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Humane Society Silicon Valley’s Garden Cat Program Changes, Saves Lives

Although there is documented evidence of pet ownership providing a variety of benefits to people of all ages, not everyone wants the level of responsibility that comes with cleaning litter boxes multiple times a week. Or they value the companionship of an animal, but have a rodent problem they want to address without harsh pesticides or the bill that comes with an exterminator.

While people instantly think of cuddly kittens or affectionate adult cats when adoption comes to mind, Humane Society Silicon Valley (HSSV) has a cat program dedicated entirely to garden cats. Often called community, working or barn cats, garden cats are typically cats unsuitable for a traditional adoption or trap, neuter, release (TNR) programs and can assist with curbing rodents on a property.

“We house the stray animals for the City of Sunnyvale,” said HSSV President Carol Novello. “As part of that we have a TNR program, where if there are community cats or feral cats, they’re trapped, neutered and returned to the area where they were found. They cannot reproduce, but in some cases, it was not safe to return a cat, and we needed to find a solution.”

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That solution came in the form of the Garden Cat Program. Launched in 2013, the Garden Cat Program has helped HSSV to not only save more feline lives in Sunnyvale, but allowed the organization to assist in saving lives outside of Santa Clara County.

According to Novello, cats brought into HSSV’s cat garden are first “imprinted,” or gradually introduced to the garden before they’re placed for adoption. Similarly to when a non-garden cat is adopted, garden cats — when being introduced to the cat garden or their eventual home — are placed into a smaller enclosure where they can hear the sounds and smell the smells of the area, giving them the opportunity to warm up to their new surroundings. Imprinting also allows a cat to establish where it will be able to find food and water, which is something all adopters — in addition to basic veterinary care — are required to provide, as garden cats cannot live solely on vermin.

“The ideal adopter is basically someone who is not looking for a cat who will cuddle up and is looking for a cat who has a job to do,” said Novello. “Barns will very often get these types of cats to help with rodent control.”

All garden cats, she said, are cats that have lived outside and are not social enough to live indoors. None of the garden cats, to the shelter’s knowledge, has lived inside a home and no cat that has lived indoors will be thrust into a garden cat environment, even if a cat in HSSV’s care is less sociable than the average adoptable animal.

“We really advocate for indoor only,” Novello said. “It keeps the animal safer, but not all cats are suitable for that and we look at the individual animal and what’s in their best interest.”

Currently, HSSV’s garden cats are located in an area just outside of Novello’s office, which is away from street traffic and any immediate dangers. The area can house up to 12 cats at a time, but in the fall, the shelter is expanding the Garden Cat Program. Through donations, HSSV building a garden in the front of the shelter that will be suitable for up to 24 cats and include even more enclosures where cats can sleep or seclude themselves from other animals, spots they can use as a litter box, feeding stations and places where cats can lounge in the sun.

“We’re all about saving and changing lives and this makes it possible for us to find homes for more of these animals,” said Novello. “In a lot of shelters, they don’t have alternatives when feral cats are returned to them and they can’t TNR. This is really helping to increase the number of animals that we can save and there are people who are looking to adopt these animals so it’s really a win-win.”

Through the end of May of this year HSSV had adopted 333 cats through the program, with 88 of those adoptions occurring in the previous 12 months. For more information visit, www.hssv.org/garden-cats.

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