A new kind of community to help community cats

Mr. Business the cat getting scratching on his ear by a person and looking happy
Learn about the far-reaching effects of one woman caring about 30 unexpected tenants.
By Laura Moss

When Courtney moved to the neighborhood of Poets Square in Tucson, Arizona, in August 2020, she didn’t know she’d be sharing her rental property with some unexpected tenants. Cats. And lots of them.

The felines were wary of humans and kept their distance, but by fall, Courtney began to get an idea of just how many there were. “Over the first two months of living here, we started seeing more and more,” she says of the cats. “Most of them weren’t friendly, and a lot of them were really sick. Some had injuries; some were pregnant; and one gave birth in our driveway. It was a pretty bad situation. I started looking into how to help them, and that’s where it all started.”

It was only Courtney back then — well, Courtney and, it turns out, about 30 felines. “It was just me sitting in my driveway surrounded by cats who desperately needed help, and I did not know a single thing,” she says. “I cried so much.”

Today, however, Courtney and the cats of Poets Square are anything but alone. They have more than 850,000 followers across TikTok and Instagram, and people around the globe pitch in to help not only these fortunate cats, but the ones in their own communities.

Starting out, step by step

Courtney didn’t know about trap-neuter-return (TNR) programs, in which community cats are humanly trapped, neutered or spayed, vaccinated and ultimately returned to their outdoor homes to live out their lives. She also wasn’t aware of any local community cat resources when she started caring for the felines living around her new home.

“The first step was just putting food out,” she says. “A lot of the cats were starving. They were very, very skinny. I started buying cat food and learning which cats were friendly. It took a long time. Months later, we were still discovering new cats who were so feral that we didn’t even know they existed. Of course, now I would tell people the very first step is TNR.”

[Frequently Asked Questions About TNVR]

Courtney soon connected with trappers in her area, as well as local rescue groups, and she began the process of helping the cats. As she got to know the felines of Poets Square, Courtney gave them names and started sharing their stories online. “I needed a place to post photos of the cats,” she says. “As soon as I started feeding them because there were so many, I gave them all silly names to keep track of them. And I just fell in love with all of them and became obsessed with their strange little dynamics. It was like watching a reality show outside my window, except I didn’t have many people to share it with.”

Meet the cast

No reality show is complete without a colorful cast of characters, and the Poets Square community cats are certainly that. There’s Sad Boy, a cat with a perpetual frown, and his tabby companion, Lola, who’s always at his side. Then there’s Monkey, a calico who’s mostly black and orange but has a little white fur. And Reverse Monkey is a calico who’s mostly white and has a little orange-and-black fur. There’s also Goldie, Monster Paws, Alien, Mr. Business and Sad Mouth Sam, to name a few others.

“It was not intentional to give them silly names, but when you have this many cats, you start getting creative,” Courtney says. “But the names are one of the things people like about our (social media posts).” So, Sad Boy, Lola and their many feline friends began appearing on Instagram. Courtney’s dad was Poets Square Cats’ first follower, but other family members and friends soon joined and started sharing the Instagram account on their own networks. Within a few months, Courtney’s community cats were members of an entirely new kind of community.

[Embed program helps cats and people who love them in North Carolina]

After much urging, Courtney joined TikTok and started posting the cats’ stories on the video-sharing social network. When she made a TikTok video about feeding the cats a special Thanksgiving meal and shared it on Reddit, it “blew up” — that is, a great number of interested people tuned in. The video quickly attracted thousands of views, and the Poets Square Cats TikTok account amassed oodles of followers — more than 800,000, in fact. Those followers, who have collectively doled out nearly 60 million “likes,” were eager to watch the felines’ lives unfold and become part of the story.

Being kind to cats

Courtney’s cats captured the hearts of people around the world, and it didn’t take long for the donations to start pouring in. Earlier, she had created an Amazon wish list and donation link because friends and family wanted to support the Poets Square Cats. Until this point, she’d been financing their care on her own. “A lot of people have asked me how I afforded it at the beginning,” she says. “The answer is that this was during the pandemic when student loan payments were paused, so I just wasn’t paying my student loans. I put all that money toward cat food. The reason my student loans aren’t paid off is cats.”

Now, with the cats’ recent TikTok fame, there are more donations than cats. “The first time it happened, I opened a box from Amazon, and it was a bunch of cat food,” Courtney recalls. “I looked at the note to see which one of my family members it was from, and it was from someone I didn’t know in Europe. A total stranger. I shared a post thanking that person, and I just started getting more and more donations after that.”

[Showing kindness by caring for community cats]

She often gets multiple Amazon deliveries a day containing cat food, dishes, beds, toys and more. “We get so much stuff that we’re able to share it,” she says, explaining that she passes along supplies to rescue organizations.

Her followers’ generosity extends to Courtney, too. They may not know Courtney herself, but they know her voice from TikTok, and every day they see her dedication to the Poets Square Cats. So, when Courtney’s landlord announced plans to sell her rental house, her fans begged her to launch a GoFundMe campaign and allow them to help her purchase the house. (GoFundMe is an online platform that enables people to raise money for causes close to their hearts.)

“I was panicking,” she says. “It’s a terrible housing market, but also the cats live here. And feral cats like Sad Boy and Lola can’t be relocated or adopted like some of the others. The GoFundMe raised over $50,000. I’m still in complete disbelief. Most of the donations were small amounts like $5 or $10. I had to turn off the GoFundMe because I got so overwhelmed. We’re buying the house now, which is wild.”

Beyond borders

While Courtney and all the cats are in Poets Square to stay, Courtney says her work is far from done. Today, in addition to caring for those cats, she volunteers throughout the Tucson area — trapping cats, finding foster homes, assisting with hoarding situations and more.

She’s quick to point out, though, that while she’s the person behind the Poets Square Cats social media accounts, she’s certainly not the only one doing the work. “It takes so many people for one cat to get the happy ending (he or she) deserves,” she says. “Every single story you see on my account has taken many people and organizations.”

While many of the Poets Square Cats have been adopted and are living the good life, the remaining ones are also doing well. As Courtney says: “They’re still living spoiled lives. I look out my window and see them sound asleep or relaxing the way an indoor cat would. They finally get to just be cats.”

Courtney loves caring for the Poets Square Cats, but says her most important work takes place on social media, where, thanks to her storytelling, she’s educating countless people about TNR and community cats — and inspiring them to get involved. “I help cats as much as I can, but at the end of the day, it’s a drop in the bucket,” she says. “If I can use this account to educate, inspire and empower people to go out and do it on their own, that’s huge. People have told me they started volunteering at shelters because of me, they’ve started fostering because of my account, or they’ve been inspired to start trapping cats in their neighborhood. That’s the best impact I could hope for.”

This article was originally published in the September/October 2022 issue of Best Friends magazine. Want more good news? Become a member and get stories like this six times a year.

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