Winding up at a shelter is challenging for any cat, but the situation becomes even more dire when an animal has special needs. Most shelters lack the staff and resources to adequately care for disabled pets, so in addition to being the last ones adopted, they are often the first to be euthanized. While volunteering at her local shelter, Kimm Koocher decided that she wanted to give special-needs cats a chance.
“I became disheartened by the high euthanasia rates, especially for special-needs cats,” Koocher says. “There was no shelter in this area where any special needs cat had a chance to stay alive, and I wanted to change that.”
With two decades of volunteer experience under her belt, Koocher, a retired veterinary technician, founded West Side Cats in 2008. The nonprofit rescue group, located in Youngstown, Ohio, houses between 40 to 50 cats at a time and does approximately 450 adoptions per year, many with special needs.
In fact, cats who would most likely be put down at traditional shelters — namely those with disabilities, illnesses, or injuries — get top priority at West Side Cats. Most of the cats at the shelter are former strays, but the group also uses social media to rescue cats from other shelters.
“Most of our cats come from the mean streets of Youngstown,” Koocher says. “We always have a waiting list, but any injured or special-needs cat jumps to the head of the line and can usually come in immediately. We also pull cats from kill shelters, working with a nationwide group of people through social networking sites, particularly Facebook. Again, injured and special needs cats and kittens receive our top priority.”
Thanks to social networking, West Side Cats recently rescued a cat named Sailor who had moderate cerebellar hypoplasia, which causes tremors and a lack of coordination. Sailor’s previous owner lived in New York City and was threatened with eviction if she did not get rid of the cat immediately.
“Since an affordable apartment in New York is pretty much impossible to find, she was trying desperately to place Sailor and was running out of time,” Koocher says.
Fortunately, Koocher caught wind of Sailor via Facebook, and other area rescue groups helped arrange transportation to West Side Cats. Thanks to their efforts, Sailor’s story got the happy ending it deserved.
“Sailor stayed with us for over a year, finally finding her forever home through networking with other special-needs rescuers online,” Koocher says. “Her new family drove over four hours each way to adopt her.”
Since West Side Cats has made it their mission to save special-needs pets, it seems appropriate that their mascot is a paraplegic cat named Smoochie. At six weeks old, Smoochie was shut in a dresser drawer, breaking her back. When her former owners realized the cat would not walk again, they took her to an area rescue, where she spent her days in a cage.
“The rescue kept Smoochie until she was almost four-and-a-half months old,” Koocher says. “They took great care of her, but their rescue is a cage-based rescue. A paralyzed cat in a cage is basically a cat sitting in its own waste, since most paraplegics are incontinent.”
Fortunately, the Akron, Ohio-based rescue read about West Side Cats via Facebook and placed a call. Koocher immediately fell in love with Smoochie, and the rest is history; with personality to spare, the cat was “a natural to be a mascot.” All she requires is a little extra care. Smoochie wears diapers and has her own donated wheelchair, and she is bathed a couple of times each day. She is a huge hit with the public at West Side Cats’ events, where Koocher says it’s a huge bonus that “she can’t jump off the table and become lost.”
“It took all of 45 seconds for us to fall completely in love with Smoochie,” Koocher says. “She is a total diva and a very beautiful cat.”
West Side Cats is staffed completely by volunteers, and they rely on donations to help care for the cats they rescue, many of whom have been discarded or abandoned by their families. Over the winter, the group rescued cats from freezing conditions outdoors. They rescued a cat with head wounds from fighting on the streets. They said goodbye to cats who were sick, and they watched others heal from severe injuries and gain a new lease on life. The group’s mission is expensive and challenging, but Koocher says the success stories make it all worthwhile.
“[The most rewarding part is] when I hear from an adopter about how happy their cat is and how happy they are with their cat,” Koocher says. “I also cherish the friendships I’ve formed and seeing the cats here who would have had no chance at life if West Side Cats hadn’t existed to help.”
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About Angela: This not-crazy-at-all cat lady loves to lint-roll her favorite dress and go out dancing. She also frequents the gym, the vegan coffee joint, and the warm patch of sunlight on the living room floor. She enjoys a good cat rescue story about kindness and decency overcoming the odds, and she’s an enthusiastic recipient of headbutts and purrs from her two cats, Bubba Lee Kinsey and Phoenix.