Rescuing the rescuers: How caring for stray, feral cats saved a family

Kaye was once a heroin addict. Like many addicts, she didn’t get along with her family and she didn’t have many friends. Then 15 years ago, she began her recovery, and in doing so, decided to open up her own methadone rehab program in Waukegan, Ill. but sadly, that didn't last long. She wanted to help others who had battled addiction as she had, and losing the clinic was one of the blackest moments of her life since beginning her own recovery. She says, “If there was ever a time I felt like a relapse could happen, it was then. I told my mom I felt like I could fall off the wagon and she said, ‘Please, no.’”

Rescuing the rescuers: How caring for stray, feral cats saved a family
One of the feeder boxes that Kaye puts out to keep food sheltered from the elements.

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Rescuing the rescuers: How caring for stray, feral cats saved a family
Kaye holds one of her rescued kittens.

She realized then that she was needed for so much. Her mother had been through several surgeries during three bouts with cancer, as well as open-heart surgery. Her father once owned a successful trucking business, but business dwindled badly in the 2008 recession and never really recovered. Her family was falling apart and giving up on herself would only serve to speed that up. Also, she had also gotten into the habit of caring for some local cats and that small act became her focus to keep herself going from one day to the next.

Today, Kaye works in North Chicago and Waukegan, Ill., to trap, neuter, and release feral cats, and she is an avid animal lover and animal-rights proponent. She started small, saying, “Outside, I’d see a few cats and I’d just feed them.” But she quickly realized that they were breeding, and the population was growing quickly. She would occasionally rent cars from Evelyn Scimone, owner-operator at the Avis car rental location in Libertyville who is also an animal lover and activist. In talking to Evelyn about what she was doing, Kaye said to her, “These cats are having kittens! They need to be fixed.”

Evelyn pointed her toward the Alliance for Humane Action (AHA!), a non-profit organization located in Lindenhurst. AHA! provides low-cost spay and neuter services for both pets and ferals, and will also provide other veterinary care at low costs. Kaye has brought sick and injured cats to AHA! for care and medication many times, as well as for spaying and neutering procedures.

Kaye puts feeder boxes out for the ferals, and once discovered a badly burned cat hiding inside one such box. The cat ran out and disappeared, and her neighbors said she’d never catch him. Eventually the cat came to her on her porch, and she named him Lucky Charm. Lucky was her first rescue, out of many. He is missing his tail and his lungs and vocal cords were burned; he can grunt but can’t really meow. The treatment for Lucky’s burns and other injuries totaled more than $900.

Additonally, there are at least 10 cats living in a converted section of a garage at Kaye’s mother’s house. They are all well-cared for; each with their own little hideaway, lots of furniture to climb on and toys to play with, and even movies playing on a small television set to keep them company. Kaye and her family are currently working to find forever homes for these cats.

Other rescues include two kittens named Jackson and Broadway, who were found in a vacant house at the intersection of Jackson and Broadway in North Chicago and were named accordingly. These two recently found their forever home.

Miss Scarlett is a beautiful black and white kitten who was abandoned. She had a polyp in her ear removed but there’s a possibility it could grow back. She is now happily living indoors with Kaye’s mother.

Crybaby and Walter were taken to a farm that was to be their new home, and they figured out how to get off the porch there and escaped. Walter was found right away but nobody could find Crybaby, even after searching for two weeks. “Everyone said, ‘This cat’s dead, Kaye. The coyotes got him.’ But he came eight miles back here [to my house]," Kay explained.

Georgie Porgie is a Birman-Himalayan mix that was actually frozen to the side of Kaye’s mother’s house. His eyes were glued shut and he couldn’t see, and his body was stiff from the ice and cold. Kaye and her mother thought he was dead at first, but when they realized he was still alive he was rushed to the vet at AHA!. The vet told her he wasn’t sure Georgie Porgie was going to make it, but that they could try. Today he is alive and well, and waiting for a forever home.

There are others in the area that also care for the feral cats there, but everyone gives of their own time and money to do so. Kaye says, “We have other caregivers too, that’s the problem. There’s no help for any of us. We’re just trying to help each other.” They help each other out mostly with cat food and supplies like bowls, which is what’s needed most, but they also all help each other out with the trapping, and with handling and getting care for sick or injured cats.

Kaye herself also builds small “houses” out of sturdy foam insulation for the ferals living outside so they have some shelter during the harsh Illinois winters. She gets her materials from Home Depot and pays for all of it out of her own pocket. None of the caregivers receive donations of money, food, or other materials from anybody. They work together because there’s no other option right now.

There are 10-15 feral cats living around her house, and another 10 around her mother’s. These numbers don’t include the cats that they’ve rescued and taken in with hopes of finding their forever homes. There are also several small feral colonies living in and around an RV storage lot in North Chicago, and she puts out food for them every day. Following the blizzard that hit the Chicagoland area back in February 2011, she and some of the other caregivers worked for three days to dig out cats that had been trapped under RVs by snow drifts nearly six feet high. Many were rescued alive, but sadly, some didn’t make it.

Trap, neuter, and release is considered by many, including the Humane Society of the United States and the ASPCA, to be the only humane way to manage feral cat populations. Kaye’s efforts help to keep the feral cat populations in Waukegan and North Chicago stable and also help to ensure that they stay healthy, and thus pose a low risk to public health. She would like to start a non-profit organization for the work that she does; she feels it would be more effective in the long term. All the caregivers would be more able to properly care even for feral cats, which are often very shy and frightened of people. Kaye would also be able to take in more cats that have been socialized and find new homes for them.

It’s her focus on her work with the cats, and finding homes for some of the strays that she has taken in that has given her a direction and a purpose to her life. It has also brought her family closer together than they ever were before. “Everyone says, ‘Oh, they’re helping the cats.’ But my mom didn’t want to live anymore…she’s had three different types of cancer…and open heart surgery; she’s tired. She didn’t want to go on anymore. And my dad had his trucking business. He still does trucks…to help pay for the cats,” she said with a chuckle. “We help the cats, but it’s really the cats that saved us.”

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