February 26, 2024

Save the Cats, Save the World

Inside TC Paw’s cat rescue mission
By Craig Manning | Oct. 21, 2023

At the Traverse City PetSmart store, you’ll find a room full of cats waiting to be adopted. For years, that program was made possible by Antrim County Pet & Animal Watch (AC PAW), an organization founded in 1995 as an animal rescue. In three decades, the organization helped find forever homes for over 10,000 cats and dogs.

Earlier this year, though, AC PAW’s priorities changed. The organization announced in March that it would be winding down its animal rescue operations to focus exclusively on spay and neuter programs.

Endings and Beginnings

Though they are ardent believers in the importance of spaying and neutering, several of AC PAW’s longtime cat-loving volunteers didn’t want to see one of the region’s few cat welfare resources cease to exist. Together, they launched TC Paw Cat Rescue, which has taken over AC PAW’s old PetSmart cat adoption partnership along with a slew of other programs aimed at cat rescue in and around the Grand Traverse area.

Lisa Chimner and Melissa Laraway now serve as president and vice president, respectively, of the TC Paw board of directors. As Laraway tells the story, both joined the AC PAW foster program around the same time three years ago. In animal rescue, fosters play an important role in providing safe places for pets to live while they await adoption. A robust foster program can help an animal rescue operation significantly just by reducing how much (if any) shelter space the organization needs for the animals in their care.

“Lisa and I were fosters for about three years, and we just loved it,” Laraway says. “We were so devoted to it and loved the whole process. We could see cats come into our care and then go be with their forever home, and just being able to provide a space for them in the meantime was so fulfilling. So, when AC PAW decided to change their structure to focus on spay and neuter—and to discontinue the rescue/adoption program—there were a handful of us that just couldn’t see stopping doing that.”

According to Chimner, she and Laraway barely even knew one another until earlier this year, but happened to be thinking, independently, of how they might keep a cat rescue operation going. Eventually, a mutual friend connected them, and they met on Zoom to talk about their shared imperative. Thus, TC Paw was born.

TC Paw officially incorporated in April, and it didn’t take long for the nonprofit to become the new go-to point-of-contact for cat rescue in the region.

“We had to get going pretty quickly, because the need was so huge,” Chimner explains. “We were already getting calls for intake of pretty desperate situations, and we didn’t even have a bank account or a PO box or anything yet. The need was such that we were trying to set up some kind of unofficial intake [for cats in need] before we’d even applied for our 501(c)(3) nonprofit status and before we had applied to be able to put our cats at PetSmart, the way AC PAW had.”

Despite the hasty start, Chimner says the transition from AC PAW to TC Paw has in many ways been seamless. The new organization launched with the blessing of AC PAW’s leadership, many of the people who had volunteered for AC PAW moved over to volunteer with TC Paw, and the name “TC Paw” has allowed the cat rescue to retain considerable name-brand recognition among locals.

“I think a lot of people might not even know the difference,” Chimner says. “They just know there’s a cat rescue in town.”

Hurdles and Hoarders

Still, there have been challenges. For one thing, AC PAW’s blessing didn’t include a handoff of that organization’s donor list, which means TC Paw has been starting from scratch with fundraising development. The new organization also didn’t start with the backing of any other major funding source—be it a philanthropic gift or grant money—and that lack of startup funds has made TC Paw’s first six months a bit of a roller coaster.

“We’re starting a new rescue and trying to do intake, but not having a lot of flexibility as far as medical costs go and not being able to take in as many cats as we want to help,” Chimner says. “We have to make sure that we don’t sink the rescue by taking in more cats than we have the money for.”

The biggest challenge came in September, when TC Paw was alerted to an animal hoarding case in Kalkaska involving 38 cats. The cats were all young—aged 1-4 years—and were found outside a Kalkaska rental home clustered into carriers that were hidden under plastic tarps.

The cats had no access to food, water, or litter, and were trapped in their tarp-covered carriers—sometimes two or three cats to a carrier—for days at a time while temperatures soared above 90 degrees. The renter, Chimner says, was “basically a hoarder who was trying to sneak [the cats] into this rental house, and who had completely trashed her prior rental house.”

When that case hit, Chimner says TC Paw already had “about 70 cats in the rescue.” Traverse City’s Cherryland Humane Society offered assistance by taking five of the Kalkaska cats, while Community Cats of Benzie County took another two.

But that still left 31 cats in TC Paw’s care—a challenge compounded by the fact that the organization has no facility or shelter space of its own. Instead, TC Paw is entirely foster-based, with the goal of keeping cats out of cages and in larger, more comfortable living spaces as much as possible.

The Kalkaska case put some strain on that operational approach, and for a time, TC Paw volunteers and board members were caring for some of those cats at a pole barn in Mancelona. The care needs of the cats, Chimner says, were extreme. Most were malnourished and skinny. Many had infections. Some had to be shaved because their fur was so matted and dirty. None had been spayed or neutered.

Fortunately, as is often the case with big, high-profile, widely-reported animal hoarding cases, the Kalkaska situation drove considerable attention, donations, and volunteer awareness toward TC Paw. Today, the organization has a solid financial base, is averaging 20-30 adoptions per month, has 35 active foster homes, and has seen approximately 200 cats come through its care. 69 of those cats were with the program when Northern Express touched base.

Heartbreak and Happiness

There are still hard days. Chimner points, in particular, to cat owners who decide, for one reason or another, that they don’t want their cats anymore.

“It’s heartbreaking, and it’s frustrating, and it’s exhausting,” she says of those cases. “We had someone call recently and leave a message that said they needed to rehome a cat. That’s all the message said. And when we called back about 24 hours later, they had already put the cat to sleep. That kind of thing happens all the time.”

But there have been big success stories, too. One is the tale of Casual Friday and Boots, a pair of kittens who were recently adopted together to the same forever home.

Casual Friday is a small black kitten who came to TC Paw in July after someone found him “at the corner of Garfield and Voice Road, screaming in the grass on the side of the road,” per Chimner. Casual Friday’s injuries were such that his tail had to be amputated. Now, though, he’s been nursed back to health and is thriving. “He’s been left with a very well-healed stump that wags when he’s happy,” Chimner shares.

Boots, meanwhile, is a kitten who was found at a farm in Missaukee County with a bad respiratory infection and a “bigger-than-quarter-sized” polyp under his soft palate blocking his airway. “The vet said it was the biggest polyp he’s ever seen,” Chimner says. Once he was able to breathe, Boots became “real active, real playful, and real hilarious.”

“Those two got adopted together, which was really cool, because they were both kittens that probably wouldn’t have made it if they hadn’t come to us,” Chimner says. “They both had really serious things that needed some intervention. So, that’s a happy outcome.”

Information about TC Paw’s programs, up-for-adoption cats, volunteer opportunities, and ways to give can be found at tcpaw.org.

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