Transformative changes for cats at York County SPCA

Luna the cat in a kennel
Pennsylvania animal shelter revamps its approach to saving cats with assistance from Best Friends embed team.
By Alesha Davidson

When Luna, a four-year-old black cat, recently found herself at the York County SPCA in Pennsylvania, it was not her first time there. She had been in and out of the shelter, returned multiple times because of challenges in her home. Luna made it clear that she wasn’t happy about her situation by hissing and swatting at shelter team members, who only wanted to comfort and take care of her.

Luckily for Luna and other cats who aren’t thriving in traditional homes, York County SPCA in late 2021 launched a collaboration with Best Friends’ national embed program. Because of it, the shelter is better suited to help cats needing an outside-the-box solution.

A little support goes a long way

In 2020, the save rate for cats at York County SPCA was 69%. The staff was committed to saving more cats in the community, and this eventually led to working with Best Friends as part of its national shelter embed program, made possible in part by a grant from Maddie’s Fund®. Through the program, Best Friends conducts shelter and operational assessments, puts together a lifesaving plan based on those assessments and works alongside the shelter staff to help make that plan a reality.

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

Best Friends provided York County SPCA with funding and educational resources to help increase the cat save rate. This included improved housing, implementing a comprehensive community cat program and holding virtual training presentations that focused on safe cat handling techniques.

In addition to virtual training sessions, the Best Friends embed team provided in-person, hands-on support and coaching. This led to the successful launch of a shelter-neuter-vaccinate-return program, where healthy stray cats landing at York County SPCA are spayed or neutered and vaccinated before being returned back to the original place where they were picked up.

Kari Herchelroth, York County SPCA operations director, says the support has been transformative. “I know that if I have a question, someone at Best Friends can answer it,” she says.

Progress and possibilities for cats

Today, there are multiple options for cats landing at the shelter. During their rounds, several staff members from various departments come together to plan a pathway for each cat. Kari says, “We really take the time to evaluate each case and look for the best possible outcome.”

If it’s the best option, cats are adopted into homes. Some are placed in foster homes for a period of time, and some may be spayed or neutered, vaccinated and returned to their original location. Others may be placed as working cats in barns or other areas where, if they choose, they can keep their distance from people.

These new approaches are making a big difference for cats. The shelter’s monthly cat save rate rose to (and at times exceeded) 90%.

Reaching and sustaining 90% save rate

Now that York County SPCA reached its goal to save at least 90% of the cats coming to them, the shelter is hard at work to ensure long-term sustainability. And while the Best Friends national embed team has provided support, it is truly the hard work and dedication of the shelter team that led to success.

[Antietam Humane Society turns things around for cats]

Dr. Natalie Weekes, shelter medical director, has been a steady presence on this road to progress. Dr. Natalie, who’s seen firsthand the payoff of the team’s hard work, says:  “When you are in the trenches it seems impossible to get out. But now being on the other side of it, I can tell you that it really is possible to save the majority of lives that come through the shelter.”

Rachel Diaz, field services and feline foster coordinator, says the shelter has opened new doors of opportunity for cats. “Now it isn’t just a game of what is the outcome, but what is the best outcome. We can tailor it to fit the needs of the individual animal.” And that’s exactly what York County SPCA has been able to do for Luna.

A barn cat at heart

Upon Luna’s most recent return to shelter, the team first tried her in a foster home, thinking that maybe it was just the shelter environment that bothered her. But that wasn’t it. Even in a home with an experienced feline behavior foster volunteer, Luna struggled.

Brittany Marsey, the shelter's animal care technician manager, saw the newly established working cat program as the best next option for Luna. Since not much was known about Luna's past, Brittany wanted to place her where they could monitor her progress.

A local horse barn turned out to be just the right fit. The shelter staff provided guidance on how to safely acclimatize Luna to the barn and allow her time to adjust to new surroundings. The barn owners promised to share updates.

[Barn life is the best life for these two cats]

The shift in her personality was immediate. Not only has Luna become much calmer and more relaxed, but the barn caretaker also considers her one of the friendliest animals on the farm. This cat, who used to struggle with human interaction, has become the farm’s smallest ambassador, regularly escorting visitors around the property. And it turns out that she’s also quite friendly with the other farm animals, particularly the pigs.

As Rachel reflects on the experience, she acknowledges a balance between finding the right solution for both the animals and the people who care for them. “Not all cats are suitable for house pets and that’s OK,” she says. “We can still love them and care for them; but trying to force them inside to make ourselves feel better isn’t necessarily what is best for them.”

Luna’s story has inspired staff members to expand these types of programs. Their firsthand experience with Luna’s success and others like it has been the best teacher of all.

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