It began - as success stories often do - almost by accident.
The year was 1985, and Donna Bishop had just moved to Boston. "The first day I was here," She remembers, "I counted 45 cats in my backyard. I decided I would just get the cats spayed and neutered and find them hones. Well, I didn't know what I was getting myself into."
Indeed, what ensued was a progression of events in which fate swept Donna up in its strong grasp, took advantage of her compassion and often na?ve ideas and taught her everything she would need to know to pursue the grand mission that had called her.
In 1985, Donna knew nothing of feral cats or the concept of spaying or neutering and then releasing them, but she soon became an expert at trapping even the most wary animals and having them altered - 90 cats within her first year and a half. "In the beginning, I thought I could just lure them in and eventually tame them," she says, "I had a lot of ideas that didn't turn out to be right."
But fate was not content to leave Donna with her self-taught expertise. She began to earn a reputation as an expert in this endeavor. "Over time, I began to learn that my neighborhood was not the only one having this problem," she says, "People started to call and ask if I could help them with their feral cats. I did, of course, because I want to help any cat, any place. Little by little, it just sort of took over my life."
The result was the formation of Alliance for Animals in 1988, a nonprofit animal welfare group that primarily serves Boston's inner-city areas. Donna, and others who were doing similar rescue work, joined together and founded an organization that has since filled a gap in Boston's inner city, which had previously lacked such services for the countless cats residing there.
Today, AfA runs a no-kill shelter that takes in cats, particularly older ones other organization may not want. It also operates the AfA Mobile Action Clinic, a high-volume, low-cost spay/neuter clinic, which includes a shuttle service to ensure that no animal goes unaltered. In addition, the AfA adoption program has been responsible for the placement of thousands of cats through the years. "We're probably the most demanding regarding adoption," says Donna, AfA's executive director. "Some people get mad at us, but when you rescue a cat, you want to make sure you've really rescued it."
AfA has also launched a program with Tufts University School of Veterinary Medicine, where feral cats are taken for free spaying and neutering - and any other necessary medical treatment - by fourth year veterinary students. This benefits the cats as well as the fledging veterinarians by offering them surgical practice, and it just may inspire them to continue to participate in such causes after graduation.
But the true measure of AfA's success is a public education program that is the envy of much larger, better-financed organizations. "Our goal is to educate people, because otherwise nothing changes," Donna says, "You have to be looking toward the long-term."
Education is, of course, the key to AfA's vision. "Our main goal is really be there for the community," Donna says, "There are no services in these areas whatsoever, but there's a high number of people and animals. It's densely populated and everybody has animals. We spend a lot of time out in the neighborhoods teaching people how to take care of their cats. Once people start getting involved, it changes everything. It snowballs. It's a very satisfying experience."
The snowball effect starts with AfA's informal visits to neighborhoods. Donna began by visiting the housing projects, where, in time, she became a familiar and trusted face. "Eventually, I would appoint somebody who would be the neighborhood cat feeder, the neighborhood liaison, and their job was to watch for strays and pick up abandoned cats right away so we could get them spayed and neutered and then find them a home. Or, if someone moved in with a cat who wasn't altered, the liaison would go and talk to them, and it turned out to be sort of a prestige thing. It got whole neighborhoods involved."
Especially exciting is the participation of the children. "I'm so thrilled," Donna says, "Little kids who might normally be out vandalizing something are out looking for cats instead. Little packs of kids come to us with a cat they found wandering. They all get involved and it's wonderful. It really makes a difference."
Donna names this intimate link to the community as the secret to AfA's success. "People want to do the right thing if they can just have some help, someone to talk to. So we try to be there," she says, "We're willing to be out there, to really talk to people and listen to them. It's a labor-intensive thing, but I think that's what makes the difference. You're a face, a person who's willing to listen, to go in and sit down at the kitchen table and talk about cats. I go to areas where even the police don't want to go, but the people are extremely welcoming."
Enter another lesson that fate has taught: As Donna and her fellow AfA volunteers have learned firsthand, the human love for animals transcends all artificial boundaries of color, economics and age. Internalizing this message has made AfA a success. "I don't want to make it sound like it's easy, because it's not," Donna says, "Sometimes it's a roller coaster of victories and defeats, but we're still alive, and that to me is really exciting."
--Betsy Sikora Siino--