A cat lover’s legacy

Volunteer Cathy Berry wearing a mask and holding an orange tabby kitten
We’ve said goodbye to a beloved volunteer, but the impact she made endures.
By Diane Barber

Cathy Berry, a longtime volunteer at Best Friends in Los Angeles, had a sign in her kitchen that read, “Do more of what makes you happy.” For the last nine years of her life, Cathy did just that, spending much of her free time in the company of cats who had taken up temporary residence in the lifesaving center. It would be impossible to calculate the impact she had on the lives of the animals she encountered during those nine years, but in sheer numbers, it measures in the thousands.

Cathy had a gift with cats — we called her a lion tamer — and she was a legend in the cat department for good reason. There was the time she chased down a couple who tried to smuggle a cat out of the building in a baby stroller. “I saw them leaving, and I ran through the lobby screaming, ‘Outta my way!’ Seconds later I’m body-blocking the car,” Cathy once recalled with a laugh.

Another memorable tale involved Cathy crawling on her belly under cars in the lifesaving center’s parking lot to retrieve a frightened mama cat. The cat had just bolted from someone’s car, and Cathy made sure she was reunited with her litter of kittens and that they got the care they needed. She was determined and fearless, but it was compassion and empathy that fueled her.

Volunteer follows her heart

Cathy began volunteering at Best Friends in 2013. As she told it, she had been volunteering at a local hospital when one day she had an epiphany: “I was in the middle of a volunteer shift at the hospital when I suddenly thought to myself, ‘I need to be working with cats. That’s what I should be doing.’ On the way home I saw a Best Friends billboard with a giant cat on it, and that’s how it started. I found Best Friends.”

Although Cathy shared her home with cat companions, she had never spent time around animals in a shelter setting. At Best Friends, she tapped into a newfound passion, and from then on, her commitment never wavered. Caring for cats became a big part of her life and her routine.

[Rock star volunteer helps hundreds of cats]

Friday nights were spent with kittens in the nursery. She chose that shift because it was the toughest one to fill, and she knew the staff (and kittens) needed her. On Sundays Cathy moved over to the adult cats, specifically choosing to work with cats who struggled to cope with being in an unfamiliar place and surrounded by unfamiliar people and other cats. She gravitated toward the ones who lashed out at people because they needed the most help.

Sometimes it took hours; sometimes it took weeks. But she could calm them down, earn their trust, build their confidence, and ultimately become their friend. Through this process, Cathy set the cats she encountered on a trajectory to a better life.

A friend to cats in need

It’s no stretch to say that her consistent presence and dedication expanded Best Friends’ capacity to help even the most fractious cats. Samantha Bell, who worked with Cathy as the cat behavior and enrichment program lead, recognized early on what an asset Cathy was. “I saw Cathy at work, and I realized we could ramp up efforts to take in cats with behavioral challenges,” says Samantha. “With Cathy as a backup, I knew we could handle it.”

[Meet a volunteer who turns even the grumpiest cats into purr machines]

Cathy’s reach extended beyond the walls of the Best Friends Lifesaving Center in Mission Hills to L.A.-based network partners Kitten Rescue, Heaven on Earth, and Benny’s Friends. I met Cathy in fall 2017 when she traveled to Houston on her own dime to volunteer at the massive animal recovery center Best Friends had established there in the wake of Hurricane Harvey. “I’d always wanted to do something like that,” Cathy recalled. “It was the most life-changing experience of my life and one of the greatest. There were people coming from all over the country — and even outside the country — just to help animals.”

Saying goodbye

In May 2021, Cathy was diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer, and her time with the cats at Best Friends took on new meaning. She began referring to her volunteer shifts as “kitty therapy.” During the ensuing months, even as Cathy quit working full time and her social life changed dramatically, she continued pouring whatever energy she had into her volunteer work at Best Friends. The cats and kittens were still a priority. Now, though, they were helping her as much as she helped them.

It seems fitting that at the end of her life, when all treatment options had been exhausted and Cathy’s time on Earth was winding down, it was the cats and kittens at Best Friends in Los Angeles who gave her the most comfort and sustained in her a strong sense of purpose. She volunteered for as long as she could because it made her happy — and because she knew it mattered.

The last time I saw Cathy, she told me about a legend that says when a person dies, there’s a bridge they must cross to enter heaven. At the head of the bridge awaits every animal an individual encountered during their lifetime. Based on what they know of the person, the animals decide which humans may cross the bridge and which humans are turned away. There is absolutely no doubt that Cathy, friend and hero to thousands of cats, was allowed to cross that bridge. And what a reunion it must have been.

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