working with my staff on treatment plans for cats with medical issues, marketing or foster care plans for harder-to-adopt kitties, and spay/neuter plans for cats in our foster care system; working with Stacy LeBaron, our President, on things like Operations Reports, newsletters, fundraising requests/appeals, etc.; and of course most days I end up handling some kind of emergency or “surprise” situation – someone dropping off a cat with tiny kittens or someone calling about an injured or abandoned cat that needs our help.

2. How has MRFRS grown since it was founded in 1992?
MRFRS began as a group of people who discovered they were all feeding the feral cats in downtown Newburyport and wanted to do more to help them. They learned about TNR (trap-neuter-return) as a way to keep feral cat populations healthy and ultimately lower in number. Out of those efforts came the need for an adoption program for the kittens and friendly cats they trapped, as well as a need for an organized feeding/caretaking program for the ferals who were returned to the waterfront.

From there, things have grown exponentially, expanding into MRFRS being a major provider of spay/neuter services for feral cats – as well as renting traps and offering lots and lots of advice. Over the years we also began offering spay/neuter services for owners who couldn’t afford medical care for their cats, eventually leading to our Catmobile service. So, in a nutshell, from initially TNR-ing about 300 cats on the Newburyport waterfront, the MRFRS has grown by leaps and bounds. In our nearly 20 years of existence, we have adopted out over 17,000 cats and spayed/neutered over 22,000 owned and feral cats. Pretty amazing for one little group!

3. MRFRS has an “open admission” policy. How many cats can you care for at a given time?
At any given time we have between 150 and 250 cats in our “system” – which means they are either in our shelter, at one of our two off-site adoption or meet-and-greet locations (PetSmart Danvers and Cat Tail Inn at Muddy Creek in Rowley), or in our foster care system, and our Care for Life kitties – cats whose medical care we pay for for the duration of their lives. We figure that for our Feline Leukemia positive kitties and our cats with major chronic health issues, we will be paying for them while they are at the shelter anyway, so we’d just as soon pay for them while they are in someone’s home – it’s better for the cat and better for us in terms of keeping our in-house population down. Generally speaking, we have about 45-60 cats in our shelter, 10-15 at PetSmart, 4-6 at Cat Tail Inn, and the rest are in some form of foster care.

We generally only accept cats from the towns immediately surrounding Salisbury – but it doesn’t matter if they are 15 days old or 15 years old (though I generally strongly discourage folks with cats over 12 from bringing them to us, since senior cats tend to fare very poorly in a shelter environment), if they are perfectly healthy or if they are diabetic or FIV+ or FeLV+. We’ll take them anyway. We’ll treat their medical issues and try to adopt them out as long as they have a decent quality of life. We do also always take back any cat adopted from us, no matter where they live now.

4. How do you get funding for your many projects?
We are funded solely by private donations and grants. We receive no public funding and we have no endowment to draw from. Every year is a new financial challenge!

5. I know MRFRS has cooperated with the MSPCA on several projects. What do you hope to accomplish with this partnership?
We love to work with the MSPCA and other groups. We are all in this for the same reason – to help animals and help decrease the number of unwanted pets in the world – so it just makes sense that we would all work together, and the results are great! We work with the MSPCA in a number of ways. We often take kittens, especially older feral or semi-feral kittens, from the MSPCA when their numbers are high and their foster homes are full. We are able to get those kittens into our foster care system and spend some time working with them until they are adoptable. We also hold our monthly feral spay/neuter clinics at Nevins Farm. Mike & his staff are kind enough to allow us to take over their dog training room one Sunday a month for those clinics. In addition, we park our Catmobile clinic at Nevins Farm twice a month to offer low-cost spay/neuter to people in the Methuen area. I have also come to speak at MSPCA’s summer camp programs. The way I see it, the more we work together, the more people we can reach, and the more animals we can save!

6. Can you tell me about MRFRS’s low-cost spay/neuter programs and Catmobile?
We have two major low-cost programs: our monthly feral spay/neuter clinics and our Catmobile. The monthly clinics are for unowned, free-roaming or feral cats. At those clinics, which are held one Sunday a month in the dog-training room at Nevins Farm and are completely staffed by volunteers, we spay/neuter anywhere from 50-100 cats in one day!  Trappers reserve slots ahead of time, catch the cats and bring them to the clinic, where they are spayed/neutered, vaccinated against rabies and ear-tipped so they can be identified from a distance as an altered cat. Just this past Sunday we fixed 99 cats at the clinic!

Our Catmobile is a mobile veterinary clinic staffed by a full-time vet, Dr. Deborah Brady, and two full-time technicians. They travel to locations around eastern Massachusetts, providing low-cost services to owned and shelter cats (www.mrfrs.org for info on cost and what the service includes).  This program just began in 2008, and we have already altered over 12,000 cats. We travel to Lowell, Methuen (parked at Nevins Farm), Peabody, Woburn, as well a bit farther west and south. The Catmobile is also in MRFRS’s hometown of Salisbury at least once a month. Since we started parking at Lowell Humane Society once a week, LHS has reported a noticeable decrease in the number of kitten intakes. We think this program is pretty amazing!

MRFRS also hosts something called the SpayMASS hotline (1-888-495-SPAY), which is a toll-free referral hotline for low-cost spay/neuter information for cats and dogs throughout Massachusetts and southern New Hampshire.

7. MRFRS is also involved with a lot of community outreach. Can you tell me about some of the projects you feel are most important?
Yes, we began as a grassroots organization and are still very much one. So much of our work is done through educating people one by one. We still do lots of education about feral cats and the importance of TNR. We will guide people through the process of trapping, finding spay/neuter, and then returning the cats to their location and caring for them appropriately. We of course also do a lot of education on the importance of spay/neuter (especially at an early age).

I can’t overstate the importance of microchipping and identification for cats (and dogs, of course). As a shelter, we see so many cats that clearly had an owner at some point and might still have someone out there looking for them – but without an ID, we will never be able to reunite them. The absolute best thing that ever happens to us in a shelter is when a cat comes in and has a microchip and we are able to reunite that cat with the owner who is missing her. People complain all the time about how their cat won’t wear a collar, or how they are never going to let their cat outside so they don’t need a collar or a microchip. I tell them, it’s not YOU I’m worried about – it’s the painter who leaves the door open or the friend who forgets to latch the door behind them. Or worse, it’s things like Hurricane Katrina. None of those people ever in a million years dreamed they’d be separated from their pets. Why take the chance?

As for FIV (Feline Immunodeficiency Virus), that is a huge one for me and for MRFRS. When I got to MRFRS and learned that we are one of the only shelters in the country who allows our FIV+ cats to be loose on the floor (we are a cageless shelter) with our non-FIV+ cats, I was delighted. People are so terrified of FIV, but the truth is that it is NOT easily transmissible to other cats. Transmission requires a deep, penetrating bite wound – the kind of wounds inflicted most often by unneutered male cats who are fighting over food, territory and females. Once a cat is neutered, his reason for fighting and biting like that goes away. In addition, FIV+ cats can live a perfectly normal life span. They should stay indoors to protect their health and they of course need regular vet check-ups. We have great luck adopting out FIV+ cats, and little by little, we are helping to convince people that it isn’t anything to be afraid of!

8. Have you seen an improvement in the feral cat situation over time?
Oh, definitely—there has been an improvement in this area. In Newburyport, for instance, there were over 300 feral cats living on the waterfront back in the early 1990s. The last of those original cats passed away last winter. There are no colonies down there now – none. We get the occasional stray, but that’s it. There are still feral cat issues in Salisbury and Amesbury, but they are more “backyard colonies” that we work with caretakers on one at a time. Towns like Lowell still have major issues, though, and so we are working to support them with organized TNR programs and of course access to spay/neuter. I think we just have to remain vigilant, make sure there are eyes and ears open so that colonies can be TNRed sooner rather than later, and as long as things remain under control in our own area, we have to do everything we can to offer our resources and advice to other communities who need assistance.

9. What are the most challenging aspects of working in feline rescue in our area?
I think that even though we are in one of the best-educated, most prosperous areas of the country, cats in general still occupy a very low social status. So many people still see cats as disposable, as not worthy of spending any money on to care for, and until we can change that underlying attitude, we will always have a “cat problem” around here.

10. How did you end up at MRFRS?
I got involved with MRFRS as a volunteer as first (like most of our small staff). I had started caring for a feral mom cat and her kittens near the fire station where my husband works, and I knew there was something else I needed to be doing for these cats besides feeding them. I contacted Stacy, and she hooked me up with the feral cat folks at MRFRS, who taught me to trap. To this day, I am so grateful that instead of just coming out and doing it for me, they taught me to do it myself. That is the grassroots spirit of MRFRS at work, and it resulted in me becoming involved in MRFRS. Stacy asked me to start helping other people trap, and before I knew it, I was the volunteer trapping coordinator at MRFRS! Stacy eventually offered me a job at MRFRS, and I was lucky enough to be able to accept. I had never worked directly with animals before. I have a degree in English and Religious Studies from the University of Virginia and had worked in publishing and home textiles before this. I have had animals my whole life, of course, and was just crazy about animals as a kid, but it never even occurred to me to work with them for some reason. I consider myself incredibly lucky to get to work at MRFRS, and I am really grateful to Stacy for seeing something in me that she thought would be helpful to the organization!

11. Have there been any specific cats who have come through MRFRS who have made a lasting impact on you?
The first cat who really made a huge impact on me was a cat I trapped down at Salisbury Beach when I was still a volunteer. His owners had moved and left him, and he would sleep on the porch of the house and try to sneak inside every time the landlord was there to do work. The landlord called MRFRS and I came out. You couldn’t touch the cat by this point – he was in survival mode, just trying to make it on his own – and so I set a trap for him. The neighbor, who had been feeding him, told me that even though his old owners would scream at him and hit him, he would sit on their laps and refused to give up on them coming back. I trapped him and brought him to MRFRS where he was neutered, vaccinated, and put up for adoption… but no one could touch him. He was the angriest cat, just lashing out at anyone who walked by. Eventually the staff asked me to see if the neighbor might be willing to keep feeding him if we put him back outside, because he was so clearly miserable being confined around people. I thought about it and realized I just couldn’t put him back out. He wasn’t feral; he was just an abused cat who was terrified. So he became my first foster cat. I renamed him Harley, and worked with him for well over a month before he allowed me to touch him. He broke every breakable object in the room he was in, and more than once my husband told me that this cat had to go. But I knew there was a cat craving human attention in there. That was 6 years ago. Harley follows me around like a dog now, and sleeps tucked under my arm every night. He taught me how badly humans can damage an animal – but that we have the power – and the responsibility – to try our best to repair that damage, even if it’s just one animal at a time sometimes.

12. What advice can you give to kids interested in helping or working with animals?
I would tell kids to find a way to volunteer at their local shelter or humane organization. Even if they are too young to volunteer directly with the animals, there are a million ways to help (the MSPCA has a great list of ideas on this website!). You can have a lemonade stand or a yard sale to raise money, or sponsor a cat or dog. It means the world to the shelter staff when a young person comes in with a jar full of money he or she collected for the shelter, or a check for us because he or she asked for donations for us instead of birthday presents. What an amazing thing to do! And then when you are older, come volunteer with the animals. Most of my staff started out as volunteers. If you really shine as a volunteer, you might just end up working there! And even if working at the shelter doesn’t happen, continue volunteering, because there is no way MRFRS or MSPCA or any group can do their work without volunteers!