Meet Sandra Schiavone of Cool Cats Rescue.
Several years ago, Sandra was living in Texas, where she was the Office Manager for a veterinary hospital. One day a local no-kill humane society came calling and asked for her help with running their medical department. Although she had never worked with a rescue organization before, Sandra agreed, and soon she was completely hooked.
At the humane society, Sandra handled animal intake, medical issues, coordinated foster placement, and oversaw all communication with the organization’s veterinarian. She also ensured that all animals were tested, spayed or neutered, vaccinated, and microchipped before being put up for adoption.
Then 4 years ago, her husband, Steve, accepted a new job, and the family moved to Phoenix. Says Sandra, “When we came to Arizona, I looked into working for a local humane society, but they weren’t no-kill, and that went against my principles.”
So Sandra began volunteering for Nine Lives Foundation, a rescue organization that coordinated cat adoptions through a local Petco. In no time, she was performing the same duties she had for the humane society in Texas, but this time as a volunteer.
When Nine Lives made the decision to stop doing adoptions, Sandra helped co-found a new cat rescue group. They ran the group for a year-and-a-half, until, Sandra said “We came to the conclusion that we really didn’t see rescue in the same way.” They amicably parted ways, and with her husband Steve’s encouragement (he also came up with the name for her new organization), Sandra founded Cool Cats Rescue.
I recently met with Sandra, who lives with 8 rescue cats and 6 rescue dogs of her own, to ask her all about the logistics involved with starting an animal rescue. I also found out what keeps her motivated, and what advice she has for passionate people who are looking to follow in her footsteps.
Q: Once you decided to start Cool Cats Rescue, how did you logistically go about forming the organization? What were the steps involved?
A: The biggest hurdle was getting my 501c3 non-profit status, as that was very important for me. Here’s where I got lucky: the founder of Nine Lives is my friend and a lawyer, so she did all the paperwork for me.
I then needed a logo and a website. Luckily I have a very talented family – my stepdaughter designed my logo, and my hubby created the website, using a template that we chose from a company that designed them.
During the first month (December 2013), I started to set things up. I chose Petpoint (a web-based data management system) as my database, as this formalizes all your inventory and is a great way to process information relevant to each kitten. I also set up bank accounts, and opened a Paypal account (since most people like to pay adoption fees with a credit card).
I also created all the necessary documents. These included:
- Adoption Agreements
- Adoption Consultation Forms (filled out if there’s interest in a kitty)
- Foster Agreements
- Volunteer Agreements
- Owner Surrender Forms
These are the basic forms you need in order to formally process adoptions and to ensure you have information on all your foster homes and volunteers. My database Petpoint has been a great way to keep track of them. (It also comes free with the purchase of the 24-Petwatch microchips, which I use).
I also found fosters to help (which were many of the same ones I’d been using with previous groups), and I started setting up foster space and obtaining supplies like medications, microchips, vaccines, food, litter, etc.
In January 2014, I went to a high-kill shelter in Casa Grande, Arizona, to pick up some kittens – and so my adoptions started.
Q: What were some of the most challenging things you encountered getting started?
A: Getting the non-profit status was trying: it took 6 months, but I was expecting it to take only 2. Having that status makes the group official, and makes it easier to partner with adoption venues.
Setting up a PayPal account ultimately went smoothly, but originally I’d tried to set one up with my bank. That became a very confusing process, which ended up with them backing out, so I went with PayPal instead.
Partnering with pet stores initially was rather difficult, but in the end everything fell into place.
Q: What kind of financial investment is involved in starting an animal rescue organization like Cool Cats?
A: You easily need about $5,000 just to start. The 501c3 requires money (and if you need to hire a lawyer to do it, more would be needed). The supplies (cages, medicines, etc.) also take a huge toll. All in all, $15,000 was spent last year (2014), and a large part of this came out of my own salary.
Q: Do you work with corporate sponsors? If so, how did you get them?
A: For the most part, I do not have corporate sponsorship. Most of my funds come out-of-pocket. I’ve been fortunate to have found a handful of generous, kind-hearted people who help me out financially when I need it. I also have a great volunteer who has become my friend who organizes a fundraiser for me every year, “The Black Cat Affair.” We do get some corporate sponsorship for that event through a company my hubby works with.
Q: Where does Cool Cats Rescue get the kittens and cats that are placed?
A: About 40% I pull from the Pinal County Animal Shelter in Casa Grande, Arizona, a county kill shelter. I like helping them, as it’s further away from Phoenix and most other rescue groups don’t want to go there. And even though ultimately they are a kill shelter, they really care about the animals they have.
The remaining 60% I get from either rescue friends who do TNR and find kittens, or from random strangers who find them and contact me by phone, email, on Facebook, and through the pet store where I do adoptions.
Q: How many kittens and cats have you placed in forever homes so far through Cool Cats Rescue?
A: Last year, I rescued 240 kittens, most of whom were adopted. There are occasional casualties, since we tend to take in tiny babies, and their survival chances are lower. I also like to take in sick ones, so that they too get a chance at a loving home. But they don’t always survive. Sometimes their immune systems are just too compromised when they come to us.
Adult momma cats that I can’t place in a home when their kittens are weaned, I transfer to a no-kill shelter so they can find a home. Unfortunately, I don’t have the space nor the fosters available to keep an adult cat for the long duration it takes to find a home for them. One day I hope to be able to get enough sponsorship to afford a shelter.
Q: How did you find a veterinarian to partner with?
A: Here I was very lucky, as I was already affiliated with my vet beforehand with the other rescue groups. While I was still volunteering for Nine Lives, Dr. Sarah Bashaw was just starting her own practice, El Dorado Animal Hospital. One of our volunteers had met her and raved about her, so I contacted her, and she was very interested in having a rescue group to help. Then when I started Cool Cats Rescue, she was more than happy to help me. She is a fantastic vet and a great support. She does my spays and neuters and helps me with the sick kittens.
Q: How do you find foster homes for your kittens?
A: I don’t have many fosters, as I’m very fussy about who can foster for me. I’ve had some bad experiences in the past where kittens died due to negligence.
Right now I have 5 fosters whom I trust completely and who also have some medical knowledge of kittens. They know that a kitten’s health can turn for the worse overnight; one minute they can be happily romping around, and that evening they can be crashing and lying limp in your hands. So I’ve been very fortunate to have found a little army of great fosters, who have become my friends.
Q: What advice do you have for someone starting an animal rescue organization?
A: If you don’t have any experience with animal rescue, get some experience first. This will give you insight into all that is required to run a rescue. Make a plan, make a budget of what you can realistically afford, then check to see if you can find a vet to partner with you, so you can get affordable rates. These babies can and do get sick, and will need medical support.
Lastly, make sure that you spay/neuter every animal you place in a home, before you place it. Never leave it in the hands of the adopter, even if you give them a spay/neuter voucher. Because ultimately, many times they still don’t, and it only adds to next year’s problem of pet overpopulation.
Q: Have you ever been discouraged or wanted to give up? What motivates you to keep going?
A: Many, many times! In addition to having a full-time job, I take care of over 40 kittens at one time, especially during kitten season. And usually there’s about 25% of them that require medicating, force feeding, and time-consuming handling. It is tiring, and one can get fatigued and sometimes disappointed when after all the hard work, the kitten still doesn’t survive. Or when the family you were so confident was going to be a great home for the kitten turns out to be disappointing.
But all I need to do is go see my little fosters and the love in their eyes when they see me, or the smiles of the adopters when they take their little kitten in their arms, and all is well. I cannot imagine not doing this.
Have you ever thought about starting your very own animal rescue organization? Please tell us about it in the comments below!