Rock star volunteer helps hundreds of cats

Volunteer Heather Mahood holding a tabby and white cat in front of kennels
Volunteer Heather Mahood, who helps the tiniest kittens and wisest senior felines, also has a soft spot for cats with ringworm.
By Nicole Hamilton

Natalie Culbreath, a senior coordinator for Best Friends in Los Angeles, will never forget that day in 2016 when Heather Mahood showed up to help the cat team bathe more than 80 cats in a single day. This was back when she was a new volunteer and when Best Friends housed cats with ringworm in a protected, covered outdoor area behind the lifesaving center.

“In the California summers, it was hot and stifling but she still showed up to sweat with us,” says Natalie. “I do not know how we would have gotten through that summer without Heather and some of our other ringworm rock stars.”

Then there was the time Heather fostered a cat named Lille, who arrived at Best Friends in need of dental surgery. Lille also had an upper respiratory infection (URI) that she just couldn’t shake despite ongoing care from the veterinary team.

Thinking that time in a home might do Lille some good, Heather offered to foster. As Lille made herself comfortable at Heather’s place, she noticed some symptoms that were not apparent at the center. “Our vets did more testing and investigating but could not find the cause within our testing capabilities,” says Natalie.

So, Heather took Lille to her own veterinarian who discovered a nasal polyp that was complicating Lille’s URI. Heather funded surgery to have the polyp removed, as well as the work to fix her dental issues. Then, after some post-surgery R&R in Heather’s home, Lille returned to Best Friends looking and feeling fabulous. She was adopted soon afterward.

Not only does Heather regularly foster cats but she also has an affinity for helping cats with ringworm or other treatable but infectious medical conditions. Those cats benefit from the extra love and support she provides.

[Foster volunteer prepares to welcome 100th kitten]

“I like to refer to her as year-round Santa Claus as she always brings a bag of fun toys and treats for the cats,” Natalie says. “And they learn pretty quickly that Heather being here means lots of love, catnip, toys and snacks.”

Over the years, Heather has made a big difference in the lives of hundreds of cats and has become an incredible asset to the cat team. “She has made such a huge impact in her time here, that just seeing her name on the volunteer roster for the day instantly melts some of our stress away,” says Natalie. “We have a saying on the cat team that the days Heather is signed up, we know it’s going to be a better day.”

The following interview reveals more about Heather’s important volunteer work at Best Friends.

Why did you decide to volunteer and what motivates you to help cats?

After I retired, I saw a story about a kitten nursery at Best Friends. I thought I would check it out and I was hooked at the first ear-wiggle. When the nursery shut down in the winter, I was encouraged to try out the big cats. There I discovered my next love: those cats with communicable diseases (such as) ringworm and scabies, who need more time before being ready for adoption. Fungal Jungle (a room at Best Friends where cats stay until they are ringworm-free) became one of my favorite places.

What inspires you most in your volunteer work?

The staff, without a doubt. They never give up on a cat have taught me so much. Sometimes we have tough days that really get me down, and I marvel that they can come back and do this every day. The staff and volunteers allow me to show my crazy animal-loving side that a lot of normal folks wouldn't understand.

What makes you most proud of your volunteer work?

I'm most proud of my work with the (cats who have) ringworm or scabies and fostering them. We've come so far in our treatment of these sweet (cats), who just need a little extra time to find a happy home. They love us even when we dip them in stinky stuff.

What does volunteering mean to you?

I knew I wouldn't be happy just sitting around when I retired, so I looked for volunteering opportunities to fill my time. I had no idea that it would become such an important part of my life. If I'm having a terrible week, the lifesaving center has never failed to make me feel better walking out than when I walked in.

Can you please tell us about a favorite volunteer moment?

When the first cat I fostered was adopted. I thought I would merely be relieved. But no one warned me about this extreme "proud mama" moment.

Please share with us something we might not know about you.

I've traveled to Africa, India and South America to see species of big cats in the wild. Since the remaining two (species I have not seen) are the Himalayan snow leopard and the Siberian tiger, I don't think I'll finish the list.

What do you enjoy doing when you’re not volunteering with animals?

I enjoy hiking and camping, although, through the years, I’ve graduated from tents and backpacks to trailers and cocktails.

Besides volunteering for Best Friends, are there other ways that you give back to your community?

I have volunteered for 15 years at the Seal Beach (California) Animal Care Center near where I live. It’s a tiny operation compared to Best Friends.

Can you please tell us about your own pets?

I lost my cat soul mate a while back, and I originally thought I would just foster until I found another cat to adopt. Seventeen foster cats later, I'm still enjoying my revolving door of youngsters.

Do you have a super power and if so, what would that be?

No super power, but I have perfected the art of removing all types of cat bodily fluids off the sides of kennels.

What would you tell others who are thinking of volunteering?

I think a lot of people are intimidated by the size of the problem of homeless pets. But when you volunteer, it is not sad at all. Your day is all about improving life for that one cat or dog. When you enrich their (lives) for a day or help them get a home, that is the feeling you take home at the end of the day.

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