In 2006, the Camden County Animal Shelter in New Jersey was stacked floor to ceiling with cages of cats and kittens. The annual intake was more than 6,000 animals, and the total save rate was under 50 percent. The shelter was faltering, with half of the animals coming from the city of Camden, one of the poorest areas in the nation.

A group of volunteers stepped in to keep the debt-ridden shelter afloat. Among them: Michelle Zebrowski, who became the shelter’s board president. “I was staring at all these cats, and I didn’t know what to do,” says Zebrowski. “I reached out to Alley Cat Allies out of pure desperation.”

Alley Cat Allies’ advicethat her community needed more low-cost spay and neuter optionswas “eye-opening,” Zebrowski says. We helped the shelter provide these low-cost services, a Trap-Neuter-Return (TNR) program, and used innovative ideas to gain community support.

Zebrowski and others worked with nearly every elementary and middle school in the shelter’s sprawling service area, stuffing thousands of students’ backpacks with flyers “so we could reach the parents that way,” she says.

They set up tables at community events and hung Alley Cat Allies doorhangers in neighborhoods to change residents’ attitudes about cats.

The shelter used mapping software to find “hot spots” of community cats, which helped it carry out targeted TNR. The shelter implemented a foster program, filled adoption spaces at local pet stores, and increased partnerships with other New Jersey shelters and rescues.

Each year, conditions at the shelter improved. By 2017, the shelter had fully transformed. Its save rate for cats is 91 percent, the highest of any shelter in the region. More than 20,000 owned and community cats have been spayed or neutered.

Now that Camden County has passed a resolution endorsing TNR, more groups are working closely with the shelter to save even more community cats, says Camden County Animal Shelter Executive Director Vicki Rowland.

If Camden County can transform its shelter and policies despite such odds, then communities around the nation can create humane change, too.