Richmond Homeless Cats was founded in 1989 by Carol Reichert to address the needs of Richmond’s feral cat population. The Sanctuary came into existence when it became obvious that there were many cats who were never going to find a home – whether because they were feral, they had behaviour problems, or health issues. For years we were Richmond’s best kept secret – but gradually the word got out, and cat-lovers all over wanted to see what we were about.
As a private organization we were able to set parameters around visiting, and Sunday afternoons became the favoured time – after the busy-ness of the morning cleaning was done, and before the evening feeding/scooping routines began. More and more people discovered us, and the number of visitors grew to a point at which we had concerns both for cats and for humans – the cats, because many of them were not used to unfamiliar people around them, and many of them would go into hiding to avoid attention – and the people, because inevitably there were scratches from cats who chose not to cooperate with handling, and it became very hard for the few volunteers on duty to monitor all the areas.
We are, to some extent, the victim of our own success. The trouble is that many visitors have limited experience with ferals and semi-ferals, and look on the Sanctuary visit experience as if it were a petting zoo. The experience of having more than a hundred visitors through on a not particularly nice day in early spring led us to consider what the situation was likely to be by the summer – and reluctantly, but for the safety of cats and humans alike, we’ve had to put some restrictions in place.
The first concern was for very young children, and the decision was made to deny entry to those under 6 years old. Between 6 and 13 they are welcome, but must be attended by an adult at all times. Regular visitors know that cats like Puffin, Sophie, Lumi and Jobie are unpredictable, and we really don’t want an incident with any of them. Many of our young volunteers have first met the cats through Sunday visiting, but they cannot volunteer until they are 16 years old (unless they are working with an adult).
The second concern was for our shyer penned cats, and for those with health issues. It was decided to restrict access to all these areas – and to restrict it even to volunteers on Sunday afternoons, since it’s confusing for visitors to see someone in an area they’ve been told is out of bounds. Volunteers and Kitty Comforters can come and visit at the Sanctuary at any time, and will continue to do so, but Sunday afternoon focus is now on visitors, and volunteers who are present are there in the role of guides and ambassadors.
I have commented before that we have an ageing feline population, and an aging infrastructure too – timber that was in good condition when things were first constructed is now disintegrating under the influence of weather and enthusiastic claws. Many of our cat-cabins should really be replaced, pavers are buckling, pushed up by roots below, flooring needs to be re-laid, and the Single-Wide is only half-renovated. Generous donors made it possible to gut and renovate the Hill House, Connor and Old Aids in previous years, but there’s a long list of other projects awaiting attention. So reluctantly, we have to be more pointed about asking for donations – financial or in kind.
It’s hard to make changes like this, and particularly hard on people who’ve made a routine of weekly visits, and look forward to visiting with favourite cats. We hope that some of those folks will commit themselves to being volunteers, giving them access not only during their shift but at other times. Our primary concern has to be for the cats – not just for their physical well-being, but for making them feel that they are truly in a place that is a sanctuary for them.