The image of stray cats pictured by many of us may vary greatly, ranging from furry, friendly faces to killers of wildlife, or even disease spreaders.
But for animal lover and dedicated volunteer Nicole Swyers, this story is different.
“Often stray cats become strays through no fault of their own. Being able to give stray cats the help they need, and finding them a new home is very rewarding,” Swyers says.
A cat rescuer herself, Swyers also handles all of the intakes at Furry Friends Animal Shelter in Barrie.
In her experience at Furry Friends, Swyers has devoted her time to providing comfort to cats who keep coming in, whether they need dental surgery, are pregnant, or have young kittens outside.
“They just need a warm bed, food in their bellies and a second chance — and we give them that chance," she says.
The most gratifying aspect for Swyers, she says, is seeing the cats thrive and be adopted into loving homes. She remembers one time when she fostered a six-month-old cat who was found outside with his siblings.
“He would hiss and growl at me when I went in his foster room. If I got too close, he would swat at me and cower in his cat tree," she says.
Swyers spent over two months picking the cat up and petting him with a towel. Finally, one day he decided that she was OK and started to come out from hiding and purr every time she came into the room. Eventually, he started to sit on her lap.
“Four months after I brought him home, he was ready for adoption and then he found a lovely home and is the best cat companion," she says.
Over the years, despite the occasional lack of volunteers and funds, Swyers doesn’t hesitate to do the best she can to help the more than 500 cats the volunteer-run shelter takes in every year.
“The cats move you to go on — seeing them in the shelter, knowing that they are relying on us for their care," she says.
Unlike those who vilify free-roaming stray cats, Swyers pointed that they are only innocent and vulnerable creatures in need.
“Many cats who become strays are, unfortunately, left behind by their owners, often because the cat needs medical attention that their owner cannot afford to do," she says.
Cats brought into the shelter as a stray are checked for a chip and posted as “found” in the hope that their owner can be located. Failing that, the shelter gets them the vet attention the cats need. They are then put up for adoption.
Swyers says it’s very difficult to balance life and her routine as a “cat saviour,” as cat rescue can be 24 hours a day, seven days a week. In addition to housing cats, she says, the shelter co-ordinates a very large foster program with more than 150 felines.
“There are also lots of behind-the-scenes activities that have to happen in order to make the rescue successful, such as fundraising, vetting, volunteer recruitment, etc.," she adds.
Nevertheless, Swyers acknowledges that taking a break sometimes is a must.
“For me, it is important to set aside time to do rescue work, but also to take time away from it as it can become overwhelming, not to mention heart-breaking," she says.
But in the end, the message that resonates with Swyers is that any stray cat who crosses our path deserves a second chance regardless of what it has been through.
“Sometimes that second chance is finding a new home to live. Other times, it’s living their life at the shelter where they are warm, fed and loved.”