With vivid blue walls mimicking the depths of the sea, the bright and sunny tropical-themed Paradise provides loving accommodations for cats whose former guardians have passed on or can no longer care for them. For a set advance fee, NatCat provides full care, including veterinary and dental services, for life.
Inside Paradise, about 25 cats snooze on carpeted cat trees, scamper over colorful stepped islands and lounge around a brightly painted “volcano.” The islands and volcano double as seating for visiting humans and feline nap spots. Boat-like litter boxes sit around the Dock of Retirement Bay, which also offers a tugboat-shape hidey-hole. Opening off the main room is a clinic and laundry reserved for retirees.
NatCat’s residents look sassy and content, their coats silken and glossy. Their lodgings are immaculate and fresh-smelling, thanks to constant cleaning.
Most retired cats are middle-aged or elderly, but a few are young, including Sierra. A large long-haired gray cat, Sierra occupies the adjacent kidney-disease suite along with six other kitties receiving a special diet and close monitoring. Sheila Sako, the resident caretaker who has been with NatCat over 14 years, believes Sierra ingested antifreeze, often fatal to cats and damaging to survivors’ kidneys.
On a warm summer afternoon, only Winky, a calico who arrived with six siblings when their pet parents retired to Las Vegas, occupies one of eight low-energy, pressure-sensitive heating pads arranged around the volcano’s middle “lava” level. Lucy, a mischievous black and white cat, and Jackster, a large orange tabby, explore soft cushions and bat catnip toys atop an island.
Paradise opens onto a screened porch filled with comfortable carpeted perches and cat trees where retirees can bask in the sun or catch a catnap.
While Winky’s parent still visits her former cats in San Diego, all of NatCat’s retired and adoptable resident cats receive loving care and regular social interaction from the organization’s long-serving staff and volunteers, including a group of developmentally disabled adults who enjoy playing with the cats.
Newcomers are integrated into the feline community gradually, Sako explains.
“We bring them in slowly, and as they become more accustomed to us we transition them to Paradise when they’re ready. It may be weeks or months. We pay a lot of attention to their pasts, their personality and their temperaments. We try to get as much information as possible as to what they like to eat, do and play with and whether they like children,” she says.
NatCat was the inspiration of the late C. Richard Calore, a career humane officer who founded the non-profit animal welfare organization in 1968 in Long Beach as a no-kill safe haven for cats and kittens. The original shelter moved to Newport Beach in 1993 and the Spring Valley facility opened in 1975.
Always a cat lover, Calore rededicated his life to feline protection and humane education in tribute to a “courageous cat” who arrived in his World War II foxhole during a frigid night, befriending, warming and revitalizing him.
Since his 1988 death, his widow, Gerri, a friendly, stylish woman with an infectious smile who serves as NatCat’s vice president for public relations, has strive to fulfill her promise to her husband to ensure the organization’s survival. Much of her focus is on fundraising and donor relations, since NatCat’s two shelters depend entirely on income from private donations, bequests and fees for adoption and retirement services. Recently tough economic times have brought both a decline in income and an increased demand for the organization’s services.
Calore is committed to maintaining her late husband’s legacy.
“The nice thing about NatCat is that it’s about love. It’s not just a warehouse for animals. And we try to do something to upgrade the facilities every year. People want to know that the organization is going to be around in 20 years,” she explains.
For NatCat’s first retirement center in Newport Beach, San Diego photographer/designer Bob Walker and his wife, artist Frances Mooney, designed a whimsical fantasy called “Life’s a Beach.” Creators of The Cats’ House, the Bay Park feline wonderland featured in their seven books, the artists employed similar design techniques to provide the cats a stimulating environment.
For the Spring Valley facility, which opened in June, Walker and Mooney envisaged a tropical paradise. While the economy has delayed installation of the finishing touches, including palm tree scratching poles and suspended “undersea” feline hideaways, the core tropical design is complete. NatCat is actively seeking donations to complete the Paradise project.
In developing his concept, Walker explains, it’s important to think like a cat.
“Where would you want to retire if you were a cat? Why, paradise, of course! So, there are palm trees, the Dock of Retirement Bay, two islands, a complete tropical paradise. We designed it by listening to our clients, the cats, and watching their behavior,” he says.
NatCat is one of very few shelters offering feline retirement programs.
“I’m so proud of NatCat for having the vision and courage to build Paradise because it’s unique in the world,” he adds.
While the retired cats usually remain with NatCat for life, the shelter, now at capacity because of the economy, is home to dozens of charming, adoptable adult cats and kittens, in need of forever homes. Because NatCat staff know the cats well, they are well qualified to match adopters with cats of the desired temperament.
NatCat welcomes visitors to its shelter, located at 9031 Birch St., Spring Valley, Tuesdays through Saturdays from noon to 4:30 p.m. Adoption fees start at $75. For more information about retirement, adoptions or donations, please visit their website at www.natcat.org, or call (619) 469-8771.