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City Living: Orphan cat rescue more than a pet project

Group rescued 1,845 cats last year

Working with an animal rescue group puts the duality of human nature into stark relief; the cruelty that is the reason for their existence, and the kindness that gives hope.

The people who work with organizations such as the Vancouver Orphan Kitten Rescue are a special sort with their own duality, compassion and the steely strength that gets them through the endless days, weeks and, in Karen Duncan’s case, years.

Duncan started VOKRA in her Vancouver basement in 2000 along with Maria Soroski. The intention was to look after kittens that needed to be bottle-fed as local shelters did not have the capacity to deal with that particular round-the-clock care.

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VOKRA recently rescued these two Siamese-mix kittens at the Port of Vancouver. Photo: Rebecca Blissett

“That’s what we intended to do at first. It kind of skyrocketed,” said Duncan as she cradled a sleepy, shaky white kitten in one of the intake pods at VOKRA’s new Vancouver home while the group’s fundraising craft fair buzzed outside.

If the word “skyrocketed” could ever be used as an understatement, describing VOKRA’s growth would be the place.

The group rescued 1,845 cats last year (VOKRA’s website paints a good visual of that number: “Imagine three cats in every seat at the Vancouver Playhouse Theatre!”). Duncan’s basement was bursting at the seams so the organization found its first real headquarters, which is being kept secret to discourage the inevitable — people dumping cats on the doorstep.

Unlike a shelter, people are not welcome to drop by. As soon as a cat is healthy, it is fostered by one of the many volunteers until a permanent home is found. A big part of VOKRA’s responsibilities is trapping and neutering strays, a project that has tamed Vancouver’s once out-of-control feral cat problem since the group began 14 years ago.

“We’ve cleaned up the colonies in Vancouver. We get the cats fixed and if they’re tame, they’re adopted. If they’re not tame, they go back. That’s the kind thing to do… It’s like a skunk or a raccoon, they know their territory,” said Duncan.

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Artisans Elaine Lai (left) and Kayla Fitzpatrick share a laugh during the VOKRA craft fair at its new Vancouver location Dec. 15. Photo: Rebecca Blissett

“We’ve got one colony near here, I think they’re about 10 years old now and they’re the baddest feral cats you’ve ever seen!”

Volunteers ensure there’s some food and water put out for the wild cats, Duncan added.

“It’s what should be done. It’s not their fault they’ve been dumped. It all stems from people somewhere along the line,” she said with a sigh.

Some cats, though, are waiting to be rescued. There was a big-headed tabby in one of the back pods, found as skin and bones. Duncan said she opened the door to the trap and in he walked. “It was the easiest trap I’ve ever done,” said Duncan. “Obviously, he had been somebody’s cat and neglected. Or lost.”

VOKRA goes through the usual channels of online message boards to locate owners, with a great success rate if the cat is wearing a collar or is tattooed. But sometimes it’s clear they’ve been just been left and forgotten.

Duncan received a call about two black cats that had been left behind after a family moved. The pair waited on the front porch of the empty Vancouver house that was for sale.

“It was high season and we were just run off our feet. By the time we got there, the house had sold and been torn down,” Duncan remembered. “The cats were sitting on top of the rubble. They didn’t know what to do.”

This is just one of the many stories Duncan has dealt with over the years. While this one had a happy ending (both cats went together to a new home), the barrage of animal neglect and abuse is difficult to comprehend.

“It’s hard,” said Duncan. “It has a real high breakdown rate, to put it lightly. Seeing the sick and dying animals day after day, it gets to you. Over the years, I’ve learned to take the dying kittens and get through it. I’d rather they be with me dying than out on the street and dying alone.”

VOKRA is a no-kill shelter and relies on donations, with other funds coming from adoption fees — which don’t even begin to cover the cat’s care of good food, vaccinations and medical care — fundraising and grants.

While the location is unknown to most, the new operations centre is a point of pride for VOKRA. The place was renovated and the donations provided items such as the fresh paint to the metal kennels and the pod construction to the intake/outtake air systems that stops the spread of illnesses.

That, along with the many VOKRA’s many volunteers, is tangible evidence of kindness.

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