While most animal welfare organizations are born from a life-long devotion to the cause, Kitty Bungalow Charm School for Wayward Cats founder and Headmistress Shawn Simons didn’t identify as an animal lover until later in life. “I’m kind of a bizarre animal advocate,” she says. “I didn’t grow up with animals. I wasn’t particularly an animal lover.” Her view changed when she bought a house that had a feral, unspayed, Siamese cat living in the backyard. “She was dropping babies in our yard right and left. I started finding homes for the kittens and couldn’t believe how fast the next litter would come.”
While researching ways to solve her problem, Shawn learned about the Trap, Neuter, Return (TNR) movement and began to organize TNR efforts in her neighborhood. Word spread quickly about the work she was doing, prompting her to branch into other neighborhoods in her community.
At a national conference hosted by Best Friends Animal Society, Shawn learned more about TNR, feral cats, and socialization– issues that had been largely neglected by much of the animal rescue community. “I went to the Best Friends conference as an individual”, she says, “and came out as an organization.” And, just like that, Kitty Bungalow Charm School for Wayward Cats was born.
The mission of Kitty Bungalow Charm School for Wayward Cats is simple: “to provide all cats able to adjust to indoor life with a warm and loving lifelong home, while providing those cats who need to continue living outdoors with a caring colony manager, assuring all cats, lap or otherwise, a humane and happy existence.” The key, of course, to finding homes for stray and semi-feral cats is socialization.
Kittens are most easily and successfully socialized if the process happens before they’re 8 weeks old, but Kitty Bungalow takes a more liberal approach. “We socialize kittens up to 4 months old, no questions asked. They are still kittens and they can still be reached. We can go older than 4 months with temperament testing. We’ll take in older strays if we see that they are open to making contact.”
“When I first started,” Shawn recalls, “I knew nothing about animal behavior. I used to think that when a cat hissed at me it was aggression. But what I’ve come to learn is that it isn’t aggression; it’s 100% anxiety.” That revelation helped shape the way Kitty Bungalow socializes. “What we’re all about is taking a psychological approach to where a cat is at and helping them break through their anxiety.”
One way Kitty Bungalow achieves this is with the sheer amount of volunteers the cats interact with. The organization is sustained by 80 volunteers per week. That’s 13 volunteers per day, spread throughout 5 daily shifts. “All of the human interaction breaks down the anxiety. It helps skittish cats get used to all kinds of people, which ultimately makes them more easily adoptable.”
Kitty Bungalow is a cage free environment. Instead of cages, the building is parceled up into small classrooms. “The rooms are quite small on purpose,” Shawn explains. “In a big space, the cats can run from you. That creates a chase scenario, which in turn creates anxiety. Cutting down the space they have cuts down the amount of time they’re able to build their own internal anxiety.”
Each volunteer goes into every step of the socialization process with a very clear objective geared towards the particular cat. “They aren’t just going in and petting and playing. Instead, they’ve read the diary notes on how that cat has been progressing and what has worked for that cat in the past so they can continue to move the cat to the next level. To do that, you must do it consciously. You have to know what it is you’re trying to achieve with your time there.”
Shawn and her fellow volunteers aren’t discouraged by tough cases. “The tough cases, the ones you really have to work for, are the most satisfying. We had a group of kittens come in at about 3 months old. One was so hissy and terrified of everything. I kept reading notes from volunteers and it was so hard to get through to him, but we were finally able to break through the fear. When you get a kitten that starts to purr for the first time, it’s a pretty amazing feeling. And when you’re able to show it and tell other volunteers that this kitten is purring, it gives them the courage to continue. And when those cats get homes… when you feel like this one is never going to get a home, and they not only get a home but you get emails from the new owners and they are just over the moon with happiness… I think that’s when you really feel like you’ve done some work.”
In its 6 years of operation, Kitty Bungalow has socialized and facilitated adoptions for over 1,100 cats! The socialization process doesn’t end once a cat gets adopted though. Shawn believes that people should have similar mindsets about cat adoptions as they do about dog adoptions. “When you adopt a dog, you get so much information on training. There’s so much effort that you’re expected to put into that. Many people who adopt cats expect to put in no effort. When we adopt out we try to tell folks that for the transition, continue with the work we do to allow them to keep expanding as social cats.”
Keeping in line with their roots, Kitty Bungalow is also active in TNR work and has spayed/neutered around 1,000 cats in addition to the cats they have taken in. “We think it’s very important to work at the core of the issue,” Shawn says. “We need to get to the core of the problem.”