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Healthy cats get reprieve at mall store

If you want to feel good this holiday season, stop by. Walk into the storefront at the Walden Galleria. Spend time with Ice Cube, Jason and friends.

Hanging out with the cat tribe is a nice way to lose some stress. But this is about more than taking a holiday shopping break. The storefront has -- for hundreds of cats -- been the difference between finding a home, or having their lives stop at the point of a needle on a stainless steel table.

It was not long ago that, at the SPCA's Town of Tonawanda shelter, a shot of sodium pentobarbital brought a painless end to hordes of healthy animals each year. No more.

It is two years since the SPCA Serving Erie County got the money to turn a lifesaving idea into reality. A $14,000 stake from donors Rick and Lisa Lewis, then-owners of the Talking Phone Book, covered the SPCA's rent for a cat adoption center at the mall. It was a small stroke of genius that had a huge impact. It brought cats in need of a home to masses of potential owners. Since the storefront opened, the SPCA has not killed a single healthy cat. (Check out the storefront adoption center at video.buffalonews.com).

I have owned cats all of my life. We have three of them now. The thought of friendly, graceful animals dying due to simple supply and demand always bothered me. Imagine what it was like for Barbara Carr. The SPCA's director has worked with animals for 25 years. For most of that time, she looked every day into the eyes of lovable, doomed cats.

"When I started, I could only dream of the possibility that this day would come," she told me. "I used to lie in bed at night and think about the cats we had to euthanize that day. Having to choose which ones, looking for any weakness or imperfection to make you feel better, it was awful. To get to this point, with the help of the community, feels like a miracle."

The year before the storefront opened, the SPCA killed 104 healthy cats, simply because there was no room to house them. Foster programs and satellite adoption centers and stacking overflow cages in the lobby of the SPCA's main shelter in the Town of Tonawanda had cut the number of killings -- but had not zeroed them out. The Galleria storefront did.

"We talked for years about doing something like this," said the SPCA's Carr. "We just never had the money."

Since the storefront opened, 2,757 SPCA cats have been adopted at the Galleria, as well as nearly 500 from partner shelters. About one of every four cat adoptions from the SPCA -- which gets no government funding -- now happens here. The mall storefront revolutionized the concept of cat adoption. It did not start here. Carr said a couple of Midwestern shelters did it earlier. But folks here spread the word at national conferences. More than a dozen shelters across the country, as distant as New Mexico, since followed in the SPCA's paw prints.

"Shelters called us and said they wanted to try the same thing," said Carr. "Thousands of cats have been saved."

Finding homes for all healthy cats here also has spared hundreds of sick or skittish ones. Given time, they become adoptable. Most of them did not get the time. In the year before the Galleria storefront opened, the SPCA killed 973 treatable cats. Last year, the number dropped to 244.

The mall storefront is not the sole reason that the killing has slowed. Early sterilization programs stopped many young cats from becoming mothers. The SPCA last year ended adoption fees for older cats. But no single change has saved more cats than the mall adoption center.

Stop by, if you get a minute while holiday shopping. Check out the cats who have been given the greatest gift of all -- the gift of life.

e-mail: desmonde@buffnews.com

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