A Feline Special Needs Sanctuary: C & W Rustic Hollow Shelter

“I was wondering if you know of any cat sanctuary that takes disabled kitties? Could you reach out to your people?” On May 4, I received this message from a fellow cat lover, and I immediately embarked on a new venture. While I do have a growing list of cat rescues, until that point I hadn’t ever needed to find one for cats with special needs. In the end, my friends and I found a handful, spread across the country including one right next door in Iowa.

C & W’s Rustic Hollow Shelter, located in Nashua, is a life-care and cage-free sanctuary for special needs felines. The non-profit’s mission is to give “adoption-challenged” cats a chance at “a lifetime”. Its team of animal care specialists, volunteers, and medical personnel care for the 340 plus cats that come from rescue groups in its state as well as all over the United States. The sanctuary currently has six main buildings, each with an outdoor screened in catio that allows its feline residents can go out in three seasons of the year and TV’s with Catsitter videos playing for the inside entertainment. C & W Rustic Hollow Shelter is on my bucket list of shelters to visit. What follows is an interview with the director, Carmen Linda Conklin.

ALLISON: Why special needs cats?

CARMEN: Our sanctuary began in 1985 with rescue and adoption until a lady came to visit us who was dying of cancer and she had eight cats who were not adoptable because they were semi-tame and only familiar with her. She asked if we could help. We expanded the two-story farm house that I grew up in and remodeled an area just for her cats. It was then we made the determination that our calling was to help similar cats, ones would be killed if taken to most humane societies at the time.

I was legally blind all my life and totally blind for 20 years until a maintenance surgery gave me legal blindness status again and co-founder Wanda L Oriic had polio at age four. We are both independent and have great empathy for animals with health issues. We wanted to give these cats a ‘chance at a lifetime’ at our sanctuary. We have grown from two buildings to six buildings now and we rarely adopt out cats in our area as we give them all the comforts of home.

ALLISON: What is a typical day like at the sanctuary?

CARMEN: Our caregiver team come daily to clean and sanitize the cat buildings and rooms, scoop litter, feed and water and spend time giving TLC and/or socializing the cats. We have a Vet Tech and Assistant on staff who check on and do daily medications needed, grooming, etc. Our veterinarian is on site two to four times a month. It’s always a very busy and active day and it’s the care and diligence of our staff that give our cats something special. And we have volunteers who come and spend time working with individual cats or just hanging out and giving treats to all the cats.

ALLISON: How have you financially survived?

CARMEN: Financially as a nonprofit, we struggle to keep ahead of the rising costs and expenses involved in remodeling and upgrading buildings. In the case of last year’s flood in September, we had to completely redo one of the cat buildings that got flooded. We receive no city, county, state or federal monies, but we have a wonderful village of supporters and donors who help sponsor the cats and donate to our causes and need. We also do a lot of grant writing and fund raising and occasionally receive an estate bequest/life insurance.

ALLISON: How do you publicize your sanctuary?

CARMEN: We have a website and we do a lot of photos and updates on Facebook and social media. We also send out newsletters and emails keeping supporters ‘in the know’ on what we are doing.

ALLISON: Share a story or two of favorite cats.

CARMEN: There are far too many ‘favorites’ to me to choose from and so I talked to some of my staff. The story of Woody and Alice is a volunteer-favorite!

Story of Woody and Alice

Alice was rescued by a kind man in Virginia. She was found near death with maggots in both eyes. While Alice was at the veterinary hospital, a home was being looked for. Alice was going to be totally blind and her rescuers and Sharon’s Critter Action Team’ (S.C.A.T) went to work. They asked if Rustic Hollow would take little Alice, who was only 12 weeks old. We agreed. And we started our search for the purrfect companion for little Alice. Since we had no other kittens at C & W, we called a rescue friend at Whispurring Hope Rescue in Dubuque Iowa. We said we wanted a 12-week-old kitten who was mellow and laid back. She could not have chosen a more perfect kitten than little Woody, who also had a rough start in life. They came to Rustic Hollow just a week apart. Woody waited for his little lady friend and, right away, Alice established herself as ‘the boss’. And their relationship blossomed in just a couple of days. A special room was built for them in The Kat Barn and moving day was exciting for them. They had many toys to play with and much to explore. You can read more at…. A December Wedding

ALLISON: Share a story or two of challenging cats.

CARMEN: I think of Rebecca who is an older kitty who has been a resident for several years. She’s a challenging kitty because she does NOT like cats…. and we HAVE cats here. She’s lived in a few of our buildings and has decided that she prefers the Kitty Kottage. She’ll greet visitors then grumble and complain about the cats here to them.

Mulan is also a challenge kitty. She has very severed Cerebellar Hypoplasia (CH) and when she came she could not hold her head up and just laid on her side all the time. With laser treatments and TLC and exercises, Mulan learned to stand and to walk slowly and with her legs far apart like a baby deer. She’s in the final stages of her life now as she has suffered at least one stroke and her quality of life is subsiding. She has a special CH kitty friend Eddie who sleeps with her and is going to be lost without her. We’ve taken Mulan as far as she can go and we’ll have to soon say goodbye.

ALLISON: When did you spay/neuter program start and why?

CARMEN: We started a s/n program in 1990 with a vet who traveled here in her mobile clinic. We found our low-cost program to be expensive and we did fewer and fewer clinics. We revived our program and partnered with another county spay/neuter program in 2010 and, when they broke away in 2016, we continued hosting clinics monthly/bi-monthly on site with two participating veterinarians. Our goal is “No More Homeless Pets in Northeast Iowa”.

ALLISON: What is a typical day like for a visitor?

CARMEN: Visitors often tell us that when they come they thought they were going to “feel sorry” for the cats here. Once they come and meet the cats and see the bright and cheerful cat rooms and buildings, they no longer feel that way. We host an Open House every year and people come to visit the cats they sponsor here or come for the first time. Many come every year to spend the day sitting with cats in all the buildings. We encourage visitors. And some of our staff bring their families out after their work hours to spend time with the cats as well.

A visitor sits with some of the felines in Apollo's House, the FIV building at Rustic Hollow
A visitor sits with some of the felines in Apollo’s House, the FIV building at Rustic Hollow

ALLISON: What advice would you give to an owner with a special needs cat?

CARMEN: We applaud those who do adopt a special needs cat. There are not enough homes or people willing to adopt them, but there is a very real interest now and people are starting to look at adopting a cat that is deemed adoption challenged. The groups that adopt those kitties out need to be very honest with the people if there are special challenges they will face. We are a strong advocate for adopting FIV+ cats to homes. FIV+ cats can live with non-positive cats as the only way it can be passed is through a severe bite wound. Some shelters are starting to adopt out Feline leukemia cats, but that is also a difficult challenge due to so much misinformation in the veterinary and rescue community about FIV+ and FeLV+ cats. An adopter of a special needs cats will be rewarded every day of their time with the cat. That is the best part of adopting a special kitty.

ALLISON: What do you feel is the importance of counselling pet owners? How did you get started?

CARMEN: Mostly I do email conversations or phone suggestions. I always thought it was something that rescue groups and humane societies should do, even if they train just the person who answers the phone daily. When people call with a behavioral issue such as a cat not using the litter box, I find out the things they have tried and if any of it worked and give them other ideas of things to try. Some people simply do NOT want to ‘try’ things and just want ‘rid’ of the cat, but many others do their best and want to keep their pet in their home. The more animals that we can keep in their own homes, the less will be killed in shelters already overcrowded.

ALLISON: Anything else you’d like our readers to know?

CARMEN: While we do not adopt out our cats, at the same time we do a lot of re-homing and helping people keep their cats in their home through behavioral counseling. Since December 2016, we have re-homed over 88 cats. In our very rural Iowa area, we feel that is significant.

If you’d like to sponsor one of the felines, C & W would appreciate it. You can also donate money or from its Wish List. For other ideas, check out its HOW YOU CAN HELP page.

Editor’s Note: My friends and I contacted all the special needs rescues in our attempt to find a home for the kitten mentioned at the start. In the end, a group in Texas kindly supported him.

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