I’ve been intending to find the time to stop at this unique and handmade cat rescue and sanctuary for cats with feline leukemia virus. If, when you were voting in the Petties awards you happened to notice the “Unsung Hero” award for “those who have gone above and beyond for shelters and rescue organizations in their area”. Risé Chontos is my nominee for that award for the development of this sanctuary and for maintaining it all these years, nearly all as a volunteer.
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From rescuing cats who came out of the woods to her isolated cabin to building that cabin into a sanctuary for up to 200 cats with FeLV, Risé Chontos is still on her journey.
“Things just evolved,” she said of both the building and development of the sanctuary and of her own life in accordance with it, from becoming a “cat lady” and having too many cats to wanting to do more for them and finding a way, over time, to help hundreds and make a difference for cats in her community.
Beginning in 1978 with a few cat in the woods
“In Care of Cats” informally began in 1978 when Risé (pronounced REE-suh) lived with her children and first husband in what amounted to an old hunting lodge in the woods in Elizabeth, PA. Beginning with cats who approached their house, feeding them, collecting kittens and spaying and neutering these, Risé and family also began to notice street cats living in abandoned buildings in the town of Elizabeth and other small towns along the Monongahela River, south of Pittsburgh. As the mills closed over a number of years and unemployment rose, more and more cats were abandoned to the streets, and generations of street cats began to multiply.
“Cats were everywhere, the need was so great,” Risé remembered of that time. “I had this idea I would take alley cats and fluff them up and find new homes,” she laughed.
The reality was quite different as they found many of the cats on the streets had become frightened and distrustful of humans and were not only resistant to being “rescued”, but even when rescued they could hardly be fluffed into adoptable cats, some simply frightened and some truly feral, born generations away from human contact. The only option at that time for a cat that couldn’t be caught or couldn’t be tamed enough to be adopted was death. Death for these frightened cats was not an option for their rescuers so, while they did work to find homes for any cat who was adoptable, they kept the unadoptable ones, trying all the time to build a level of trust with them.
Feline leukemia enters the picture
But it was when she met Ichabod, a rail-thin black cat who stood off in the woods, that saving cats diagnosed with feline leukemia virus became a focus and a passion.
“I couldn’t get near this cat at first and fed him in the woods, then closer to the house. You know, you work so hard, it was months before I just touched his cheek,” Risé recalled as her right hand absently made the motion of stroking a cat. “I took him to the vet and he was diagnosed with FeLV. The vet took him away and said he had to be euthanized immediately.” Not knowing what to do, she let it happen, as many did in those days.
“It was a devastating experience,” she continued, “so I started keeping the sick ones too. This was never a plan, and we didn’t have the means but we added on to the cabin so they could have their own space.”
Becoming “official” and building the sanctuary
And so the sanctuary was born, and as the years progressed and the number of cats increased, they added more and more onto the little cabin, “digging with spoons” as they often didn’t have adequate tools and materials, but the cats ended up with adequate shelter. But they still weren’t a public rescue, just a bunch of people helping cats in need, and then came the first big step in their evolution.
“Towns came up with ordinances and we had too many cats, so we came out of the shadows and became what we are,” said Risé.
“We had plenty of criticism for saving these unwanted cats,” she said. “People asked us why we were wasting our resources on them since they could never find a home.
“They had a home,” she said. “They have a home here, and if they are alive and well enough to get through each day, they deserve to live.”
They incorporated in 1994 and through the years the little hunting cabin became less their home and more their cats’ home. Then a donated trailer became their office and temporary home as the original cabin was slowly gutted, rooms were added and the ceilings removed and the beams turned into feline walking and playing spaces, only keeping the stone fireplace where Risé’s children remember Santa arriving when they were little. Eventually they built a little house for themselves as an addition to the original building.
The sanctuary building has two stories and a basement, the main floor with the laundry, treatment cages and pharmacy, a second floor with a spiral staircase for the cats to access it, and a basement with access to the outdoor cat yard.
The cat yard
The 2/3-acre cat yard began as “an experiment” to let the cats have some fresh air and perfected “as the cats found the areas that needed improvement,” Risé said, meaning one or two managed to escape so they’d know what to block more thoroughly.
“We’ve updated all the areas and added to it, and we haven’t had anyone escape for years,” she said as we watched cats walking around and sunning themselves. Rather than the easy-to-climb latticework, they’ve surrounded the entire yard with six-foot chain link fence and topped that with pasture-fence brackets used to string barbed wire set at an angle and bird netting draped over that and secured so that if a cat manages to climb the fence, it ends up under the draped bird netting which they can’t climb over.
Care in the sanctuary
The sanctuary typically has around 150 cats in a “floating population” as Risé describes it. The cats are ill and live much shorter lives even with care, three years being the typical lifespan although many live five and some have lived ten years. Each cat is scanned for a microchip and photographed on intake and that photo is kept with records; some cats have names, some don’t, some have to be changed because there are way too many Smokies and Tigers and Toms.
The cages are only for observation or intensive treatments, such as illnesses and returns from surgery, and each cat spends a little time in a cage until Risé and her daughter Janine Sudy, who is the main caretaker in the sanctuary, and Risé’s husband Leonard Chontos get to know the cat’s patterns and habits. They can stabilize an unhealthy cat on intake but each cat sees one of three vets, one of whom makes house calls to the sanctuary. If a cat needs treatment for any illnesses or injuries it stays in the cage until it’s healthy enough to move around. Once each cat is out of the cage it is free to roam the building and the cat yard.
Cats have buckets of water available, changed twice each day, in numerous places on each floor and in the cat yard. Dry food is donated and purchased anywhere possible and mixed together in big chest freezers that aren’t plugged in “because they seal tightly to keep the food fresh and make a great bin to mix different types of food”. The cats get a variety of flavors and qualities of food in each of the buckets of dry food also available in various places in the main sanctuary. They also receive canned food once daily.
Medicating the cats
“These cats get the same things cats without FeLV get,” Risé said, “colds, upper respiratory infections, intestinal viruses, even chronic illnesses like diabetes and heart disease, so they may go into a cage for intensive care—every cat goes into a cage probably 100 times or more in the time they are here.”
Some cats also have permanent damage from the effects of FeLV, such as ulcerated eyes that need to have drops and scar tissue in their sinuses which causes constant sinus infections.
“All medications are prescribed by our veterinarians, and I do add lysine to all the food, which I buy in a big tub from a local pharmacy,” Risé said as she opened the door to the pharmacy.
Because many cats arrive frightened and some are distrustful of humans, medications often can’t be given by hand but are added to food or given by injection.
“Our vet also told us about what’s called ‘herd treatment’, which is how animals are often medicated on farms,” Janine explained. “He lets us know when we can add certain medications to the wet food or to water for an entire group of cats, it’s not exact but it works for them all.”
“Janine knows each cat since she’s their main caretaker,” Risé explained. Janine checks each one of them at morning feeding, monitors them in person during the day and does a checklist each night for where cats are and how they are doing.
While the cats have the freedom to roam around, they are also monitored closely when they are outdoors, and weaker and sicker ones are intentionally kept indoors. “One hot day can take down one of these cats, we have to be careful,” Risé explained as Janine carried in a long-haired black and white cat named Gary who seemed to be getting a little lethargic and needed to cool down.
Eventually each cat succumbs to the effects of the illness. “When they stop responding to everyday love and care, we consult with our vet,” Risé said, and when regular and palliative care can no longer keep the cat comfortable they call the veterinarian for humane euthanasia. Each cat is cremated and its cremains added to the urns in the quiet fenced cemetery, which also houses a few dogs who’ve joined them through the years.
Where the cats come from, and a few other animals
Local shelters and rescues will appeal to ICC for an animal who is FeLV positive, and when Risé hears of cats in her area who need to be rescued from a dangerous situation she and volunteers will often organize to trap the cats and bring them in for assessment, treatment, and spay and neuter. She’ll find fosters among friends, family and among shelters and rescues for cats who are not FeLV positive. “Well cats are almost a problem,” she laughed. “I have no place to put them.” This applies especially to FIV positive cats who used to be housed with the FeLV cats until with medications and treatments rescuers found that FIV cats can live long healthy lives so she tries not to take them.
Often cats come to the sanctuary in families or groups. “If one member of a family or one or two of a group of cats living outdoors tests positive, it’s typical that the entire group will eventually test positive,” Risé explained.
When you rescue one animal you often encounter other species who need rescue as well. ICC also houses five rescued dogs, many of whom were encountered during the rescues of cats in abandoned buildings, and two chinchillas who Risé was talked into taking then realized the two had had no socialization and didn’t manage to find a home for.
Donations and volunteers keep the place going
After a microburst storm took out power for several days in the heat of summer and thousands of dollars in vaccines and other medications needing refrigeration were lost, the local paper published an article entitled “In Care of Cats Needs a Generator”, and they got one and as the area has been hit with more and more damaging storms summer and winter they can still keep the cats well and comfortable after spending three frigid days without power in three feet of snow and other summer storms.
Many volunteers through the years have helped with daily care and with larger projects. Volunteer caretakers are also added to the daily schedule. “If it weren’t for all the people helping, I’d never be able to keep this going,” Risé said.
Many other donations of goods and time have kept the sanctuary in operation, such as other trailers for storage, construction to surround the trailers to look like buildings, a barn, even an SUV for carrying large numbers of cages or quantities of food. As a registered 501(c)3 they also apply for grants wherever possible and offer charitable donation credentials for those who donate.
Risé also speaks to philosophy students at Duquesne University each year to explain about sanctuary for animals, and many of those students in the Philosophy of Animals class visit the sanctuary for volunteer work and to get hands-on experience.
One big donation and dreams for the future
A large mobile unit reading “Spay Shuttle” on the side stands on the property, donated from an organization who’d had it donated to them, but who couldn’t use it. The unit is already set up with a surgery table, anesthesia unit and sinks, and it’s one of Risé’s goals to get this set up to provide low-cost spay and neuter services to her community. “Even if it just sits here and we don’t try to drive it anywhere, veterinarians have offered to volunteer their time to provide surgery and veterinary care here when needed,” she said. “I’d love to get this up and running.”
“And cats who are well are almost a problem because I have no place to keep them long-term,” she said. “So that I could help local rescues and shelters and not worry about scrambling around to find foster homes, I’d love to add a ‘well cat’ room.”
They began the shelter and ran it for years using their own money, and each of the family members worked outside jobs, but in time the effort took all their time. Risé is now on the books for 25 hours a week, but works much more than that; Leonard still works a day job but volunteers all other time to the sanctuary.
“I feel I’ve not only helped these cats but cats in general,” Risé said. “I don’t get to see them each day as I used to because all the work of getting the word out about their needs, and going around and rescuing other cats when necessary, takes that time, and I miss those days.”
Risé also mentioned that she is a polio survivor, diagnosed when she was three years old, one of the last of those children to get it before the vaccine. She spent six months in an iron lung and her childhood was filled with braces and crutches and surgeries. “I went on to be able to walk well enough without crutches, but with polio you kind of reach your peak in your mid-30s, then you start to lose ability again,” she explained. It’s apparent she has some difficulty walking, and she admitted she uses crutches to get around more frequently now as well as swimming three times per week for physical therapy to keep her muscles exercised and flexible.
But her first cat rescue was when she was a child and still wore a leg brace and encountered a friendly orange cat in the alley, and that’s the memory she painted into the painting at the beginning of this article which hangs at the entrance to the sanctuary building, and where she began her journey in care of cats.
You can find In Care of Cats at their Facebook page.
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The “Unsung Hero” award includes a $10,000 donation to the shelter or rescue organization of the winner’s choice, and if In Care of Cats were to receive it what would it cover? Getting the Spay Shuttle up and running? Building a section for well cats or even FIV cats? Even both? There aren’t many opportunities for pet owners to find low-cost spay and neuter services in rural areas south of Pittsburgh and that Spay Shuttle would fill a huge gap for cats in the area. A sanctuary that continued taking in cats considered unadoptable or too expensive for shelters and small rescues to take on would save a lot of feline lives and hopefully raise the quality of life for all cats in the area.
You have until July 31, 2013 to nominate the volunteer of your choice for this award. Here is the information you will need:
Volunteer first name: Rise
Volunteer last name: Chontos
Email of volunteer: firstname.lastname@example.org
Shelter or Rescue the nominee volunteers for: In Care of Cats
The ballot also gives you up to 2,500 characters to explain why you think they should win this award.
Click here to nominate your “Unsung Hero”!
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I’d heard of In Care of Cats for years and known friends who’d rescued FeLV-positive cats and taken them to ICC and always wanted to visit, especially after I began reading Risé’s biannual newsletters—if you think I’m a story teller, you’ll be all caught up in some of her stories. I was glad to finally meet Risé and see the sanctuary and grounds.
Send me off to a place where there are over 150 cats and tell me to take photos. How many do you suppose I have? I’ll be featuring a number of them in coming weeks as part of my “Others’ Fine Felines” photos.
This post is a belated part of the quarterly “Blog the Change for Animals” for July 15, 2013; I lost my hard drive but not my data on that day, and it took me two days to get it back. While I missed adding my post to the blog hop list, I never want to miss participating in this blog hop so scroll down and read the other articles included in the blog hop.
Read more about the Petties in this post.
This is “Blog the Change Day”
This is the day we pet bloggers affirm that we are working for the good of all animals and show support for people helping animals in need each 15th of January, April, July and October. We write about a cause near and dear to our heart and hope readers share their comments and ideas. I couldn’t even begin to share all the rescue stories that pass by me every day from all the people out there on the streets who rescue ill and injured animals and provide spay/neuter and veterinary care for cats who are homeless through no fault of their own.
Read the good stories and the sad stories and know it’s all to do good for animals.
I have comments turned off on this post because it was getting a lot of spam.
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Weekly schedule of features:
Sunday: Essays, Pet Loss, Poetry, The Artist’s Life Monday: Adoptable Cats, TNR & Shelters Tuesday: Rescue Stories Wednesday: Commissioned Portrait or Featured Artwork Thursday: New Merchandise Friday: Book Review, Health and Welfare, Advocacy Saturday: Your Backyard Wildlife Habitat, Living Green With Pets, Creating With Cats And sometimes, I just throw my hands in the air and have fun!