Inside Leona Foster's feline hospice
by Anita LeBlanc
In the late 2000s, when Bill Lockwood and Riley Trumbull rented a townhouse near Malletts Creek, they often found stray cats in the neighborhood. "Some of them were lost cats," recalls Lockwood, "but the area, for the most part, seemed to be a cat dumping ground for people moving out of the condos and apartments."
If the cat carried contact information, they tried to reach the owner. If it had no collar, they took it to the nearby Ann Arbor Cat Clinic to have it scanned for a microchip ID.
About a third of their rescues resulted in happy reunions. However, many owners didn't respond to phone calls--and others made it clear they didn't want their cats. Those cats, and the ones without microchips, the couple usually turned over for adoption--but Sasha stole their hearts.
A two-year-old dilute calico with dabs of peach and gray on her gentle face, frail from starvation, she wore a tag with her name, her owner's name, and a phone number. But the number was disconnected.
"We think it was a student who left the country," he says. "Either Sasha had got lost during the move or was dumped. We were in love with her and thought we'd found a cat to join our other two, so we took her to the Ann Arbor Cat Clinic to get her checked out."
Veterinarian Tina Kaufeld took blood tests and found that Sasha had the feline leukemia virus (FeLV) an immune-suppressing retrovirus that leaves cats vulnerable to anemia, lymphoma, and other fatal infections. There is no cure, and eighty-five percent of cats infected die within three years.
FeLV does not infect humans or other animals but is highly contagious to cats. To protect their other cats, Kaufeld told Lockwood and Trumbull, Sasha could not go home with them.
Kaufeld explained that the cost of palliative care and the difficulty of keeping a cat out of contact with other cats led most owners to choose euthanasia. But then the veterinarian told
the couple about a Superior Township shelter where FeLV cats live out their days in safety and comfort with shelter, food, medical care, and affection. She cautioned that it was probably full, but she would call to see if Sasha could join the other infected cats.
Lockwood and Trumbull were devastated at the news, and angry at the fate that Sasha's owner had dealt her--Lockwood suspects she was "attacked by an infected feral or abandoned cat while seeking shelter or food." But they found some comfort when they learned that room would be made at Leuk's Landing for their feline friend.
Leona Foster founded Leuk's Landing five years ago. She says the feline hospice--one of only about twenty in the country catering to FeLV cats--is her way of doing something a little more meaningful with her life than working at her successful market research company and playing golf.
An animal lover who grew up on a farm, Foster shares her home near Dixboro with nine cats. Kaufeld cares for her feline family, and talking with the vet cinched her decision to open Leuk's Landing.
She considered it a bit of kismet when a real estate agent found a nearly three-acre rural property within walking distance of her home that included a small white 1950s house and a large, detached garage/workshop with windows overlooking fields and woodlands. Septic field issues contributed to the property's bargain price.
Foster bought it and immediately began a $10,000 renovation, adding heat and insulation, paneling the garage door, and painting the exterior a deep forest green. She had brightly painted catwalks built to scale the walls to prime window perching spots, and two cat doors installed to give access to an outside enclosure--with a special wobbly fence that cats won't climb.
She furnished the sanctuary with thrift shop finds and donations. Overstuffed chairs, couches with blankets, quilts, big stuffed animals, and pillows create a living room arrangement in the center of the room. Some cats nap and play there, while others dash around the room, or peer through the windows at the outside world. Along the room's borders are open cages with bedding, shelves holding litter and food, litter boxes, cat trees, and a used refrigerator to store medication.
The building has no plumbing--a defect too costly to remedy at the moment--so Foster and her eight volunteer helpers ferry water jugs and cat dishes back and forth to their homes, taking special care to disinfect them. Foster rents the house at a reduced rate to a vet technician who helps her with basic medical care.
Foster handles feeding and medication and other chores mornings before work and some evenings and weekends. The volunteers cover shifts she can't and fill in when she is out of town.
A photo is taken of each arriving cat, framed, and hung on one of the walls, next to its predecessors. Rainbow stickers identify those who have died. They are buried in the "Rainbow Bridge Cemetery" in back of the sanctuary, each receiving a unique wind chime that hangs on a sheltering tree.
Foster hears regularly from cat owners and shelters, locally and nationwide, hoping to find a final sanctuary for FeLV cats, but refuses to exceed her thirty-cat capacity. "It's heartbreaking to turn them down, but too many cats would stress the ones here," she explains. Though she gets some gifts of funds, food, and litter, she underwrites most of the $15,000 annual budget herself. Vet care, especially after the virus becomes active, resulting in respiratory distress and a myriad of other life-sapping symptoms, takes the lion's share of the money. She says that without her volunteers and the services and support of Kaufeld and her colleague, Laurie Racey, and their staff, she wouldn't be able to keep the shelter in operation.
Sasha has lived there for more than three-and-a-half years and so far remains symptom free. Lockwood and Trumbull visit her regularly. Lockwood says he likes sitting with Sasha purring contentedly on his lap while other cats jockey to arrange themselves near him. "The cats here seem to know they're special," he says. "Where else can you find so many in one room and have them get along so well, especially considering that a good chunk of them were feral or semi-feral?"
Foster says vehemently that she wishes she could do more to educate the public about the prevention of FeLV and options that allow infected cats to live out their final days in peace and comfort. She admits that dealing with so much suffering and loss takes its toll. "I often wonder how much longer I should do this," she says. "The sadness factor--it's tough, it's very tough. But people tell me, 'If you don't do it, who will?'
"I take comfort in knowing that while we can't give our cats a quantity of life, we make up for it by giving them a quality of life."
[Originally published in January, 2013.]
On January 29, 2013, Kim wrote:
Bless you guys. You have earned your place in Heaven, and just think of how many of those loving, grateful furballs will be there to greet you at the Rainbow Bridge. Thank You.
On January 29, 2013, Moira wrote:
This is such a beautiful story! Thank you for all of the amazing work that you do there and for reminding the rest of us that there are wonderful people still out there! Is there a website that accepts donations for this shelter?
On January 29, 2013, Karen St. John wrote:
These folks are truly touched by the better angels of our nature.
On January 29, 2013, Leona of Leuk's Landing wrote:
To make a donation, visit www.leukslanding.org and use PayPal link. thank you!
On January 31, 2013, Erin wrote:
What a great article! Thank you Leona, Susan, all the volunteers, and Drs. Tina and Laurie for their compassion, energy, and time.