Oaklanders participate in Meow at the Moon fundraiser to find homes for cats
on September 19, 2016
Bethany Smith got down on all fours and crawled from one station to the next.
First, she clambered past an empty laundry basket, the sign behind her reading: “If I fits, I sits.” She raced to her next destination, the “catch the red dot” station, where she lunged to put her hand on top of a small laser beam. She scurried past the following stop, where she encountered another laundry basket, this time filled with balls of yarn. Next, she batted away a toilet paper roll (rather than unrolling it as the sign suggested). Lastly, she crawled over a drawing of a computer keyboard at the “pay attention to me” station.
Smith was competing in the Cat Olympics, one of the many feline-themed activities for humans at Meow at the Moon, Saturday’s fundraiser event for the nonprofit Cat Town, which took place at Oakland’s Frank Ogawa Plaza and City Hall.
Cat Town is an organization that works with Oakland Animal Services (OAS) to find homes for their hardest-to-place cats, including older felines and those with medical and behavioral issues. The organization runs a cat café in downtown Oakland, which serves as their adoption center for well-adjusted cats, as well as a foster program for cats with medical or behavioral needs.
Since Cat Town’s inception in 2011, the organization has helped nearly 1,400 cats and the OAS shelter has reduced its cat euthanasia rate from 41 percent to 7 percent, according to OAS director Rebecca Katz.
As Samee Roberts, the event’s producer, put it, “This is a dramatic reduction in the number of cats that just don’t make it out.”
The Cat Olympics was one of about five other kitty-centric amusements designed to get Oakland cat lovers to express their love for cats. And that means people like Smith. “Since I was about four or five, [I’ve] always had a cat companion,” she said. “It’s not home without a cat.”
Even so, she hadn’t planned on competing in the Olympics that evening; an event volunteer convinced her to join in. “I was like, ‘All right, I don’t think I drank enough for this,’” she said. “But you know, it was good, it was good.”
Throughout the event, the John Brothers Piano Company, a local jazz band, played live music against a backdrop of rotating cat photos. Attendees took pictures at a photo booth using props like cat masks and signs that read “kittens aww yisss.” Artists with cat-themed work and representatives of cat-treat and cat-hotel companies staffed informational tables indoors. Inside a room in City Hall, audiences watched a cat video showcase that showed, at one point, a cat in pajamas receiving treats in exchange for ringing a bell, a play on Pavlov’s famous study of dogs.
The event also featured a costume contest, with winners in three categories: “cat casual,” “cat fashion catastrophe” (“In a good way,” the emcee insisted), and “cat-tastic.” Perhaps unsurprisingly, Meow at the Moon was teeming with cat-lovers dressed to impress. Attendees sported attire ranging from cat ears, tails and whiskers, to cat-print dresses and t-shirts, to full-on cat onesies. The woman who won the “cat fashion catastrophe” award wore these, in addition to roller skates.
But behind all the levity and the cat puns lay a serious cause. Ann Dunn, Cat Town’s co-founder and executive director, started the organization while working as a volunteer at OAS. There, she saw that many of the people who came into the shelter were leaving empty handed and depressed. Many of them weren’t getting a full sense of the animals’ personalities, she felt—as a volunteer, Dunn spent more time with the animals and saw another side to cats who acted aggressively or froze around strangers. And she noticed that rescue organizations that pulled cats from the shelter tended to take the young, confident and healthy animals–in other words, the most adoptable cats. “I thought, ‘This is crazy. This is like the worst possible way that you could go about helping these cats,’” she recalls.
She formed Cat Town in 2011, with a mission to place the least-adoptable cats, namely seniors and those with medical or behavioral issues, into permanent homes. Dunn says that cats are sensitive creatures, and many times when they seem difficult or aggressive, they are actually scared. She added that Cat Town’s programs focus on getting these cats into an environment where they feel safe, so that people can see their true personalities.
One of these environments is the Cat Town Café, an adoption center-slash-coffee shop that opened in 2014 in downtown Oakland. At the café, visitors can buy food and beverages and, for a donation of $5 to $10, enter a separate cage-free space called the Cat Zone, filled with natural light, specially-designed feline play structures, and, of course, cats available for adoption. The organization also runs a cat foster program, which places cats that would be less comfortable in a café space into home environments.
Thanks to the café’s opening, Dunn says the organization has doubled the number of cats they’ve been able to help in the past year, from 228 adoptions in 2014 to 456 in 2015. But they are struggling to cover the expenses needed to provide veterinary and other care for these cats, which is part of the reason they decided to host a fundraiser.
Dunn hopes that Meow at the Moon will help Cat Town achieve another goal: opening a second adoption center next door to the café to accommodate less confident and older cats. Cat Town has been leasing and using this space as a private transition center–a place for cats with severe behavioral issues to decompress before being placed in a foster home–for over a year now, but the organization has lacked the resources to cover construction costs to open it to the public.
Rebecca Katz, the director of OAS, said that, while the shelter is grateful to all their partners, she “can’t underestimate” the value of Cat Town and its approach. OAS is an open-door shelter. This means, according to Katz, that unlike a limited-admission or “no-kill” shelter they do not choose which animals they take in. “Because we’re open-door,” she said, “we get more of those animals that are sick and suffering or are behaviorally unsound, and I think people don’t understand that.”
Unlike the city’s other cat rescue partners, Katz said, Cat Town is taking those cats that the shelter’s staff think are “too under-socialized or too fractious” in a shelter environment.
“But you get them in the right environment and you see their true personality,” Katz said. “And cats who have been assessed as possibly feral turn out not to be. A lot of shelters will put cats like that on the street or euthanize them, and we’re fortunate because we have something in between.”
For Dunn, this idea is just common-sense. “We haven’t done anything that extraordinary in being able to get from 42 percent to less than 10 percent,” she said of the decrease in OAS’s cat euthanasia rates. “All we’ve done is get cats in an environment where they feel safe. Then people want to adopt them because they see a cat who looks good.”
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