By Ron VandenBoom
Nine children walking the halls of Northern Montana Care Center greeting residents might not seem all that strange except for the fuzzy, warm, bundle of joy in each of their arms.
No, it's not a baby, but a fuzzy, warm, bundle of feline persuasion a handful of soft, furry, animated joy to many of the residents who left pets behind when they entered the care center.
The feline visits are courtesy of Kitty Keepers the Havre based organization that rescues feral and unwanted cats.
"This has just been a really successful project," said Penney Bergren, vice president and one of the original founders of Kitty Keepers. "It's so good for the kids to come up here and visit with the older people. And they (the residents) love to see them both."
Kitty Keepers selects one cat for each child to escort to the care center once a month. The children roam from room to room asking the residents if they would like to hold a cat.
"I think for morale, the cats are really great," said Jan Zuelke, activities aid at the facility. "When I mention to people that the cats are coming their eyes light up and it's like, Are you going to bring them in to me? Can I see them?''
Zuelke joins the parade of youth as they trek through the halls. In her hand is a list of names of residents that are allergic to cats or, for one reason or another, prefer not to see them.
The number of people who don't appreciate the visits are minimal however as most of the residents find the monthly visits refreshing.
"They're really anxious to see them," Zuelke said.
Zuelke also notes that therapeutically holding a cat is known to lower peoples' heart rate and blood pressure as well as put a smile on the face.
"It brings back memories of pets that they had," Zuelke said. "They can cuddle with them, they can talk to them, it's just an all around good feeling."
Zuelke described another program the NMCC is working on called The Eden Project.
A group of employees at the care center joined forces to see to it there are always birds in the care center's aviary and fish tanks.
"They are trying to get adopted cats to come in and possibly live here," she said.
Kitty Keepers has only been in existence for a little over a year and bringing the feline visitors to NMCC has been a practice almost from the beginning, Bergren said.
"It feels so good," she said of the experience. "You know you're making these people happy and we're making the cats happy toso."
Bergren explained that for her, coming to the care center is an energizing experience.
"I was tired today after having worked two jobs and I didn't want to go out tonight," Bergren said. "But it feels good. It feels good because you know you're making people happy."
Bergren said the human contact the cats have during the outings helps acclimate them to human contact.
"It helps to socialize the cats so they will be more adoptable," she said.
Kitty Keepers has grown tremendously since they first organized over a year ago.
It started when Bergren acquired a mother cat and five kittens that were found in an alley and about to be destroyed.
She joined forces with her friend, Sue Markley, and they created what today they call "the sanctuary" a remodeled milk barn that has been converted for use as a home for feral cats.
Today, the sanctuary is home to more than 170 cats that are in need of new owners and a permanent home.
Toward that end, Kitty Keepers encourage people to adopt them. According to Cat Chats, the Kitty Keepers newsletter, 49 cats were adopted from the sanctuary in 1999 and 249 cats were saved. Another 15 of the animals were returned to their original owners.
Adopting a cat from Kitty Keepers does require a the prospective owner fill out an application and wait for the board to approve the adoption. Markley notes that 99 percent of the adoptions go through, but emphasizes that their goal is to find good homes for the cats.
Young people who rent can also find a cat to be a disadvantage when they are looking for a place to live, Markley said. Ultimately the pet ends up being left behind to fend for itself or in some cases the owners try to kill it.
While Kitty Keepers wants to find homes for their feline friends they also want to insure the animals will get good homes and not end up being victims of abuse or neglect.
The most common reason for turning down an adoption is that someone has lied about a landlord allowing cats on their property, Markley said.
She adds however that 99 percent of the adoptions go through.
Kitty Keepers is nonprofit and has no hired staff. All of the work is done by volunteers, including youth, who maintain the sanctuary and feed, clean, and love the cats.
"It's a full time job," Bergren said. "But the need exists."
It is also a part of the Kitty Keepers philosophy that the best way to change patterns of animal neglect and abuse is to educate the young. Kitty Keepers has taken steps to do just that by bringing cats to visit students at Highland Park School and to the Havre Scouts. There they explain is a fun and entertaining way the negative results of irresponsible pet owners.
Food, medical care, bleach, paper towels, cat litter, and all other supplies are paid for out of contributions and fund raising events like bake sales.
Bergren said that although people have been good with contributions and a few memorials have been created in the name of Kitty Keepers, only one grant from The Sands Foundation in Havre has been received.
Kitty Keepers also has compiled a cookbook of local and family recipes and artwork by area children. It sells for $10 with with proceeds going to help save the cats.
Anyone interested in more information on Kitty Keepers can find them on the Internet at www.montanapets.org. Surfers visiting the site must select the Havre link.
Kitty Keepers can also be reached by calling 262-2279.
"And don't be afraid to leave a message," Bergren said.