Sister Seraphim, the Russian Orthodox nun who founded the Hermitage Cat Shelter in Tucson, Ariz., believed caring for unwanted cats was her highest calling. After being married, having children and traveling the world, she took her vows at the age of 46, and in 1965 she opened the nonprofit shelter.
"She was kind of an unorthodox Russian Orthodox nun," says Jennifer Reeve, Hermitage administrator. "She decided that she really wanted to help animals above all else."
In the ’60s, no-kill, cage-free shelters were not common. In fact, the Hermitage was the only one in the state. But the shelter was also Sister Seraphim’s home, and that was how she wanted to live with the cats. She didn’t even consider putting them in cages. Many people dumped their pets at the shelter, and she took them all in and provided them with food, shelter, and necessary veterinary care.
Sister Seraphim passed away in 1990, but the Hermitage, which is named after the cat-loving State Hermitage Museum in Russia, has continued to grow. It now houses more than 200 cats and includes separate areas for cats with chronic health issues, such as FIV and feline leukemia. The shelter is still no-kill and cage-free, and each cat has access to a screened-in patio, "so they can get some fresh air and watch the birds and the squirrels," Reeve says.
Most of the cats at the Hermitage arrive after being rescued from euthanasia at Pima County Animal Care Center. They also accept owner surrenders, but to discourage dumping, they charge an intake fee and have the cats’ owners help with initial medical expenses, such as spaying, neutering, and vaccines.
"Most people who give up their pets do care about them and don’t want to be giving them up," Reeve says. "Most people are ready and willing to take care of their cat’s financial needs."
In caring for the cats, the Hermitage has the help of more than 50 volunteers, who collectively donate more than 400 hours per month. They have a veterinarian from Valley Animal Hospital who comes in weekly and as needed, as well as vet techs on staff. Also, GabiKat Grooming, the only certified feline master-groomer in the state, volunteers for several hours each Friday.
"She spends usually almost six hours grooming as many cats as she can, to help us keep everyone clean and mat-free," Reeve says. "It’s awesome. It really helps us to get these guys adopted when they look their best."
When it comes to adoptions, the Hermitage does quite well. In 2011, they did 437 adoptions out of 450 intakes — and they are on track to do even better this year. To raise awareness and encourage people to donate and adopt, Reeve reaches out by attending community events and sending updates via mail, email, and Facebook. Reeve recently requested donations to provide veterinary care for a cat she wanted to rescue from Pima County Animal Care Center, and people were more generous than she could have hoped.
"I asked for $155 and ended up getting $3,700," she says. "So we were able to rescue the cat I asked for plus 18 others. It’s been great knowing that everything I do I’m able to use that to help the cats."
Like Sister Seraphim, Reeve is a lifelong cat lover. She got her first kitty when she was eight years old, when she was riding her bike and saw a sign advertising free kittens. "I immediately learned the first lesson of owning a cat, that there is no such thing as a free kitten," she says.
When she moved to Tucson in 2007, she looked up the local no-kill shelter and started making cat toys and beds to donate. She knew people online who knitted and crocheted, so she recruited them to make beds and toys, and she sold crochet patterns and donated half of the proceeds. When she saw the job opening at the Hermitage, she responded and said it would be her dream job.
"And it has been," she says. "They always say that the mark of a career is when you don’t have enough time in the day to do anything. When it’s just a job you’re watching the clock, thinking, when am I going to get out of here? But usually I can go 15 minutes past the end of the day, and I’m like, where did all the time go? I still have 10 more things to do."
Since working at the Hermitage, Reeve has made it through two kitten seasons — but not without her own family getting a little larger. Last year, she adopted a Siamese named Cassie, who nursed two litters of motherless kittens after her own pregnancy was terminated by veterinary staff. Cassie also plays mom to Reeve’s other cats, including an enamored one-year-old Maine coon whose hobbies include burying his face in Cassie’s belly and drooling.
"We called her Cassie the Wonder Mom," Reeve says. "She was just so awesome. She took on all of those kittens, and now I’ve got three other kittens who also look to her like mom. She’s short and chubby, and all these other cats just love her to death. She just adopts them all."