Hello there! In February, Alice Burton, Alley Cat Allies’ Associate Director of Animal Shelter and Animal Control Engagement, and I traveled to Chicago to get a preview of Tree House Humane Society’s new facility. We spoke with their team about how to best accomplish Trap-Neuter-Return (TNR) and Shelter-Neuter-Return (SNR) in their big city. Tree House is the largest TNR provider in Cook County, where the organization humanely traps, spays or neuters, vaccinates and returns 1,500 cats a year.

Alley Cat Allies’ Alice Burton and Daniel Lopez Brena pictured with Kerri Burns, Tree House Humane Society’s Interim Executive Director. 

Our first stop was at Tree House’s new headquarters: a beautiful 15,000-square-foot modern building that left us speechless! The amount of natural light that this L-shaped building has creates a welcoming atmosphere that only gets better: each of the cageless cat adoption rooms, designed with plenty of vertical space to comfortably house 8 to 10 cats, has a small cat door that provides access to a catio (an enclosed cat patio). The catios have vertical perches where the cats can safely get some fresh air and check out what’s happening outside. The floors in the adoption rooms are also heated. This building was built with sustainability in mind and screams comfort at every turn!

From the adoption offices to the clinic, we were amazed at how each part of the new building was aesthetically pleasing and comfortable, without sacrificing functionality. The clinic also has a dedicated veterinarian, Dr. Emily Swiniarski, to perform spay and neuter surgeries.

The next day, we met with the Tree House TNR team and gave a presentation on TNR and community outreach to the whole staff. TNR saves cats’ lives by returning community cats to their outdoor homes and creating space in the shelter for adoptable cats, so it is important that Tree House staffers are experts on the subject and can talk about it to anyone.

We shared information about the different levels of socialization of cats, their place in the colonies where they live, the complex bonds they have with other community cats, and how staff can more effectively engage with members of the community to save more cats!

Our last day with Tree House meant one last presentation to the staff and a quick visit to Empirical Brewery, which has gained attention throughout the country and beyond for its working cats, set up through Tree House’s Cats at Work program. We spoke to the owner, who said he couldn’t be thankful enough for the cats who keep rats away from the grain. Prior to participating in Cats at Work, the brewery had weekly losses of up to $1,000 and the rats chewed through concrete to get to the grain! It was an honor to meet (from a distance) the feline Twitter celebrity Venkman, and his cohabitants, Ray and Egon, and see how they coexist with the staff during their artisanal beer production. This only proves that there is a chance for every single cat if we look for it. Relocation is a last resort, but this successful program shows that when it’s done with the proper mind and spirit—and by following best practices—it can be a positive experience and an alternative to killing healthy, unsocialized cats.

Alley Cat Allies spent time with Tree House Humane Society staff talking about TNR and community cats.

Shelter-Neuter-Return (SNR) has become a more mainstream practice in shelters all over the country, and I can see a future where shelters lead this humane approach to community cats. SNR empowers staff with education and knowledge of best practices that make the job easier for the caregivers who monitor their colonies. You can start learning about preparing your local shelter for SNR in our Shelter Series.

Alice and I can’t wait to go back to Chicago! We want to thank our teammate Julia Seeley – she is an important part of this project. We have a lot of exciting plans in Chicago, so look for updates later this year!
Until next time!

Daniel López Breña
Outreach and National Cat Help Desk Specialist