Some may say that dog is man’s best friend, but cat lovers know different.
At the Cats Protection base, just outside Dundonald , the staff and volunteers work night and day to help their feline friends looking for a forever home.
The dozens of cats and kittens in their care at any one time quickly become part of the Cats Protection family and pictures of past residents cover the walls as staff share fond memories of the big characters they have grown to love over the years.
This year the Northern Ireland centre marks its 25th anniversary and in those years they have seen 13,368 cats pass through their doors. At least a further 10,000 have also been helped in some way by the dedicated staff and volunteers.
With a clear passion for what they do, the animal lovers work diligently to nurse the sometimes injured cats back to good health and find the perfect family to take them in.
Centre manager Bel Livingstone has been with the charity over 17 years and said she gets a big buzz when cats are re-homed, but in particular the older pets.
“There was this one cat, Donna, and she was just one of those cats that came in and had had a really bad time,” she said.
“She was unpredictable and we just could not get her a home because she was just Donna. I remember leaving a cake out for someone coming in and she managed to get in and eat it.
“She was here nine years before we got her a home but she got a home which is the most important thing. She spent her last years in Portugal and we would get pictures of her lying out on a balcony.
“Their personalities completely change when they get a secure home.”
And Donna is just one of thousands of success stories for the charity in Northern Ireland since it opened its doors in 1993 on the Belfast Road.
In that first year staff took in 350 cats and kittens.
Since then that number has grown steadily, and reception staff can take between 50 to 60 calls a day ranging from help with neutering, help with injured or sick animals and of course relinquishing cats into centre care.
Over the years the charity, with its 150 volunteers, has achieved an outstanding amount, including establishing four active branches across the country, with more in the pipeline.
Described as the back bone of the centre, the branches in Downpatrick, Greater Belfast, Coleraine and Erne, help the charity reach even more vulnerable cats and kittens that need help.
Plans are in place to set up branches in Armagh and Foyle and the charity is currently seeking more volunteers to help with this.
“When you say branches to someone, they don’t know what it means,” said Bel.
“These people who run our branches do not get paid, they are volunteers who give up their time, and perhaps a bit of their garden to establish a branch.
“We supply them with the pod but it will only help one adult cat or a small mother and kittens, so yes they are a fantastic group of people doing what they can for the cats, but please remember they are not a centre and they don’t get paid and they do have to earn a living. They are the backbone of Cats Protection.
“The volunteers really are the backbone, we have 150 throughout Northern Ireland doing various things, not just branch work. We also have Trap Neuter and Release volunteers who are trying to get on top of the feral problem.”
Bel, who started as a cat care assistant, said she loves to see the dedication and passion of her volunteers, who she admits have “dug us out of so many holes”.
Without the “lifeblood of the charity” Bel said she does not know where it would be as they receive no Government or Lottery funding, running entirely on generous donations.
And Bel is immensely proud of what the group has achieved over the years and hopes to continue and expand in the future.
“It’s so scary when you start to look at it,” she said.
“Cedar Grove in Knockbreda have been the vets looking after our cats for 25 years and we have developed a close relationship with them, I think it is important in the centre that the vet is understanding of the types of cats that come through our doors, what they have come through and what life they might have previously had. We also do vital work throughout the province with the help and co-operation of other vets for things such as neutering feral cats and the snip and chip campaign.
“We don’t know a lot about them when they come in and it has been a journey with them learning how to treat them. They are very supportive of everything we do and that for me is the big thing, I think if you have a good relationship with your vet then that is half the battle.”
The team has expanded over the years and Bel said there have been huge changes, even in the time she has been with the charity, such as the introduction of fundraising officers and development managers.
At the moment the team are trying to spread the word regarding the importance of having cats neutered and are offering a £5 snip and chip scheme for cat owners.
Bel said the two procedures should never cost more than £10.
Making sure cats are chipped and registered is also an important message the charity try to get out to pet owners as it can help them reunite people with their cats.
“A lot of the time cats are chipped but the chip is not registered so we can not reunite them,” she said.
“What we have to do is go to the company that supplies the chip then the vet who put the chip in and hope they remember the cat and therefore the client so we can go and reunite them.
“It would be so much simpler if everyone could register the chip.
“The heartbreaking part of my job is people calling us and saying their cat has gone missing and then weeks later you find out the cat has died.”
Bel added that a common misconception about the charity is that cats that can’t find homes are put to sleep, but she emphasised that they “never put a healthy cat to sleep”.
She said: “There is no difference made in which cats we take in, they could be 20years or a young kitten, they all get the same treatment, good food good vet care and love.
“Nothing beats a home and that’s probably one of the hardest messages to get across to the general public they see little comfy pods with heat toys and food, why would you want to take a cat away from that.
“Simple, they don’t see the stress, that being in the centre creates. Dirty behaviour /aggressive behaviour and losing the will to function normally as a cat in what is an alien environment.
“Cats Protection means we never put a healthy cat to sleep, so very often every pen is full.
“I believe in this place and the volunteers believe a cat should be treated kindly and we should take time to understand the cat’s needs,” she said.
As the charity celebrate their 25th year, Bel is looking to the future and hopes they can help thousands more cats over the next two decades.
She said she wanted to use the landmark birthday to let the wider public know exactly what her staff and volunteers do on a daily basis.
“In the future I would like to see more branches, a lot more volunteers because there is so much work to be done,” she said.
“I think I would like to see people using the schemes that we are putting forward to help themselves and help charities like us having to find homes for all those cats.
“We are taking tiny steps but I think the future is looking a lot better than it was 25 years ago.”
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