Friday, March 07, 2008

Shelter from the Storm

So the other day, when there was the big ice storm in Cleveland, I bumped into this one stray cat I keep seeing around my house who seems to be living under my neighbor's back porch. She was sitting out on another neighbor's porch, dismally watching ice pellets stinging the ground, her breath sputtering out in tiny little clouds as she curled up with her legs underneath her, trying to retain as much body heat as possible. Feeling bad for her, I brought her a tiny bit of food. My approach made her skittish, and she leapt off to huddle beneath a nearby van. I brought the food over and gently placed it by the back tire, and while she eyed me up carefully, she nibbled away at the food.

This is one of the things that has always bothered me most about living in the city. There are way more strays (both cats and dogs) then there should be. It's to the point that, if I see a dog or cat bustling down the sidewalk without an owner, unless I see an obvious collar, I don't make any efforts to rescue it and find its owner, because more likely than not, it's a stray.

And what's painful about the large population of strays is that you see them ALL THE TIME, but there's not a whole heckuva lot you can do for them. Which is even more heartbreaking when you realize that so many of them are the sweetest animals alive, more than happy to just lavish in even the *tiniest* bit of attention directed towards them.

Feeling a frustrated sense of futility the other day, I wandered around my house grunting in anger at the fact that this poor little kitty was outside in the cold, and there wasn't really anything I could do about it, already having adopted two strays of my own.

Then: ephiphany.

When I first took in *MY* two kitties, I had done a lot of research on the internet about the best way to go about successfully transitioning outdoor cats into (for the most part) indoor cats. And I remember reading about homemade feral kitty shelters. So the other day, I tracked down some websites again and planted the goal firmly in my head that I would pick up supplies on my way home from work and make my own cat shelter.

Because it is really ridiculously simple to make a cat shelter, and because you can do so without burning a hole in your wallet (I spent about $20, but if you already have duct tape at home, and you can find a good deal on rubbermaid containers, you can easily make one for $10-$15), I share the simple directions with you all and urge you to consider making your own.

The supplies you purchase (and the cost) will mainly depend on the size of the rubbermaid container you invest in. I was only able to use a 25-gallon, simply because anything bigger would not have been discrete enough to place in my shared backyard. But if you own your house, and if you're all sorts of gung-ho about the idea of helping shelter feral cats from the cold, there's plenty of 54-gallon-plus rubbermaid containers out there that would make for WONDERFUL shelters.

SUPPLIES (for making a 25-gallon cat-shelter):

  • 1 rubbermaid container (mine was 25-gallons)

  • 4-5 sheets of styrofoam, at least 3/4-inch thick (the thicker, the better)--my sheets were something along the lines of 2'x4'

  • 1 emergency blanket (the kind that looks like foil)

  • Duct tape

  • Straw or shredded newspaper


  • A utility razor

  • Scissors

  • A measuring tape

  • Pencil


Prepping Your Container

Using your utility razor, cut out an entranceway in the long side of the rubbermaid container, at least 3-inches above the ground, and about 6"x6" inches in size. You'll want it be far enough above the ground that the container will not collect water or be infiltrated by snow. You also want to place the entranceway off-center (not smack in the middle), that way once the cat climbs in, it can lay down in an area that isn't directly in-line with the doorway, sheltering itself better from the cold.

Sizing and Cutting Your Styrofoam

Once that is done, start with the floor of the shelter, and measure and cut your styrofoam to fit. You'll also be needing a lid as well (which should be relatively the same size), and I used a double-layer of styrofoam for the floor. So once you get the correct measurements with that first piece, you can cut out two more pieces to that same size (one for the second layer of floor, and one for the lid).

Once you've finished cutting the lid and floor, work on the short-sides of your shelter next. You'll want to measure them out with both pieces of the floor IN, that way your short sides don't end up being too tall. You'll also want to cut these two pieces wide enough to encompass the WHOLE of the short side, and (as with ALL the wall-pieces you cut), you'll want to cut them leaving about 3-inches of space at the top so that both the styrofoam lid AND your rubbermaid lid can fit securely and snugly on.

Once those are cut, continue to keep your floor and short-sided walls in your container and measure out the back wall so that it fits tightly in between the two short walls (and is, again, 3-inches from the top of your container). The piece should be snug enough that you'll have a little bit of difficult sliding into place, that way the seams between all your walls are nice and tight. Once you get your first piece measured out, you can cut two more exactly like that one, one so that you can double-layer the back wall, and one for the front-side of the shelter.

(*Note: Whether you choose to double-layer some or all of your walls will probably depend on the thickness of your styrofoam. As stated, mine was 3/4" thick. Most directions recommend 1" to 2" thick walls, so that's why I doubled many of the layers. However, you may find that doubling ALL the walls doesn't leave enough space in the middle for the cat to actually LAY. So just use common sense.)

You will now want to slide your front piece in place on the side where your door's cut out. Once it's snugly wedged in there, trace the shape of the door into your styrofoam piece. Remove the styrofoam, and CAREFULLY cut out your door with your utility razor.

Wallpapering With Your Emergency Blanket

You have now successfully cut out all your styrofoam pieces, so on to the next step, which is cutting out your emergency blanket to "wallpaper" your walls. (Technically, you can go without the emergency-blanket wallpapering system, if you're unable to locate one to use. *BUT* the perk to using this as wallpaper is that it will reflect the cat's body-heat back onto itself, creating a nice little warm cat-oven.)

To do this, I unwrapped the emergency blanket completely. I then took each of the walls, placed it on the blanket, and cut out a piece of blanket SLIGHTLY larger than the wall (by a couple inches on every side). (If you are double-layering a wall, you'll probably wanna add on an extra couple inches on each side to account for the added width.) Using the miracle of duct tape, stretch the blanket so it's fairly taut across the one side, and tape the edges up on the other side until all four sides have been taped to the styrofoam. (Basically, your wall will have one side that's completely covered in emergency blanket and another side that's mostly just duct tape and patches of exposed styrofoam.) Do this for each of your walls, including your entrance wall. Your entrance-wall will also require carefully cutting out the blanket at the entranceway and taping it down around it. Make sure that you line the part of this wall that will be facing INSIDE. (I made the mistake of not checking first and lined the wrong side.) Also make sure to cut out and line your ceiling-piece as well (**but not your floor**--many cats are weirded out by the feel of foil/emergency blankets on their feet and won't come in if you use it there).

Putting It All Together

Once you've wallpapered all your walls and your lid with your emergency blanket, carefully put all the pieces back in place, with the emergency blanket-side of the walls facing inwards, starting with the floor, then the short walls, then the long walls. Hopefully all your seams will be tight, but if your rubbermaid container is like many rubbermaid containers, it gets larger towards the top. So if you see gaps in the styrofoam walls, you can just use some duct-tape to cinch up the seams. I did so on all the top-corners of mine, just for added stability.

Lining Your Floor

Take either straw or shredded newspaper and line the bottom of the shelter with it. Do *NOT* use blankets or anything that will easily mold and/or get wet. Shredded newspaper and hay are ideal because the cat(s) can nuzzle down into it because it's loose, and in doing so, it will end up trapping in their body heat better. (You *will* need to periodically check and change your newspaper/straw though, so that it doesn't get/stay damp.)

Place your styrofoam lid on. Place the rubbermaid lid on. Voila--you're done! (Well, unless you're a nerd like me and wanna add on a little overhang for the entrance.)

Choosing Your Location

Now you just need to find a good place to put it: ideally you'll want an area that a) doesn't get much foot-traffic, and b) is slightly protected from the elements (under a stoop, under a bush, etc.).

(In case my directions are at all confusing, which wouldn't surprise me, I've included a list of other feral cat shelter resources/instructions at the end.)

Anyways, it took me a couple hours (and a LOT of vacuuming: styrofoam, and its wonderful ability to static cling to everything, is a BEAR when you're trying to cut it to size) to make this, but I did it.

You can see the end result pictured here:

After I was all done, I put it in my kitchen so that my cat Zooey could try it out and give me the two paws up if she found it to be acceptable. She sniffed around it for a while, and then finally her curiosity got the best of her and she climbed inside. Success!

So I dragged it outside and spent a few minutes trying to figure out the ideal place to put it. I don't own the property, so I needed to put it someplace secure and not too obvious, since if my landlord or one of the people who does the landscaping were to find it, I'd either get an earful or it would be thrown out without a second thought. I finally settled on a discrete little space beneath the back house's back stoop. The door the stoop leads to is pretty much never used because it opens up on a tiny backyard that no one ever spends time in. So I figured it'd be fairly low-traffic, and I slid the shelter underneath.

The only thing that was missing from my shelter at this point was something to layer the bottom with. As mentioned above, most websites recommend straw or hay, but since we're still ankle-deep in the throes of winter, that's not exactly easy to come by in the city. So instead I shredded up lots of newspaper yesterday to line the bottom.

I told my mom about it (since she's considering adopting the cat if she warms up to me enough that she'll let me get her in a carrier), and she said to keep her updated on whether or not the cat ends up using the shelter at all. Which made me realize that I probably would never ever know whether she was actually doing so, since cats are smart enough not to stick around in a tiny enclosed space if big people are lumbering around.

So yesterday, I shredded and shredded and shredded until I had plenty of newspaper-curlies to line the inside. I dragged my ass out to the back stoop and reached under, sliding the shelter out. And I'll be damned if my little stray didn't come FLYING the hell out of the shelter like I'd set her tail on fire. And I cannot even tell you how much my heart went squish when I saw that she was ALREADY making my shelter her own little home--that I had done something constructive, made something with my own two hands and a well-intentioned heart, and that all my doubts as to whether it would be used had just been demolished. If there was a large Squishing Machine, with large robotic squishing arms, that squished large objects like bikes or boxes or cars, my heart felt like it was joyfully being squished by about 1500 of those.


So as of last night, the shelter is equipped with a nice bed of shredded newspaper, the hatches all battened down for yet ANOTHER big snow storm that is apparently headed our way. So say with me a little prayer for all the neighborhood strays--may they make it through what will hopefully be only a few more weeks of winter.

And if this little tale strikes your heart in the right sort of way, consider making your own shelter. If you're someone who likes to cook, that usually means you're good with your hands and have a creative sensibility about you, so tackling a shelter shouldn't be much skin off your back. It doesn't take long, and even if it only ends up being able to house one or two cats, that's one or two less cats that will be left homeless in the brutal cold.

And as reminder that stray cats are a blessing and not a nuisance, I share with you gratuitous pics of my own two adopted "strays" that I can't imagine not sharing an apartment and a life with.

  • Indy Feral

  • Neighborhood Cats

  • PACT Humane Society

  • (Or just google feral cat shelters)

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