Sanctuary runneth over

With few volunteers and little money, the Chico Cat Coalition’s efforts in Bidwell Park are on hold

Judy Alberico holds one of the Chico Cat Coalition’s socialized cats living inside its sanctuary facility.

Judy Alberico holds one of the Chico Cat Coalition’s socialized cats living inside its sanctuary facility.

Photo By Stacey Kennelly

Lend a hand:
The Chico Cat Coalition is hosting its annual fall benefit dinner, “Moonlight Meows,” on October 28. To learn more about the benefit, call 588-0579. To learn about the coalition’s volunteer opportunities, or to donate, visit

On the western outskirts of Chico, there exists a place where unwanted cats of all sizes, breeds and personalities rest and roam. There, food bowls are always full, litter boxes are consistently cleaned, and the threat of being put down simply does not exist.

This sanctuary inside an old red barn is the home base of the Chico Cat Coalition, a volunteer-based organization that traps and houses cats and kittens found in Lower Bidwell Park. The no-kill nonprofit started up 13 years ago, after founders got the OK from the city of Chico to catch cats and house them in a colony, which is located on a quiet piece of private property in the orchards.

During its tenure, the coalition has removed and socialized 925 feral and domesticated abandoned cats, and has found 740 of them permanent homes either at the sanctuary or with adoptive families. But a recent lull in the number of volunteers has put the brakes on outreach and adoption efforts, eliminating vacancies at the shelter, and therefore making it impossible for the coalition to take in more animals.

“Over the last two years, we lost a large number of volunteers,” said Frank Holtz, a member of the coalition’s board of directors. He explained that a few volunteers who kept the coalition moving have had to stop volunteering due to age or injury: “A lot of them get old and they can’t do the scoopin’ anymore.”

The coalition’s troubles are also shared by local birders who are most concerned with finding a way to remove the non-native “super-predators” from the park, said Dawn Garcia, an avian-ecologist and member of the Altacal Audubon Society.

“We were all brought into it together because we found [feral cats were a] problem, and we’ve been dependent on the Chico Cat Coalition because they’ve done such a good job taking care of things in the past,” Garcia said. “But the question is, where are we now?”

Domestic cats breed at rates unlike any other cats in the United States, and their instincts to hunt and kill are high, regardless of whether they’re hungry, she said. For this reason, wildlife enthusiasts have long been concerned about cats preying on Bidwell Park’s native small mammals and birds.

Prior to the cat coalition’s existence, birders were noticing a reduction in bird populations and many attributed the decrease to the feral cat population.

“And then the Chico Cat Coalition got involved and bird populations increased, specifically the California quail,” said Garcia, adding that the information is anecdotal, and a scientific study has never been conducted on the matter.

Talk about the feral- and domesticated-cat problem in Bidwell Park has been ongoing for more than two decades, specifically in Lower Bidwell Park. In the late ’90s, with the number of cats living in the park in the hundreds, former General Services Director Dennis Beardsley helped form the Chico Cat Coalition and set up a network of volunteers, Holtz said.

Volunteers from the no-kill organization spent their time identifying feral and abandoned cats in the park, and earning their trust through food offerings and patience. Many of the cats were born in the park, but some were illegally abandoned, as is the case today.

The coalition was well-funded and well-staffed in the past, but last year, it didn’t receive grant funding from the city of Chico it had relied upon for several years. It’s also constantly struggling to secure private donations. These hardships, coupled with the dearth of volunteers willing to perform the less-than-glamorous work required each day to keep the sanctuary clean and the cats happy, have left the organization with little money or manpower to accomplish the tasks needed to control Bidwell Park’s cat population.

In fact, volunteers have not been able to rescue or adopt out cats since early this year.

“We’re determined to get the adoptions going and get back to doing what we’re set up to do,” said Judy Alberico, a volunteer who has been with the coalition since the first of the year. “We’re just making our minds up, even if it means working longer hours.”

The coalition’s rental agreement prohibits it from adopting cats out of the barn, so the board is looking for a venue in which they can host regular adoption events.

Aside from adoptions, the organization’s to-do list includes improving public relations and visibility in the community, increasing fundraising efforts, and keeping closer tabs on the coalition’s website and voicemail. But all those improvements require money and volunteers with the time and energy to take them on, Holtz said.

Overpopulation of feral and abandoned cats is a problem in communities across the nation, said Kathy Wintroath, a veteran officer with Chico’s Animal Control unit. Stray cats are especially prevalent in temperate climates including California, where cold snaps don’t occur and kittens have a better chance at surviving into adulthood.

Last year, Animal Control captured about 3,000 cats in Chico, most of which were pursued after a resident submitted a complaint. The cats are taken to the Butte Humane Society, where they have a five-day period in which their owners can reunite with them. If there is room at the sanctuary, BHS hands cats found in Bidwell Park over to the coalition. Otherwise, the future of the animals is grim.

The number of cat intakes at the BHS tends to double during hot summer months when many cats give birth, said manager Trent Burnham. He has yet to notice an increase in the number of cats this year compared to last year, but he’s knocking on wood since the summer heat took longer to arrive this year.

Animal Control pursues capturing a cat after receiving a complaint, but it often takes a while for that complaint to be made, Wintroath said. That is because many homeless cats appear plump and healthy—thanks to full Dumpsters and dishes of food left out by other cat owners—and many don’t wear collars and tags, causing neighbors to assume a friendly cat could belong to someone on the block.

For now, the Chico Cat Coalition is staying afloat thanks to a few repeat donors and an allocation of $3,000 in grant funding from the city.

The coalition is also waiting on a few new dedicated volunteers to step forward; individuals who are willing to work, day after day, for no compensation other than the satisfaction of knowing the cats have a permanent home.

That love for the animals by current volunteers was apparent at a recent visit to the sanctuary, when one woman showed up with a bag full of toys, and another gasped when she arrived and learned that Turtle—a kitten at the sanctuary who has feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV)—wasn’t feeling well that day.

Working with individuals who simply love being with the cats gives the sanctuary a “different feeling” of warmth and peace, Alberico said.

“The cats keep me coming back,” she said. “Every morning, when I walk in that front door, they come running.” She paused, her eyes tearing up as she described how Bidwell, one of the shelter’s notoriously standoffish tabby cats, let her pet him for the first time last week. “He’s just so sweet. He wants love so bad, but he’s just a little shy.”

Holtz chimed in: “You get to know them. And you just want to give ’em a chance at life.”