Shirley Fonda sat on her couch holding Tess in her arms like a baby.
She has cradled a lot of cats in her small home, maybe 1,800 in the past 19 years, but who’s counting? Tess is like all of the others — rescued from somewhere in central Pennsylvania after only knowing homelessness or being dumped by previous owners.
There is some irony in Fonda’s Foundling Cat Rescue. The 82-year-old rescuer is a dog person and is allergic to cats, always has been, but she became the go-to cat lady for taking in stray, feral and discarded kittens and cats, rehabilitating them and finding each a home.
Her quaint home off Norwood Lane in Park Forest was meant to be a safe haven for unwanted felines, but it may not be that way forever. Fonda has not taken in a new cat for several months and plans to close the rescue when all of the cats in her care have been adopted.
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“I really need to somehow find people to take these 40 cats,” she said. “I’ve been up to probably 80 to 100 before, if you can imagine, but I’m not taking anymore in. There is too much I have to do, and I don’t know how much time I have left. I’m getting too old, and things can happen when you’re 82 years old. I don’t feel like it, but still, you don’t know what’ll happen tomorrow.”
She has talked about doing this before, but the thought of shutting down the rescue has often escaped her mind when calls come in about a kitten being thrown out of a moving car or a colony of cats that would be killed if she doesn’t intervene.
“Shirley’s not going to just walk away from the animals,” volunteer Denise Wood said. “God bless her for that. In today’s society, it’s too easy for people to say ‘the hell with it’ and walk. She’s not of that generation.”
It’s in Fonda’s nature to step up. As a retired marine biologist and wildlife rehabilitation specialist, she has cared for every injured and ill wild animal that needed her help.
“Her heart is bigger than you can possibly describe,” Fonda’s Foundling volunteer Ronnie Sumner said. “She just really cares about everything and even everyone. It’s not just cats. She has taken people under wing, too. She rescues everything.”
There has to be a next step in life, Fonda said. She hopes 15 to 20 cats will be adopted in 2017.
Fonda wants to go through everything in her house and sell what she doesn’t want, a task that would be easier if there weren’t a handful of cats, scratching posts and toys to navigate around in most rooms. Her home is “like a museum” with all of the items she has bought from around the world.
“If something happens, what happens to all of the stuff I love, to all of these cats?” she said “Where will all of it go. Where will they go?”
Fonda also wants more time with family, to be in her garden and to complete a research paper — she has a doctorate in geology.
“I have said a few times on Facebook that I wish people that liked the cat videos wanted to adopt a cat or another cat,” Sumner added. “We’re really focused on getting Shirley’s remaining cats adopted. A lot of people think she is closed, but she still has a lot of cats she needs to find homes for.”
She probably won’t close the rescue soon, because “these cats won’t be adopted overnight” but she’s closer than she ever has been.
“We need more people involved,” Fonda said. “All I get are calls to take in cats, but I’m at point I cannot be persuaded, which is a sad thing. I hate doing that, but other people have to step forward. There will always be more cats that need rescued.”