“Now we have a building that’s working with us,” says Tanya Hilgendorf.

Executive director of the Humane Society of Huron Valley since 2005, Hilgendorf led the sometimes-bruising battle to replace HSHV’s 1950s-vintage shelter on Cherry Hill Road. That effort culminated in March with the grand opening of a new $8.6 million building. Yet Hilgendorf says her proudest accomplishment is saving abandoned cats from being killed–a campaign that’s getting an added boost from the new shelter.

In the old building, “cats were next to barking dogs in tiny little cages,” Hilgendorf explains. “Cats often have a bad outcome in shelters because they are terrified, and their terror makes them sick or makes them look aggressive or unsocial.” When she took over, only 42 percent of cats coming into the shelter were “live released”; the rest were euthanized. By comparison, 70 percent of dogs entering the shelter had happy outcomes. To close the gap, she says, they “made a huge investment in, for lack of a better word, marketing our cats.”

HSHV’s standard fee to adopt a kitten is $100, but it drops to as little as $25 for the oldest cats–or even free, for humans who are seniors themselves. HSHV also lowers or waives fees for cats that have been in the shelter a long time, when the shelter gets full, and for special events. And every Friday, cat adoptions are free.

As a result, HSHV’s “save rate” for cats has almost doubled in the last five years, to 82 percent. “And the new digs should help us get that even higher,” says Hilgendorf. “We were banging our heads against the wall in that building.”

In the new shelter, cats are sealed off from dogs. Their cages are larger, taller (cats like high perches), and more comfortably appointed. And some live together in large rooms with lots of toys and beds, where they can roam more freely and interact.

The save rate for dogs also has increased during Hilgendorf’s tenure, but only to 77 percent. “They didn’t have as much room for improvement,” she says. “Of course, for both dogs and cats, we are still working to save every life possible.”

“Possible” is the key word. Some animals simply aren’t adoptable. But, says Hilgendorf, “for an open-admissions shelter–one that also takes strays–we now have one of the best save rates in the country.”