By Isabelle Paquette
“When I got in here, and I met the team and met the cats, saw how much work we do here — we’re so much more than a shelter,” said Hannah Ottenfeld, 23, a staff member at Tree House Humane Society in Rogers Park.
Ottenfeld has been at Tree House for eight months, working in care-taking and in mentoring adoptions.
The not-for-profit Tree House Humane Society has dedicated itself to the protection and well-being of more than 40,000 cats since it was established in 1971. The shelter is a leader in addressing the overpopulation of homeless cats in Chicago. How has Tree House done it? According to staff and volunteers, it all rests on a community of caregivers and cat lovers.
Tree House operates on a capacity-to-care model, meaning the shelter takes in the number of cats that resources and staffing can accommodate. While differing from other shelters, it allows them to prioritize strays and high-risk cats, such as those who are injured or carrying diseases. They currently have around 25 cats available for adoption. In 2022, Tree House helped 1,100 cats and conducted 4,700 spay/neuter surgeries, the society’s records show.
Ottenfeld explained Tree House’s process for taking in new cats. “We have a few different ways that cats will come to us. One of our biggest is transfers from other shelters that operate on an open-admission model. We have a transfer team, and we have partnerships with a couple shelters, mostly in Illinois, and our team will go and see how many cats we can intake,” Ottenfeld said. Community members will also bring in stray cats.
Every cat that comes in is given an initial checkup at the shelter’s residence clinic, like Frost, who was just released from a month-long isolation for ringworm.
Tree House operates several programs tailored to homeless cats’ needs. The Veterinary Wellness Center, which opened to the public in 2021, offers spay/neuter surgery for both cats and dogs as well as preventive wellness care at affordable prices.
Two other successful programs focusing on outdoor cats include its Trap, Neuter, Return (TNR) and Cats at Work (CAW) programs. The latter brings feral cats to businesses for rodent control. Both programs aim to provide safe, long-term living arrangements for cats who thrive better outside.
“Every day is just so full of tiny, magical moments that just make you so happy to be a part of Tree House and animal welfare,” said manager and veterinary technician Courtney Moore. She had worked as a veterinary technician for 10 years before coming in 2021 to Tree House, where she now runs between 30 to 35 surgeries a day.
Tree House’s newest facility, built in 2017, has a cat-centered design with heated floors and “catios.” Each cat colony has room to roam freely as visitors walk through.
“I love all species of animals, but cats are just my ultimate favorite,” Moore added before introducing Stink Bug and Ladybug, a pair of bonded sisters. Both have just returned from foster care and are in “acclimation” cages. Tree House is a cage-free shelter, which offers a more “homelike”
environment for the cats.
One room in particular holds a special place in Tree House’s list of achievements: cats with feline leukemia virus (FeLV), a disease that weakens the immune system.
“Our feline leukemia virus program that we have with our cat café is something that really sets us apart from other shelters. We are very lucky to have the resources to care for those cats,” Moore said.
Many cats with FeLV, such as New Year and her kitten, New Me, tend to be sidelined in many shelters due to risk of transmission and euthanasia. But while the disease affects their lifespans, it doesn’t affect their quality of life. Tree House continues to provide care and a forever home just like any other cat.
Visitors will also see numerous murals and plaques honoring the individuals and cat lovers who continue to support them. The majority of the organization’s funding comes from donations and grants.
The murals showcase the community the shelter has grown. With every new cat and cat lover, the Tree House becomes bigger and stronger.
The cat adoption process is simple. Tree House is open for adoptions from noon to 6 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday by appointment only up to two weeks in advance. New appointments are released weekly and can be booked here. Placing a hold on a specific cat is not an option.
Adopters must have a valid photo ID and be at least 18, and it is strongly recommended to bring children in a family to the shelter to meet the cat beforehand. Each cat comes with supplementary resources such as a microchip, a veterinary exam and a temporary carrier. Adoption fees vary depending on a cat’s age.
For more information about Tree House Humane Society, visit the shelter’s website at treehouseanimals.org.
Isabelle Paquette is a graduate student in the magazine specialization at Medill.