If you think it’s cold outside, just imagine how stray cats must be feeling. Life for feral and stray cats is never easy but in winter, things get especially tough. Food becomes scarce, shelter becomes hard to find, and life can quickly become unbearable. But fortunately for the strays of Salt Lake City, this winter is proving to be just a little bit easier than most. Why? Because of a couple of teens with big imaginations and even bigger hearts. The summer of 2020 didn’t exactly have a lot to recommend it. In Salt Lake City, a 16 year old by the name of Emily Keller was struggling to find ways to occupy her time. Social distancing protocols put meeting up with friends off the table, and all the events she’d lined up for the school vacation had been canceled.
But Emily wasn’t going to let her summer be a complete waste. Determined to find something constructive to do with her time, she decided to start her own project. The project she eventually decided on was to foster kittens. As she later explained to KSL News Radio, the project quickly turned into an all-consuming passion for looking after stray cats – a passion that took on a new dimension as winter began to approach. “I realized after researching, so many cats are outside living in the cold,” Emily says. “And it made me so sad. So I wanted to make shelters for them.” So that’s exactly what she did.
From Strays to Shelters
When the new school year started in the fall, Emily was quick to tell her classmates all about her new passion for caring for stray cats. Her friend Anagha Rao was intrigued by Emily’s story and quickly offered to help out. Together, the two teenagers set out to make Emily’s dream of building shelters for the city’s strays a reality. After publicizing their project, they were soon inundated with the donations and supplies they needed to get their plans underway. Using recyclable materials like styrofoam, cardboard boxes, and even trash bags, the two students began making their shelters. Aware that subzero temperatures can be extremely hazardous to cats, resulting in everything from frostbite to hypothermia, Emily and Anagha made sure to insulate the boxes well. Within next to no time, they had two dozen insulated shelters ready and waiting to provide a cozy home to the strays of Salt Lake City.
Furthering the Campaign
Within a very short space of time, Emily and Anagha had managed to construct 24 insulated boxes for the stray cats of Salt Lake City to shelter in over winter. But now they had a problem – distribution. Emily had started volunteering with a local nonprofit called Kitty CrusAIDe the previous summer: determined to see if they could help deliver the cat shelters throughout Salt Lake Valley, she put in a call to the organization’s founder, Dani Braun. Braun was only too delighted to help. Since its inception, Kitty CrusAIDe has operated a Trap-Neuter-Return-Maintain (TNRM) system to help control the stray and feral cat population of the city. The program involves humanly trapping community cats to neuter or spay. As well as reducing the feral cat population through humane means, the organization also helps contain diseases in cat communities by administering vaccinations and medical treatments to trapped cats.
Unlike certain other organizations, Kitty CrusAIDe has a no-euthanasia policy. All the cats they trap are returned to their community. Although noble, the policy has a problem: TNRM shelters are lacking in Utah, with the result that the program isn’t able to manage the feral cat population as effectively as it could. By joining forces with Emily and Anagha, Braun hoped to inspire other cat-loving Utah residents to create their own shelters to help the cat populations of their communities. “Our long-term goal would be to inspire other people and tell them this is such an easy project and it has such a big impact,” Anagha says. “We want to help other people realize that it’s a simple project that they can do themselves.”
How to Help
As Anagha says, making a cat shelter doesn’t require a huge financial or time commitment. “Just taking things you have in your home and using them to make a difference can be more powerful than going out and buying expensive things and using those,” she explains. If you’re keen to get involved in helping the cat communities in your own neighborhood, Alley Cat Advocates has some great advice about building a warm, insulated winter shelter. Styrofoam bins such as those used to ship perishable food and medical supplies make great shelters, as do plastic storage bins with removable lids. When you’re constructing the shelter, they recommend keeping these ideas in mind:
- Keep it Small – Before you get carried away with any grand designs, remember that the smaller and snugger the interior, the less heat is needed to keep the cats inside warm.
- Use Strong Insulation – Insulation is vital to keep the cats snug and cozy and prevent heat loss. Only use insulating material that lets the cats burrow into it. Straw is the best option, as this absorbs plenty of moisture and is less likely to develop mold than hay. Avoid using blankets, towels, or newspapers as these all retain wetness and can absorb body heat.
- Raise It Off the Ground – Don’t place the shelter directly on the ground. To maximize interior warmth, elevate it slightly and use straw underneath. This will help the cats retain as much body heat as possible.
- Placement is Everything – As ASPCApro notes, the placement of shelters is important in keeping cats safe from predators. Place your shelter behind a fence where dogs aren’t able to access it. Alternatively, keep the entrance facing a wall so only cats are able to squeeze in and out. Keep the entrance/ exit holes small enough that only a cat can use them: as a guideline, aim to keep them to about five-and-a-half or six inches in diameter. It’s also worth considering adding a second door as an escape route. If you do this, be mindful of the fact that two doorways will result in more heat escaping. To keep the cats as warm as possible, add flaps to the doorways. To stop any predators knocking the shelter over, make sure to hold it down with a weighty object.