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COMMUNITY
Volunteers open hearts and homes to cats in need

- Alex Horvath, Special to The Chronicle
Friday, November 26, 2004

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It's no secret to the volunteers of Santa Rosa's Community Cat Care that prospective cat owners had better mind their p's and q's around Christine Bell, who handles most of the incoming telephone calls and screens applicants for the nonprofit rescue and adoption agency.

One wrong statement or hint that they wouldn't be ideal pet owners might result in Bell taking back the kitten before it has even left.

It could be said that the 54-year-old Santa Rosa resident, who has worked as an elder caregiver and is the mother of two grown children, has very strong "cat-ernal" instincts.

She once threw out a woman who spoke poorly about some of the kittens, and took the kitten out of the hands of another person who mentioned plans for de-clawing. She even put the kibosh on one potential adopter who was specifically looking for a white, long-hair kitten to match her white designer sofa and rug.

"I told her she ought to get a new piece of furniture to love," said Bell, laughing.

After all, she says, these kittens already have been through enough. Some have been tossed out of a car window and left for dead; others were found starving in a feral cat colony. With strained Humane Society budgets often meaning animals must be euthanized, "they are the ones who fall through the cracks," Bell says.

Since 1998, Community Cat Care, which operates out of the bedroom of a house in a nondescript suburban neighborhood, has been picking up the slack. At any given time the house may have as many as 20 kittens in cages waiting to be adopted. (Bell prefers to keep the address a secret for fear that people will dump their cats and kittens on the doorstep.) A grassroots organization, the group has placed more than 800 rescued cats and kittens since its inception.

Andy, a black cat who was found 10 years ago with his paws dipped in black paint, saunters about the house, while volunteers and potential owners look into cages at kittens.

The organization has four satellite homes in Sonoma County, which share duties taking care of even more kittens waiting to be adopted. At any given time, the program has about 30 cats and kittens.

Volunteers such as Bell, Sally Watson and director Constance Swinton, co- founders of the organization, and Sandy Bevivino, another co-founder make up the core of the nonprofit, relying on occasional donations but often funding the care of the animals out of their own pockets. Additionally, the volunteers work with property owners to trap, spay and neuter -- and in some cases provide food for -- the feral cats around the county.

"I want to be clear that the word 'feral' does not indicate a breed or any determination other than the kitten being the offspring of a stray. I took in a cat -- 'Cosmo.' At first he was totally feral but now he is like 'Velcro cat,' " says Swinton, clutching her hands to her chest.

Each of them has taken turns bottle-feeding a sick kitten or pleading with Swinton to take in another abandoned litter even though the organization is strapped for cash.

Every volunteer has a story, including Darcie Songer, who had experience working with dogs before coming into contact with CCC. She wound up working for nearly three years with a cat colony before finally getting it under control.

"We have no idea how many there were -- just that there were a lot," Songer says. "(The owner) had been feeding them dog food, which is bad for cats. Cats need almost all protein. So now, Community Cat Care provides the cat food, which he feeds them." Songer estimates that she spends $1,200 a year out of her own pocket to feed the colony.

"From one non-spayed female cat, we have tracked 800 kittens," director Swinton says. "The litter had spread over an entire neighborhood."

Years earlier, Swinton helped form Forgotten Felines, another local animal rescue group. When that group started bursting at the seams and had to turn away animals, Swinton, Bell, Wilson and Bevivino took up the cause for Community Cat Care. "The problem of over-population is so massive that there are not enough avenues to take them out of the population and put them back into (the) mainstream," Swinton says.

On a recent afternoon, Santa Rosa partners Gary Lail and Doug Hammett had found the listing for CCC in the classified section of the daily newspaper and came by after getting a "good feeling" after speaking with Bell on the telephone. While the men had planned on picking out only one kitten, they wound up leaving with two -- Wascal and Smooch -- the latter being an affectionate feline with a penchant for planting kisses. Both adopters passed muster with Bell, and paid $85 for each kitten, which covers the cost of spaying or neutering, vaccinations and leukemia testing.

Dr. Grant Patrick operates the Montecito Veterinary Clinic in Santa Rosa and is one of several veterinarians in Sonoma County who provide services to CCC at a reduced rate or at no charge.

"They are doing an incredible service for the community, if nothing else, by saving tax dollars," Patrick says. "Animal Control in Sonoma County has a limited budget. They look after kittens that were deemed not adoptable. They don't even have to be feral. Some of the kittens they take in are very small, which means they are trainable and could become pets."

"We're very solution-oriented," says Swinton, who works as a real estate agent by day and donates a portion from every closing to the organization.

"If getting money for something is a problem, but the real problem of more cats will get bigger because of the money problem, we find a way to get the money."


Cat's meow

For more information about Community Cat Care in Santa Rosa, call (707) 546-6906. Their wish list includes cash donations, the capability to microchip, and volunteers.

E-mail comments to nbayfriday@sfchronicle.com.