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5 Reasons to Watch “Shelter Me” on PBS This Month

I attended a special screening of an episode featuring Oakland's Cat Town Cafe. I laughed. I cried. I met the producer. I cried some more.

Keith Bowers  |  May 6th 2016


The Grand Lake Theater is an Oakland landmark. It lists some big names among its visitors: George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, Danny Glover, and Tom Hanks. Rachel Maddow saluted the 90-year-old movie palace on her talk show. Fahrenheit 9/11 director Michael Moore featured it on his website. Thus it made an impressive — and fitting — venue for a screening last week of Shelter Me, the PBS series that highlights animal rescue.

The episode, “Hearts and Paws,” features Oakland’s Cat Town Cafe & Adoption Center — the nation’s first cat cafe, located about a mile and half from the theater — as well as Cat Town partner Oakland Animal Services. The episode also features Mutts comic strip creator Patrick McDonnell.

Shelter Me producer Steven Latham attended the screening, as did Susanne Kogut, executive director of the Petco Foundation. After the screening, Kogut handed Oakland Animal Services a $90,000 check the size of a sheet of plywood. As moving as that was, “Hearts and Paws” moved me more. It airs on PBS stations around the country this month. Here are five reasons to watch it.

1. A cat the size of King Kong towers over the Oakland skyline

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I’m exaggerating. This Tribune Tower is a small-scale replica of the iconic Oakland building. It’s among the cat furniture at Cat Town. Also, the cat is slightly smaller than the fictional great ape who grabbed Fay Wray and climbed the Empire State Building.

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Nonetheless, in Shelter Me, Latham makes the stories of the cats — and the hearts of the humans involved — seem bigger than a skyscraper and mutant gorilla put together.

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A new Cat Town arrival looks into the Oakland night.

For example, we meet one cat, Levi, who at the shelter is so freaked out and withdrawn, we’re just certain that his story won’t end well. He’s exactly the kind of cat you’ve heard about whose lack of engagement makes his odds of adoption so remote he ends up on death row. But the people at Cat Town put his portable cage in a big quiet room where cats can adjust at their own pace. I won’t tell you how Levi’s story ends, but you’ll definitely need some tissues.

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2. A comic artist high-fives a black cat

McDonnell visited Animal Care Centers of NYC for a week and, based on the animals and people he met, created a series called Shelter Stories. In one of the segment’s many uplifting moments, McDonnell meets a rescue cat who gives him a high five. We learn that staffers teach cats this trick to increase their chances of adoption. McDonnell can hardly believe it.

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The artist comes across as compassionate, curious, engaging, and inspiring. Seeing him so touched by the animals and people makes it clear how strong the love and dedication are.

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Here’s a video short showing more of McDonnell’s visit.

3. Bunny speed dating

Domesticated rabbits, it turns out, are among the most-surrendered pets at the Manhattan shelter. If people who own rabbits express interest in adopting another, they’re asked to bring theirs in for a round of “speed dating” in which the bunnies are paired up in a pen. Staffers closely supervise the animals, and they can often tell within a couple of minutes whether the two will get along.

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Here’s McDonnell’s rendition of the process:

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4. You’ll hear good news about public shelters

McDonnell can’t stop smiling during one of his comments: “The unconditional love is just all around this place.”

In the photo below, he talks with a couple from Vermont who saw a dog on the shelter’s website and drove down to adopt him. Using the web is among the ways shelters are attracting more people and adopting out more pets. Oakland Animal Services’ partnership with Cat Town is another. Both facilities report impressive decreases in their euthanasia rates.

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McDonnell and others admit that they expected to face serious heartache and sadness when visiting or working at a shelter, but instead they found love and hope.

5. You’ll have a good catharsis

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Cat Town co-founder Ann Dunn.

Before the screening, I talked briefly with Cat Town co-founder Ann Dunn. We had a nice chat, but it was after a long workday and I wasn’t at my most lucid or articulate. Seeing her in “Hearts and Paws” sure changed that. After the screening — and a half-gallon of tears — I approached Dunn again and hugged her. I was so inspired by what she said and did in the film. I also spoke with another co-founder, Adam Myatt. This is the man who, when I met him for the first time last year during visit to Cat Town, had just lost one of his own cats but was so bright and engaging you’d never have known it. Adam cares about cats. He is the man you’re always glad to see regardless of the circumstances. The energy behind Cat Town and Oakland Animal Services is unmistakable in “Hearts and Paws.”

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Adam Myatt and friend.

Here’s the full video trailer:

“Hearts and Paws” airs on KQED-TV in the Bay Area on May 25. To learn when it airs in your area, visit the Shelter Me website, where you can enter your ZIP Code. If the site tells you it’s not airing in your area, try searching the website of your local PBS affiliate to double-check.