Tucson at Its Best

We profile six organizations (out of many) working hard to make Tucson the sort of place we want to live

Hermitage No-Kill Cat Shelter

Hermitage No-Kill Cat Shelter was the first no-kill, cageless shelter in the entire United States when it opened in 1965.

It started with the animal-loving Sister Seraphim, a Russian Orthodox nun. Her order in Northern California wouldn't allow her to keep animals. To solve this problem, Sister Seraphim relocated to Tucson, bought a house and started filling it with homeless animals.

"She'd bring in birds and cats and lizards and anything she could find," said Ryan Inama, adoptions manager at Hermitage. Slowly, her home turned into a real shelter, one that has been caring for needy cats in Southern Arizona for 48 years.

Sister Seraphim lived in the house up until her death in 1990.

Hermitage is a cat enthusiast's heaven. According to Inama, there are about 250 cats in its care. Although the majority are adults, there are also several kittens. The shelter has a handful of elderly kitties and about 50 cats with feline leukemia or feline immunodeficiency virus. The cats are separated based on these characteristics.

All the cats have access to indoor and outdoor spaces. In total, Inama said, about 8,000 square feet are available for the cats.

There is a room for cats that have allergies or dietary restrictions, a newly built birthing room, a geriatric ward and even a physical therapy room. In January, the staff plans to add a veterinarian so that vaccinations and surgeries can be done on-site.

Inama spoke of one cat, Captain, that survived a coyote attack, and another, Crisp, that was dropped off during the night.

"We came into work one morning and saw a box sitting out front. Everybody knows what the box means," he said. "The box was taped shut. When we opened it, ants had gotten in the box and he had nowhere to run or go or hide. So he was just covered, in his eyes and ears, just covered in ants."

Both Crisp and Captain are doing much better now.

Hermitage was recently recognized as an animal sanctuary by the federal government, making it eligible for more grants.

There have been many ups and downs in the shelter's long history.

"There was a time not so long ago that they were concerned about how they were going to stay open; dipping into savings and really struggling to stay afloat," Inama said.

But that is no longer the case.

"We've done more adoptions this year than we have in any year in our past," Inama said. As of the beginning of December, 510 cats had been adopted from Hermitage this year.

A pair of recent adopters, Eric and Christine Schwamberger, brought a rescued cat to the shelter 13 years ago. Since then, they've relocated to New Mexico, but Hermitage left an impression.

Recently, Christine Schwamberger found an abandoned kitten at her workplace. Because they were already heading to Tucson for Thanksgiving, the pair decided to take the kitten to Hermitage.

"That evening, my wife was having second thoughts," Eric Schwamberger said. "So we drove back and adopted the same cat the next day."

Christine Schwamberger said that what sets Hermitage apart from other shelters is its rigorous screening process for adoptions.

"They do more than anyone else does that I'm aware of," she said. "That was the most reassuring thing."

Eric Schwamberger said he believes no-kill shelters are important and he's impressed with the diligence in care that Hermitage provides, although he knows it comes with a price.

"The problem is always, 'Do they have the funding?'" he said.

Inama agreed. "I understand why there aren't more no-kill shelters," he said. "They are very costly, very time-consuming and very hard to care for."

But Inama said he goes home at night feeling satisfied that he's working for a worthy cause.

"I wish that all shelters were no-kill," he said. "I want people to re-evaluate their beliefs or whatever taught them that animals are less than us. They're not. They're alive—they're here just the same as we are."

The Hermitage No-Kill Cat Shelter is at 5278 E. 21st St. For more information, call 571-7839 or go to hermitagecatshelter.org.

— A. Greene, mailbag@tucsonweekly.com