The Remarkable Dr. Kate Hurley: Evolution of a cat lifesaving legend
As we drive toward our no-kill 2025 goal, more and more individuals are stepping up from the ranks of traditional sheltering to become change agents. Their voices are informed by experience on the front lines, they have credibility with shelter operators, and they are needed and welcome in our movement.
One of the first and most effective individuals to make that transition was Kate Hurley, and this is her story.
Everyone has things they regret, and veterinarian Dr. Kate Hurley is no exception. One of her regrets is a tiny orange foster kitten whose life she didn’t save, and it’s a regret she’s making up for one million times over.
Dr. Hurley is the director of the Koret Shelter Medicine Program at the University of California, Davis, and co-founder of the Million Cat Challenge, but her story begins with one cat. “For many of us, our story begins not with a life that was saved, but with a life that was lost,” she told an audience gathered to celebrate the saving of one million cats’ lives, a full year before the Million Cat Challenge’s official deadline.
Dr. Hurley began working as an animal control officer in 1989, in a time, she said, when only one of every four cats she brought into her shelter would leave alive. When she brought in a cat who was too old or too feral or too young for adoption, it was her job, she said, “to march straight back and euthanize that cat myself as humanely as I knew how.” She believed she was doing the right thing, until one day a litter of kittens came in who she was determined to save.
They were almost old enough to be adopted, so she took them home and put them in her bathroom. She named the girl Cali, and dubbed the brothers Small Orange, Medium Orange and Large Orange. “I raised them, and brought them back to the shelter, and kissed them on their little heads, and I wished them good luck,” she said.
Cali was adopted immediately, and Small Orange and Large Orange shortly after that. “But then, about a week after I brought them in, I walked into the euthanasia room, and Medium Orange was on the table,” she said, tears clogging her voice. “He had gotten an upper respiratory infection. And we didn’t have an isolation room, and we didn't have a vet, and we didn't know any way to treat a sick cat to keep it from spreading to the rest of the cats in our care. So we had a rule that one sneeze was a death sentence. And we had another rule — that you couldn’t question a euthanasia decision once it had been made. It was just too hard.
“So I didn’t tell my friend that was my foster kitten, and I turned around and I walked out of the door. It was a sunny summer day in the height of kitten season, and the shelter had just opened, and there were dogs barking and people hustling around. I stood there with my back to that door, and I thought to myself: There has got to be a better way.”
She promised Medium Orange that she’d find it, and her quest sent her to vet school. After graduating, she defied the advice of her professors, fellow students and colleagues, and went into shelter practice. But overcrowding and disease still haunted her, and when she hit a wall in her efforts to save lives, she applied for the nation’s very first shelter medicine residency position, supported by a Maddie’s Fund grant to the University of California, Davis.
She spent the next three years studying the relationship between inadequate housing and upper respiratory illness in shelter cats. She created what she called an “endless PowerPoint presentation,” which she took coast to coast, showing it to anyone who would sit still long enough.
But it wasn’t working. Cats were still dying in huge numbers in the shelters that were supposed to be caring for them. And she was hearing from shelter staff — even the ones who’d seen her hours-long PowerPoint presentation — that, despite their best efforts, they couldn’t implement the changes she suggested because they were overwhelmed with the number of cats entering their shelters.
“And I wanted to say no!” Dr. Hurley said. “You don’t have to choose between euthanizing for space and letting the cats sit, and get sick, and die in care only after they have suffered. I wanted to say, I believe there’s a better way. But I didn’t know what that better way was. I was out of ideas. I was out of PowerPoints. I was out of grants to write. And I didn’t know how to get there.”
Until, that is, the day she went on a consultation at Jacksonville Animal Protective Services in Florida with a team that included Dr. Julie Levy of the Maddie’s Shelter Medicine Program at the University of Florida. There, they saw something they’d never seen before: a bank of covered cages, housing community cats who were not being admitted to the shelter and were not going to lose their lives inside its walls.
It was their first encounter with what we now call return-to-field or shelter-neuter-return. It was the Feral Freedom program, funded by Best Friends and still in its earliest stage.
Early days or not, Dr. Hurley knew it was the better way she’d been looking for. Fueled by the possibilities opening before her eyes, she went on to co-author the Association of Shelter Veterinarians’ Guidelines for Standards of Care in Animal Shelters, co-edit the textbook Infectious Disease Management in Animal Shelters, co-author the first-ever vaccine guidelines specifically for shelter dogs and cats, and co-chair the organizing committee for a specialty in shelter medicine.
The team of Dr. Hurley and Dr. Levy became a dynamic duo of cat lifesaving, publishing countless research studies, presenting at conferences, writing articles, giving interviews and consulting with struggling shelters. As the programs they championed became more widespread, and feline lifesaving kept increasing, they made one more leap. They co-founded the Million Cat Challenge, a project to bring animal shelters in North America together to save the lives of one million cats in just five years. More than 1,000 shelters joined that effort, meeting their goal a full year early.
Standing before the people who gathered to celebrate that achievement, Dr. Hurley tearfully told them, “The promise I made to Medium Orange that day was never mine to keep, but you, my beloved profession, you rose up. From the southern tip of Florida all the way to Alaska, you kept the promise for me 1,148,129 times!”
Acknowledging that, like her, many in her audience were driven not by a story of lives saved, but of a life that was lost, she concluded, “Today we honor those lives just as much, because those are the ones who have called on us to be braver, and to think bigger, and to admit when we were wrong. They are the force that has carried us to this moment and will carry us beyond.”
Dr. Hurley is truly one of the remarkable individuals who are driving our movement and changing the world for homeless pets. She is an inspiration to me and an example of the difference that one committed person can make.
Together, we will Save Them All.
Best Friends Animal Society