NORTHBROOK – Winter is brutal for stray and abandoned cats in Chicago. The lucky ones wind up in shelters throughout the city and suburbs, but thousands are euthanized by Chicago Animal Care and Control (CACC) each year despite the vigilant work of PAWS Chicago, PAWS North Shore, Orphans of the Storm and the Safe House Animal Rescue League.
Cats with Safe House in Northbrook face another hurdle: the visibility of the shelter itself. Adoptions at the Northbrook PetSmart cat adoption center have dropped dramatically since last year when Garden Fresh Market closed, according to Glencoe resident Anne Koons, a frequent shelter volunteer. The market was a busy grocery store that occupied space in the same Skokie Boulevard strip mall.
And when new tenant Dick’s Sporting Goods moved in and acquired additional square footage from PetSmart, the situation got worse. The cat adoption center was relegated to a remote corner in the store.
“The challenge with the Northbrook shelter is a lack of foot traffic,” said Safe House volunteer Cindi Harcus. “We’re at the back of the store and there’s just no visibility.”
Through her volunteer work with Safe House, Harcus has made it her life’s mission to find homes for stray, abandoned, and neglected cats in the Chicago area, caring for many of them in the Northbrook PetSmart’s cat adoption center.
“We’ve domesticated these animals, made them pets, and now deemed them disposable,” said Harcus. “That’s just wrong. It’s through no fault of their own that they’re homeless.”
Often referring to the shelter’s rescues as her “babies,” Harcus won’t disclose just how many cats she’s personally adopted over the years. When asked the exact number of felines currently residing in her suburban Chicago home, Harcus dodges the question.
“Enough,” she said, cagily.
It started 22 years ago, when Harcus spotted a family of cats living on the grounds of an abandoned tow yard near her childhood home.
“The owners had relocated and simply left them to die,” said Harcus.
The Northbrook PetSmart shelter where Harcus serves as a volunteer adoption coordinator is part of a nationwide program supported by PetSmart Charities, a non-profit launched in 1994 by the founders of PetSmart to help solve the problem of pet homelessness.
PetSmart supplies food and litter, toys and beds to all its shelters, but its largest contribution to the nonprofit comes in the form of the retail space they donate for their PetSmart Charities Adoption Centers, now located in every PetSmart store in North America.
Through Harcus, Safe House provides funding for all the cats’ medical treatment, including spaying or neutering, testing for feline leukemia (FIV) and rabies, as well as all vaccinations, deworming and parasite control. In addition, all cats in the shelter are microchipped.
At any given time, there may be as many six to eight rescue cats in the Northbrook shelter awaiting adoption. A team of 16 rotating volunteers arrive each day to dole out affection, clean litter boxes, and replenish food and water, but there are often long stretches where the cats must remain alone in their cages.
“We always need more volunteers because my goal is to have the cats out of their cages every minute the store is open,” said Harcus. “Of course, that’s difficult.”
On a recent weekday morning in the shelter, a playful longhaired gray Maine Coon cat named Beezie frolicked and jumped with his pal Archie, while Highland Park resident Lolly Blank entertained the pair with a laser pointer. Three more sudbued cats named Marshmallow, Butterscotch, and Sparkle looked on from a distance.
“I try to tire them out, but the hardest part is putting them back in their cages,” said Blank.
Since the small in-house facility opened three years ago, Harcus and her team have facilitated adoptions for hundreds of homeless cats. After each cat is socialized through Safe House’s fostering program, applications for their adoption are received and personally vetted by Harcus.
“All these cats have been rescued from dire situations,” said Harcus. “I am looking for people who can provide a forever home. That means providing them with medical care and quality food for as long as 20 years…just like having a child.”
For more information about adopting a cat from the PetSmart Cat Adoption Center at 291 Skokie Boulevard in Northbrook, email Cindi Harcus at [email protected] or text 847-338-1111.