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Catster_award1_small_16A sign near the entrance of Animals in Need Super Thrift Store in Riverside, MO, declares the decades-old storefront is a “junk-hunter’s paradise.”

A quick stroll around the joint does not disappoint: Rows of shelves are lined with eclectic goodies, curios, and groceries galore. Boxes of Little Debbie snack cakes are on display down the aisle from colorful stained-glass garden ornaments. Donated clothing hangs on racks near stacks of Spanish-language and Christmas CDs and old Elvis records.

It’s just like any other thrift store — except for a thin brown tabby eating a from a bowl of food on the counter by the register. As thrift store owner Al Richey rings up customers, he works around the cat, who does not look up from his lunch. The friendly feline seems completely comfortable with the hustle and bustle of secondhand commerce.

And the tabby isn’t the only one. While trying on $4 sunglasses, a longhaired ginger kitty winds through my legs. I get down on her level to say hello. She has stunning ice-blue eyes.

These two cats are among the eight who call the store home — along with a 22-year-old senior (who has her very own chair at the front of the house) and a 17-year-old with cancer. According to Richey, his store’s permanent residents are considered “unadoptable” due to a variety of health and behavioral concerns, or because they were undersocialized and have simply been abandoned.

“I’ve got a little feral at my foot that someone just brought in the store and dropped,” Richey says. “It’s taken me four months to pet her, and nobody else has been able to pet her but me. She’s beautiful — she’s looking up at me as we speak.”

After operating a national surplus store for nearly 25 years, Richey retired four and a half years ago — sort of. Instead of closing his store, he redefined its mission. It is now staffed by 14 volunteers, and 100 percent of the proceeds go to helping sick or homeless animals at several rescue groups in the Kansas City area. According to Richey, their “main squeeze” is Kitty Cat Connection, a rescue network that fosters up to 150 kitties at a time.

After he switched gears, Richey’s role in the cat rescue community grew. Kitty Cat Connection started bringing adoptable kitties in on weekends, and soon people came in all week looking for cats. Then Richey started getting calls from individuals who wanted to surrender their cats for adoption — and some people simply dropped their unwanted pets off at the store.

Now the store has 13 cozy kennels housing kitties waiting to be adopted. Animals in Need adopts out older and FIV-positive cats in addition to younger cats and kittens. Last year, the organization spent more than $70,000 on veterinary care alone — and played a role in sending more than 500 cats to their forever homes.

“We have the advantage that people come in here for a box of Little Debbies and walk out with a cat,” Richey says. “Regular shelters don’t have that advantage — you’ve gotta want a cat when you go to a cat shelter.”

Over the years, Richey has seen some memorable matches. Most of the kitties he rescues come from individuals in the community. “We get 10 calls a day offering us a cat,” Richey says. Some also come from Kitty Cat Connection or other area rescue groups or veterinary offices where cats have run out of time and may be facing euthanasia.

On one occasion, they rescued a calico cat from the home of an elderly woman who could no longer care for her pet. A customer at the thrift store fell in love with the cat. There was only one problem.

“No one could pet it,” Richey says. “It was so angry and so cage-crazed that it would strike out at anybody who would get near it. This woman was determined that she could overcome that. We actually had to pick up the entire kennel and carry it up into her apartment building. We opened the door, and the cat just walked out like it had been there its whole life.”

Richey estimates that there are roughly 10,000 individuals in the Kansas City area who are doing what they can to care for the city’s large population of homeless animals, and he and the volunteers at Animals in Need — as well as the countless individuals who donate time, money, and cat food and litter to further their cause — are part of that.

“It takes a village,” Richey says. “I always call it the village of 10,000. If you were the wealthiest man in the world, you couldn’t take care of all the cats in Kansas City. But there are 10,000 people doing that. And we’re just part of the 10,000 — part of the village.”

Do you know of a rescue hero ÔÇö cat, human, or group ÔÇö we should profile on Catster? Write us at catsterheroes@catster.com.

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