Where the Forgotten are Remembered
Curled up on the lap of one of the more than 30 consistent volunteers at Forgotten Felines and Fidos, a Lehigh Valley non-profit, no-kill animal rescue shelter, a blind gray-and-white cat named Harrison purrs. The affectionate feline with a chunk missing from his right ear cannot see the lap he rests upon, nor the hand that pets him.
Unlike the majority of the more than 120 adoptable cats currently housed and cared for by the rescue organization, the shelter is Harrison’s permanent home. In his previous life, he survived for more than two years foraging for food in a barn, relying solely on his sense of hearing and smell.
His friendliness and bold personality betrays his lack of sight and his prior existence as a stray. He readily reflects the love he is given, and while he may not be able to see, he has no trouble purring.
Like the countless other stray and feral cats in the Lehigh Valley and across the country, Harrison was once just another member of the forgotten. But, at this relatively small rescue shelter about a half-hour drive northwest of Allentown, in the little Lehigh Valley community of Germansville, the forgotten are remembered.
Primarily focused on cats, with the exception of two dogs and two goats, the facilities at Forgotten Felines and Fidos consist of three main shelter areas: the main house, the barn (which is not at all a barn in the traditional sense) and the leukemia cottage.
The main house is home to several special-needs cats as well as new arrivals and those awaiting adoption. The barn, as it is known, is the largest structure and contains several spacious rooms filled with beds, couches, windows and plenty of cat-friendly constructions. Each room has a fenced-in outdoor area for the cats to get some fresh air.
The leukemia cottage is just that – a segregated shelter for cats stricken with the feline leukemia virus, which is most often a death sentence. Many cats are confined to cages for a variety of reasons, which range from recovering from an illness to the socialization of new arrivals. The majority of the residents at the shelter, however, are free to roam and lounge as they please in one of the numerous rooms.
In addition to the Germansville shelter, Forgotten Felines and Fidos also operates an adoption center in Breingsville, which is open every Saturday from 1:30 p.m. to 4 p.m.
Dick Bowman, chairman and president of Forgotten Felines and Fidos, along with his wife, Sue (who serves as vice president), and a cadre of dedicated volunteers, keeps the organization thriving. Now retired after 40 years as a school teacher and coach, Bowman commutes from Pen Argyl seven days a week to work at the shelter.
“I always say that I’ve been very fortunate because I’ve been around the three things in my life that I love to do: teaching, coaching and being involved with Forgotten Felines and Fidos,” says the 71-year-old. “I started as a volunteer with the organization and became more involved as I got closer to retirement. Eventually, they needed someone to run the organization, and it wound up being me.”
Bowman continues, “I just enjoy everything I do here so much. To see the smiles on people’s faces around the cats, and the love the cats give back, is really amazing. But it’s not just me; it’s all the volunteers here. In fact, they’re probably more excited about helping the cats than I am.”
Forgotten Felines and Fidos relies entirely on donations, fundraisers and the service of volunteers, without whom – Bowman emphasizes – the shelter could not operate.
“It’s an all-volunteer organization,” he explains. “No one earns a penny. And, really, we can’t survive without them. Being committed to the health and welfare of the animals is really what everyone is here for. The volunteers we have here are probably the most dedicated group that I’ve ever been involved with. They volunteer because they want to, because they love the cats and because they know we are trying to help and do the right thing. It all comes down to a love for animals and a willingness to help people – we really care. ...Some volunteers come once a week, others come once a month. We also do community-service programs for people who need to complete service hours because they got into trouble. High school kids also volunteer on the weekends.”
While Bowman and his wife head Forgotten Felines and Fidos, he points to several key individuals who serve equally important roles: Carm Biery (treasurer), Wanda Drey (secretary), Therese Podoyak (adoption coordinator) and Beth Hall (volunteer coordinator).
Beth Hall, who only recently took over the responsibilities of volunteer coordinator after 12 years of giving her free time to Forgotten Felines and Fidos, details what compelled her to volunteer.
“I moved to a new development, which was only partially completed, in Kutztown,” says the 55-year-old. “In the lot next to my house, there were five feral mother cats who had five litters of kittens. By the second year there, the kittens were having kittens. The neighbors were all complaining, but no one wanted to do anything about it. So, I called shelters all over the place, and no one would help me. When I called Forgotten Felines and Fidos, they helped me. They lent me traps and told me how to trap them. I ended up trapping 25 cats, had them all spayed and neutered and then released them. I liked the organization so much that I asked to become a volunteer. I’ve been coming back ever since.”
Hall explains that working with the cats is a great release for her high-pressure occupation as a critical-care nurse at Lehigh Valley Hospital.
“My job is very stressful, and volunteering with the cats is my stress-reliever,” she says. “I just love animals – I always have. Every animal that we help is important. And, it’s not just the animals we help; we also help people because sometimes animals save people’s lives. I really enjoy it, and I’m totally dedicated to helping the animals.”
Hall especially enjoys her time with the cats suffering from feline leukemia. “I just love the cats in the leukemia cottage. Most times, those cats would be euthanized. So, they have a great life now. They get all kinds of attention, and the volunteers love them.”
In addition to providing shelter and adoption services, Forgotten Felines and Fidos also offers vaccination clinics as well as inexpensive spay ($50) and neuter ($40) surgeries.
“We offer a lot of things to people,” Bowman notes. “Our veterinarian, Dr. John Prange, comes up here once a week on Tuesdays for the low-cost spay-neuter program, which does approximately 50 to 60 animals every week – mostly cats and just a few dogs. The program also includes a rabies and distemper shot.”
As much as Forgotten Felines and Fidos tries to help cats in need, there is a limit to what is possible for the organization. On average, Bowman estimates that he receives 50 to 60 telephone calls a day at the shelter.
“Of those calls each day, 25 to 30 are to take cats into our shelter,” he says. “You have to draw a line somewhere because we can only do so many. People sometimes get upset because sometimes we have to say no. But when we do say no, we also try to help by putting the cat on our website or getting them fixed – that we can do. We do as much as we can to help.”
The shelter is a last resort, Bowman says.
“We really want people to know that there are things they can do to help an animal. Don’t expect a rescue group to come in and do it for you. There are things you can do to help yourself. We can help you do those things, but don’t just expect rescue groups to take the animals.”
While there are two dogs living at the shelter, the organization’s primary focus is overwhelmingly cats. Bowman offers one reason for the disparity.
“The big reason is because of the large number of cats out there. That’s why the spay-neuter program is so important. The numbers are just so great, and I think cats don’t always get a fair shake in society, where dogs might get a little more attention for various reasons.”
The cold reality of many animal shelters and other similar organizations is that not all are no-kill. Bowman and his volunteers are proud of the shelter’s no-kill status.
“Being a no-kill shelter is important to us because of the fact that it offers an option to people and the animal,” he says. “There are people who will go into places and ask to have their cat, who is only 1 year old, to be put down for various reasons. For example, a lot of people will just put down a cat with [feline] leukemia, but we don’t. If we have space, we will take them. You’ve got to understand that there are situations where you can’t hang onto an animal just because it makes your life good, and that’s tough. It’s never easy. Being a no-kill shelter gives people an opportunity to have some place to take the animal.”
At the end of the day, Bowman and the many volunteers make it possible for the forgotten to be remembered. Operating a shelter like Forgotten Felines and Fidos is not easy, but for those who do it, the rewards far outweigh their sacrifice of time and toil.
“It’s hard work,” Hall admits. “I mean, we are scrubbing litter pans and floors. It’s not very glamorous. Our shelter is very much grassroots. There are volunteers here every single day to clean and take care of the cats. But the cats are just wonderful. We get just as much back from the cats as we give – probably more.”
To learn how to donate or volunteer, visit forgottenfelines.org.