Helping hands for cats at PetSmart in East Harlem

When it comes to capturing the attention of customers, the cats at the PetSmart in East Harlem have it covered. After all, it’s pretty hard to ignore a pair of beautiful eyes staring back at you or a purr from a cat just waiting to be petted — even if you’ve only stopped in to pick up some pet food.

Cats would like you to think they’re self-sufficient, and they are to a certain extent. But they can’t do it all. Someone has to clean out those litter boxes. And what about that empty dish? That water isn’t going to pour itself.

That’s where a group of Best Friends volunteers called the “kitty care team” comes in. Every day, these dedicated New Yorkers come to PetSmart in East Harlem to give Best Friends cats everything they need, including a little time to stretch their legs and play.

Louis the cat loves to play

PetSmart + dedicated volunteers = happy felines

The Best Friends Pet Adoption Center in New York is slated to open soon, but until then, places like this PetSmart play an invaluable role helping Best Friends–New York save more lives. That’s because Best Friends brings cats from Animal Care Centers of NYC (ACC) to this PetSmart East Harlem location after they’re medically cleared by veterinarians. The cats can stay there until they’re adopted or placed with foster families. And volunteers help make it all possible.

Shannon Kirkman, foster and adoptions coordinator at Best Friends–New York, says: “The kitty care volunteers are an enormous help to our animal care team and to the adoptable cats as well. They’re the backbone of the program in East Harlem, and the reason it’s been successful.”

Volunteer with Best Friends–New York

Volunteer opportunities available in East Harlem: Must love cats

So just what kind of person makes time every week to visit PetSmart to clean litter boxes and hang out with cats? Cat lovers, of course.

Take Stephanie Etherton, for example. Stephanie has been volunteering with the kitty care program for about two years. She visits PetSmart at least once a week for a volunteer shift to care for the cats and monitor their health. Today, she’s also a volunteer adoption counselor, applying what she learns spending one-on-one time with cats to help the adoption process go smoothly ― for both adopters and cats.

Stephanie particularly enjoys the challenge of working with cats who are more reluctant around people. “It's always incredibly rewarding to spend time with them, gradually gain their trust and to see them become more at ease and confident,” says Stephanie. “Of course, I fall in love with every single one of the cats in our care. I even met one of my own cats through kitty care. Seeing them go to their new homes is the best reward of all.”

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Violet the cat in New York

A volunteer helps a cat find the perfect home — her own

Mary Remito, a volunteer and an adopter who met her cat, Stella, at the East Harlem PetSmart, knows that feeling well.

Mary began volunteering with the kitty care program after retiring about two years ago. She had always wanted to volunteer for Best Friends, and when her time was freed up, it seemed like the perfect time to start.

Mary visits PetSmart each week to help care for the cats. She loves socializing with them and getting to know their personalities, and she shares what she learns about them with potential adopters.

Of course, there was one cat who recently captured Mary’s heart so completely that she had a hard time saying goodbye each week. This sweet brown-and-white cat, named Dallas, brightened up every time Mary came to see her. And although Mary told herself that she was not ready to adopt another cat so soon after her beloved cat had passed away, Dallas changed her mind.

Dallas, renamed Stella, is now Mary’s faithful companion. She’s also a reminder of the big reason Mary volunteers for the kitty care program — to help deserving cats find homes.

“When you volunteer in this program, you may think all you’re doing are simple things like filling water dishes and making sure the cats have food,” says Mary. “But really, you’re doing so much more. You’re helping save lives. And in doing this, your life gets better, too.”

Fall in love with your new best friend: Adopt.

Dallas is now Stella in her new home

Photos by Shannon Kirkman and Mary Remito