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Street Cat Rescue: Giving Hope to Feral Cats in Austin, Texas

Saving a black cat inspired Donna Dayhoff Powell to found her "cat ranch" that's home to 50 felines.

Angela Lutz  |  Oct 20th 2016


Editor’s note: Have you seen the new Catster print magazine in stores? Or in the waiting area of your vet’s office? This article appeared in our September/October 2016 issue. Click here to subscribe to Catster and get the bimonthly magazine delivered to your home.

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Before Donna Dayhoff Powell founded Street Cat Rescue nearly 12 years ago, the Austin, Texas, resident was not a cat person. Then she discovered a skinny black cat lurking outside her office, and even someone who wasn’t fond of felines could tell the kitty needed help.

“It was cold and rainy out, and I decided to start feeding her,” Donna said, later naming the cat Kitty Mama. “I thought I’d better do the responsible thing and try to trap her and get her fixed.”

When Donna released Kitty Mama after surgery, she discovered the cat was nursing several kittens. She worried she’d harmed the kittens by getting their mother spayed, but the whole family survived. Eventually, Donna took in the kittens and found them homes — “and that’s when I became a cat person,” she said.

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Felines roam the “cat ranch” in Donna’s backyard.

Today, the nonprofit Street Cat Rescue cares for approximately 50 cats, most of whom live in a fenced-in, indoor-outdoor “cat ranch” behind Donna’s home. She adopts out tame adult cats and kittens, but the rest live out their lives on her property. Some of the feral felines she took home 12 years ago are still with her. Over the years, helping street cats has become Donna’s primary mission.

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“We want to help the ones who are sick and injured,” she said. “Through that transition of getting well, they tame down, and we find them good homes. But we’d like it to be less on the adoption side and more on education, trapping, and helping the special ones on the street who don’t have anyone to help them.”

Through her work with feral and abandoned cats, Donna has discovered many common misconceptions about street cats that are harmful to humans and felines alike. For instance, many people think that all outdoor cats need to be rescued and taken to a shelter. According to Donna, that is simply not the case.

“We recently had a situation where a mom had a litter of kittens, and when a guy grabbed her, he got bit,” she said. “He dropped her, and she ran right into traffic and got killed. I was livid. That’s one misconception — that they’re all nice cats, and they can be taken to the shelter, and they’ll get a home.”

Instead, Donna and her volunteers often work to manage cat colonies by spaying and neutering and feeding them regularly. The cats in the colonies Street Cat Rescue cares for know when it’s dinnertime — they hear the volunteer’s car drive up, and they wait to be fed. Under these circumstances, Donna said feral cats can live rewarding lives outdoors.

“My colony cats are going on 12 years old, and they’re still healthy and doing fine,” she said. “They used to say the average life of a feral cat was two to five years, but that’s if they’re not fixed and they’re not managed.”

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Kitty Mama made Donna a cat person.

Despite the organization’s focus on trap-neuter-return and caring for feral colonies, when a cat can live indoors and find a home, Street Cat Rescue does that as well. Its mascot, Arthur, was rescued when Donna found him hiding beneath some baskets in front of a home improvement store.

“I thought he was a baby opossum because he had no hair on his tail,” Donna said. “It was a cold, rainy night, and I thought, ‘What is a baby opossum doing in front of the store?’ Then I realized he had white boots, and he was a kitten.”

Once Arthur recovered from the severe mange causing him to lose all of his fur, he ended up being a gorgeous, fluffy Maine Coon. In that way, Arthur’s story is not unique — many of the cats Street Cat Rescue saves are sick or injured in some way. Hop-Along Henry arrived with what Donna believed to be a broken back. Several X-rays revealed that his back had actually healed — but it had fused crookedly, leaving Henry with “the cutest bunny hop,” Donna said. “He’s fast! He climbs trees and more … a very happy camper and permanent resident at the cat ranch.”

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Arthur now serves as Street Cat Rescue’s mascot

And there are more stories — like the blind cat rescued from a junkyard, or the abandoned cat suffering from a broken jaw after being hit by a car, or the cat with advanced cancer in need of hospice care. It’s being able to bring cats back from seemingly dire circumstances that Donna finds most rewarding.

“People at apartment complexes tend to leave cats behind because they figure someone else will take them in,” she said. “Or they’ll dump kittens at a grocery store thinking someone will take them. But what happens is they get scared, so they’ll run and hide, and … we have to trap them. We get them nutrition and medical care, and they end up being total love bugs and beautiful cats.”

About the author: Angela Lutz is a writer living in Kansas City, Missouri. 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 head-butts and purrs from her two cats, Bubba Lee Kinsey and Phoenix. Follow Angela on Twitter.