By Tim Leeds
The first thing you notice when you walk into the old Faubert Dairy barn at the end of 26th Avenue West is cats. Clean, well-fed, content cats wander everywhere.
It's the location of Kitty Keepers, the no-kill cat shelter west of Havre on the Old Post Road, and there are plenty of cats in the shelter.
Penney Bergren and Sue Markley, who started Kitty Keepers, said it is a non-profit no-kill sanctuary which offers lifetime sanctuary to animals; rehabilitating the injured, sick and frightened, and offers a large number of cats for adoption to qualified homes.
"(We've been open) almost exactly for two years officially, as Kitty Keepers," Bergren said.
She said they had been doing about the same thing on their own for years, but thought that "we could do more good if we got together than individually."
She said her husband Jerry has owned the property for about 12 years, and she has always kept cats there. She decided it would be a good place to start a shelter, she said.
"I guess that was the inception of Kitty Keepers," Bergren said.
Kitty Keepers just started a new service on Jan. 3, a low-cost clinic offering vaccinations, testing and spaying and neutering.
Dr. Ken Harshman, DVM, and his wife Joni come in to do the service, which will be held the first Wednesday of every month.
Bergren said they use only the top instruments and technology. Both Kitty Keepers and Harshman have very high standards and want to do the job correctly, she said. The equipment, instruments and supplies they use are all top of the line, Bergren said, and they follow all medical protocol and adhere to all laws and medical guidelines.
She said the first clinic was good and went very well. They worked on 13 animals including one dog. Bergren said four of the animals were in heat, and most if not all of the rest probably would have gone into heat soon, "So we prevented babies this spring."
She said they are in no way trying to compete with veterinarians. They have their own preferred vets and encourage everyone to choose their own or remain with their own providers. She said they are just trying to pick up the slack for people who can't afford the regular service, such as college students or low income families. They just came to the conclusion the best way to check the problem of homeless animals was at the source, to stop the reproduction, Bergren said.
Markley said if people have feral kitties, from a farm or ranch or near their home, they can bring the animals in to the spay and neuter clinic.
"We even have traps they can borrow So they won't have as many wild ones," she said.
"All we want is to stop the unwanted litters," Bergren said. "This is the only business where our goal is to close."
Bergren said people must call in to make reservations for the operation, at which time they will also be given instructions for preparations for the procedure.
For more information or to make a reservation for the services, contact Kitty Keepers at 262-2279 or 265-4032.
Bergren said they knew pet overpopulation, abandonment and feral colonies pretty bad in Havre area, but they have found that it was worse than they thought.
"I don't know if even we know how bad it is We knew there was a problem, but it's totally overwhelming," she said.
Bergren said not a day goes by without a call about an animal needing a home. Markley said there have been several times older owners couldn't take care of their pet anymore or have died and owner's family couldn't take them.
"I don't believe in killing an animal that's not wanted," she said, " but you're not doing them any favor by turning them out on the street."
They said the shelter has no independent source of income and they rely primarily on the generosity of their supporters, although they do fund raising, rummage sales, write grants and "many times dip into our own pockets to make ends meet."
Kitty Keepers has recently started receiving some help to improve the shelter. The shelter recently received a grant from the Sands Memorial Foundation, allowing them to purchase a new furnace. The shelter had no furnace before, and Markley said when it got below zero outside, it was about 22 degrees inside. They are also installing an on-demand water heater to replace the very small unit they have now. They have also received United Way funding, allowing them to build pens so cats can go outside through pet doors but remain in Kitty Keepers. In addition, they have received the use of a mobile home, which serves both to hold rummage sales in and also as a veterinary clinic for the shelter.
Markley said that when they started, they didn't have any water hookup for the shelter. She said they went to Helena for workshop, and when they returned a small hot water heater had been installed as a surprise.
"It was a wonderful surprise," Bergren said.
They said running the shelter takes a lot of work.
Bergren said they have to clean, feed and water the animals every day.
"It's a lot of work to keep them clean," she said.
"There's a lot of laundry to haul away and do," Markley said.
Harshman comes in every week to take care of medical needs at the shelter every Wednesday, although Markley said he will come to the shelter if there is an emergency and that they take cats to Chinook "all the time."
They said the biggest problem they generally have is "kitty colds," an upper respiratory infection that just rotates from one cat to another in the shelter. Bergren said they do all they can to treat this.
All cats are spayed and neutered as they come in, vaccinated, treated and are tested for feline leukemia and FIV, which are contagious, non-cureable and deadly diseases that could infect all of the animals in the shelter.
There are about 20 to 30 volunteers who work at the shelter.
"They do all kinds of different things," Bergren said.
She said they do computer and Internet work, carpentry, come in weekends for cleaning, and more. One volunteer who likes to bake for bake sales, a registered nurse, also works at the spay and neuter clinic. Bergren said they have two RNs and one nursing assistant that help with that. They also now have one paid staff, Sherri Tijerina, who cleans the shelter.
One volunteer, Kellin Jund, became associated with Kitty Keepers when his cat, which had been lost, was turned into the shelter. After he recovered his cat, he began volunteering. It was Jund who successfully trapped the young cat near the Havre Big Kmart they had received multiple calls about. Markley said the cat, Little K, was just an extremely frightened cat at the time, but is doing well at Kitty Keepers now.
Bergren said that at one point Dave Pauli, manager of the Humane Society of the U.S., Northern Rockies Regional Office, responded to some complaints that they couldn't possibly take care of that many cats in the shelter. She said he arrived at 7:30 a.m. and called them over to the shelter to inspect it. After inspection, she said, Pauli found the complaints to be unjustified and found no problems with the care or facilities at all.
Bergren said close to 160 cats have been adopted out in the two years the shelter has been open. They follow up on as many as they can, she said. Prospective adopters have adoption packet have to fill out, and they check backgrounds, Bergren said.
"We'll rescue them once, we don't want to have to rescue them again. We want to keep our commitment to the animals," she said.
Bergren said they make it very clear that it's the adopter's responsibility to care for the animal, provide veterinary service for it, and so on. She said most do have regular vets for the animals now.
She said they also make sure that adopters know about the animals and any problems they might have. She said the cat Izzy, for example, has bad asthma and is probably unadoptable.
Markley said they also try to help people learn to deal with problems they're having with their family cats, such as allergies or not using the litterbox.
"We try to help people keep their animals," she said.
Bergren said they try to take in any workshop they can, with the time and money available to them.
"There's a lot we don't know and we want to do it right," she said. "We now have places to go to get an answer. There's no reason to make the same mistake twice."
The two said if they are successful in solving the problem and can close the shelter, they will still have cats of their own.
"We just love 'em," Bergren said.
"Bottom line they're just neat creatures," Markley said.
On the 'net: Kitty Keepers link at http://www.montanapets.org