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A day in the purr house

By Una Brankin

Benny's old and blind, and probably going deaf. Niamh has lost the tips of her ears to skin cancer, and Daisy's depressed because she can no longer have babies. The three of them are being cared for in Dundonald, but not at the more famous Ulster Hospital. They're all up for adoption, down the road at the Cats Protection centre, the local branch of the UK-wide re-homing organisation.

Despite the unwanted results of the very active sex lives of our felines, the Cats Protection Belfast Adoption Centre is the only official branch in Northern Ireland.

A few kind souls have set up unofficial shelters in garden sheds in Armagh, Cookstown, Coleraine and Downpatrick, but they're run by volunteers with day jobs and no funding.

The Dundonald set-up is organised to the highest standards, with immaculate kitchens, a busy laundry, maternity unit, isolation unit and twice-weekly vets' visits. It can hold up to 160 cats; at present there are 100, but by the look of the barrelled-belly young Magdalene in the purpose-built birthing pen, that figure's about to increase.

“She'll probably go into labour at tea-time when we're about to go home — they always wait until then,” says Bel Livingstone, the centre's manager. “Cats have a high pain threshold, though; they just get on with it. Over the years we've only had two in difficulties, who needed the vet. They were very young. Kittens are having kittens these days — it's quite frightening but we're hoping the neutering message is getting out.”

The organisation's awareness campaign does seem to be working. In previous years, the seven-pen maternity unit was almost always full; now only three of them are occupied, one by the highly offended jet-black Daisy, who's skulking in a corner, face to the wall.

“Daisy's just been neutered and she's feeling sorry for herself, aren't you sweetheart?” Bel coos sympathetically.

Daisy gives us a dirty look and returns to her huff. Watching her and some of her fellow inmates throughout the building, you can see why the ancient Egyptians worshipped cats.

Although they're not famous for their empathy, they have intelligence and sharp comprehension in their pretty eyes, and there are plenty of the exceptions to the aloof tag. They include Oscar, the ordinary looking but very special nine-year-old cat from the Steere House Nursing & Rehab Centre in Providence, USA.

As reported by Brown University professor David Dosa in his 2010 book, Making Rounds With Oscar: The Extraordinary Gift of an Ordinary Cat, this otherwise anti-social animal made international headlines by appearing to know when patients were dying at the nursing home. To this day, he will quietly enter the room of the patient, purr, gently nuzzle them or curl up beside them until the moment of death.

Says Bel: “It's true — cats are not really aloof. A lot of them seek you out. My own cats meet me at the door each night for cuddles, and I have certainly seen the same trait in the cats here — Wolfe, the centre star, being one of them. He's probably the most special I have ever come across.

“As a young cat he was here with his brother Nugget, who was epileptic. Wolfe never miaowed like other cats — in fact, I think we thought he couldn’t! But somehow he used to know when Nugget was going to go into a fit and he'd yowl at the top of his lungs — but never leave Nugget's side — until one of us came, and even then he stayed with his little brother until he came round.

“He is also very much a people cat; he welcomes everyone by climbing on their legs, like it or not. He's a gentle boy who recently took on the role of daddy to an orphan kitten, and he's smart, too.”

Wolfe has his own blog on the centre's Facebook page, as recounted by the volunteers who evidently love him and his comrades.

I prefer dogs, but the cats in their prime here are undeniably elegant creatures, with a graceful agility that's a pleasure to witness. Long-haired Pilot — found at Belfast City Airport — is semi-feral but beautiful and bewitching.

Black-and-white Whiskey is big and handsome but stressed at the minute because his owner has died and he misses him. He paces slowly up and

down his comfortable glass cage, licking his lower lip, a classic sign of feline distress, according to Bel, who lives next door to the centre.

“We try to make the cats feel as safe as possible,” she explains, pointing out the shy Izzy Wizzy Lizzy, perching on the top shelf of the two-tiered blanketed box in her cage. “Cats like to be above ground level in a new environment, so we made these boxes so they could sit at the top level, then come down to the bottom floor when they're settled in.

“They all have their own blankets with their scent on them and there's a separate hand-brush set for each cage, as you see here above the doors. We give them all a name after they're admitted and it's written on the cage door, along with a description of their personality.”

These names and summaries are amusing and affectionate: there's old Fabio, who has kidney problems; the geriatric Methuselah, who's 18-19 years old; “wee honey-bun” Gypsy, who loves being brushed; and the hairless Rex, who loves people but hates other cats — which is unfortunate because there are not many takers for Rex.

A Sphinx/Devon cross with big ears, baldy Rex has a heart condition and is even more startling looking than the one Rachel carried about on a red cushion after buying him from Gunther in a particularly funny episode of Friends.

“He's not everyone's cup of tea but he's an absolute sweetheart,” insists Bel. “He has been used as a stud cat in the past but was thrown out when he served his purpose. Some of these cats are just unwanted but in most cases they've usually just wandered off or got lost, or some well-meaning member of the public has thought they've strayed and brought them to us.

“We put them on Have You Lost? on Facebook — it's lovely to see owners reunited with their pets. They're always so happy and relieved they've come to no harm.”

The only cat who really gave me the creeps at the centre was Sydney, a one year-old, blue-eyed Siamese. He's exotic, with silky cream fur, pointy ears and a chocolate-brown face and paws, but he sounds like an old man in pain.

He hated the dog of the family who bought him and had to be given up. He loathes other cats, too, but likes people, despite his sour wail as I pass his cage. He just needs to be adored, in a house with no other animals to take the attention away from him.

Obviously well cared for, Sydney sailed through the centre's health assessment before being admitted. Each cat is weighed, measured, scanned for micro-chips and checked for problems such as lesions and runny eyes. If it’s a “clean cat”, it's admitted right away; if it has health issues, it's put in the isolation ward until it can be seen and treated by a vet.

Some unfortunates have been brought in with pellet wounds. Others have been abandoned when their health-care bills got too high. The illnesses affecting some of the cats here range from diabetes to cancer. The newly-shorn Hannah, for example, has a thyroid dysfunction and was admitted with hair so long and matted that her wee face couldn't be seen.

“We're not the USPCA — we simply re-home cats — but we come across all sorts of cruelty, and that includes cruelty through ignorance,” says Bel. “In Hannah's case, the owner wasn't aware that she needed to have her mane kept under control and in the end she just couldn't cope with her. To take a cat with issues like this, you have to be a special person.

“Auden, here, is a terminally ill cat who's going to be fostered by a volunteer. She's been thriving since she came here but the cancer will get her in the end. People who take cats like Auden often feel they have everything they need in their lives and want to give something back.”

The average stay for cats at the centre is seven to 10 weeks. Older cats are the most popular adoptions. A wall by the kitchens is adorned with photos of past orphans, and drawings and paintings by the schoolchildren who regularly visit on open days.

The organisation is funded by such open days, pub quizzes, discos and personal donations. A recent black-tie ball raised £13,000. The open day taking place today includes a barbeque, ice-cream, fun and games and runs from 1-4pm.

Well worth a visit, cat lover or not.

Cats Protection Belfast Adoption Centre, 270 Belfast Road, Dundonald, Newtownards, Co Down, BT16 1UE. email: Telephone: 028 9048 0202

A Day In The Life Of Cat Care Assistant Gill Miller

“Members of the public sometimes ask us why the Adoption Centre is only open between 11am and 4pm,” says Gill Miller, who, like Bel Livingstone, has worked at the Belfast branch for 14 years “‘What do you all do during the rest of the day?' they ask. The answer is: lots of hard work!”

8-11am: The staff arrive and it's straight to work, checking that all the ‘guests' have been fine overnight. One of the cat care assistants is allocated to take to the vets any cats due in that day. Next job is feeding all those hungry mouths, then cleaning out every pen — with up to 200 cats and kittens in the centre at times, that's a lot of dirty litter trays and food bowls!

As you can imagine, this keeps everyone busy for a few hours. The cat care assistants are also responsible for giving medication to the cats in their care — no matter how reluctant the patient!

11am-1pm: The centre is now open to the public and one of the cat care assistants’ most important roles is showing people around the centre. Everyone who visits the centre is asked to fill in a short questionnaire before visiting the cats — this helps the cat care assistants guide prospective owners to the most suitable cat for them. The cat care assistants are a mine of information about cat care, so if you have any questions they'll be happy to help.

1-3pm: After a quick lunch it's time to set off on home visits. Once you've found your ‘purrfect' companion at the centre (and they like you too), the next step is a home visit. This consists of an informal chat lasting about 20 minutes in your own home — a chance for everyone to double-check that the right choice has been made and for any last minute questions. Demand is high and the centre covers a wide area of Northern Ireland. The cat care assistants do these visits from Monday to Sunday, trying to fit in as many as possible each afternoon. If the last visit of the day is near the centre’s veterinary surgeon, then the next stop is there to collect any cats that have been receiving treatment that day.

3-5pm: It's back to the adoption centre now, first job being to settle in cats returning from the vets and pass on treatment details to the other cat care assistants. Next is a visit to the office to update staff on the outcome of the afternoon’s visits. Then it's feeding time once again and a last check to ensure everyone is comfortable for the night.

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