How many animals has Barb MacLeod rescued? She couldn’t begin to tell you.
MacLeod started her career in animal rescue at 18, working with everything from local wildlife and household pets to monkeys and exotic cats. She gained experience at a sanctuary, a zoo, the OSPCA and multiple shelters before founding the Orillia-based Comfie Cat shelter in 2005. She’s saved thousands of animals over the years, and now she’s looking for more volunteers to help carry on her legacy at the no-kill shelter, which started in a small workshop on South Street with just three women caring for 60 to 80 cats at a time.
“When I started the shelter here in Orillia, it was to help cats in need,” MacLeod said. “Basically it was the TNR program, trap-neuter-return, and it was incredible. We did it for two years, and there were 500 cats taken off the street the first year.”
Following their time at the workshop, the shelter operated out of a house on Front Street before moving to their current location in November 2016. The move was made possible by a donation from MacLeod’s friend Tom, who made her a promise after adopting three cats she had raised.
“He said, ‘Barb, when I go, you’ll have your shelter…’” MacLeod said. “He kept his word, so he left the money for us.”
The money was used to purchase their facility at 112 Norweld Drive, which typically houses over 100 cats at a time and includes designated areas such as the adoption room, the infirmary and even the grumpy cat room. The shelter doesn’t turn cats away for their age, medical issues or temperament, so as long as they have the space and the resources to care for the cats, they make it work.
“I didn’t start the shelter to make money, to break even or hold,” MacLeod said. “I was here because there was a need.”
The shelter has had an exceptionally busy year, having taken in at least 360 cats so far. Each unfixed cat that comes through the door costs the shelter roughly $200, though costs can be much higher depending on the cat’s medical needs. They charge only $200 for kittens, $150 for adult cats and $100 for senior cats, but aside from the modest adoptions fees, the shelter runs entirely off of donations.
On top of their financial struggles, the small team of volunteers is overwhelmed with work. They struggle to keep up with demand for adoptions as the shelter often takes in more cats than they’re able to adopt out. Part of the reason is their willingness to take in cats from far beyond Orillia: Comfie Cat has helped animals ranging from St. Catharines up to North Bay.
MacLeod puts in an average of about 10 hours a day at the shelter and often spends her nights feeding kittens or caring for sick or injured cats. Some locals have even started to think she lives at the shelter, but despite her intense dedication, she emphasizes the importance of her volunteers, many of whom are retirees that have been with her since the early days of the shelter.
“Over the years, you have your ups and downs and disagreements, but one of the nice things about all the volunteers here, they’re here because of the animals,” MacLeod said. “The animals’ welfare comes first and I think that’s one of the most important things.”
A love for animals and cats in particular played a big role in volunteer Chris Welbourn’s decision to help out at the shelter. Welbourn started volunteering in March when COVID took him away from his usual job at the casino, and he’s been working full-time hours at the shelter ever since. As someone who’s quickly become core to the Comfie Cat team, it’s important to him to find like-minded people that can assist the shelter with whatever time and skills they have.
“We’re pretty flexible with whatever people want to offer,” Welbourn said. “If they want to help with reception, if they want to help with adoptions, if they want to help, obviously, cleaning. It’s handy having someone that can do a bit of everything.”
The shelter even has families with young children that come in to help socialize the cats, though they’re more in need of older volunteers who can clean and assist with other daily tasks. While they’re eager to grow their team, their time is already spread thin, so Welbourn encourages those looking to volunteer to be patient.
“I know people have in the past put in applications and we’ve been so busy we haven’t gotten back to people,” he said. “We’re doing our best to, but if we don’t respond right away, it doesn’t mean that we don’t need the help. It just means we’re so overwhelmed that we haven’t had a chance yet.”
The shelter has a network of people who assist with strays, fostering and other aspects of their operations, but only about 10 volunteers regularly help with work at the shelter, which makes for many long days, and there are many hard days as well. People often surrender their pets, sometimes offering half-baked excuses and other times flat out admitting that they don’t care to keep the animal. Worse yet, some people abandon cats at the shelter without saying a word.
Some cats come in with undisclosed illnesses while others are brought in with injuries from human cruelty or negligence. The shelter nursed one cat back to health for four months after it had been thrown onto the road from a moving car. That said, some of the cats they take in will never learn to trust humans.
“Everyone always wants the cute cuddly cats, but the reality of it is we have ones that we know will never get adopted,” Welbourn said. “We look after ones that are stray or feral that just don’t like people at all.”
Some cats turn around in their later years, MacLeod said, and sometimes they get a nice horse barn that wants a couple of grumpy cats to keep the mice down. When working with farmers, the shelter ensures the cats will be given proper food and shelter, but for cantankerous cats that go without a new home, the shelter accepts them as permanent residents of the grumpy cat room. For cats that do eventually warm up to humans, the adoptions are that much more special.
“I love doing the adoptions,” Welbourn said. “It’s good seeing the cats get a home. It’s pretty rewarding, especially some of the longer term ones that have been here.”
One of their cats, Ivy, had been at the shelter for five or six years before getting adopted in October. Potential owners had expressed interest in adopting her in the past, but she was so shy that the shelter’s volunteers couldn’t even catch her to show her to families on multiple occasions. However, once she saw her owner, it was love at first sight, and she’s been happy at her new home ever since.
The volunteers at the shelter often receive updates and photos from adoptive families, which are added to the Happy Tails section of their website. They also have a special method for matching older cats with owners: the senior for a senior program. Any cat over six is free to seniors 65 and older with a good home. Most people want kittens that are six months or less, so the program encourages the adoption of older cats while also allowing a senior to get a companion free of charge.
Though dozens of cats are adopted out every month, the shelter does a lot more than just adoptions. They help pets and pet owners alike by redistributing donations of cat and dog food and other supplies as well as assisting with neutering and other veterinary services to ensure owners can keep their feline friends. They care for many strays, sometimes dozens at a time, and they’ve even helped other animals over the years, including dogs, bunnies, ducks and raccoons.
Working long days at the shelter isn’t how MacLeod pictured her retirement, but she isn’t sorry that she’s done it. The work is rewarding, and though some days are exceptionally difficult, it makes everything worthwhile when people come back to express their gratitude by supporting the shelter.
People like Tom, whose gift allowed the shelter to have a building of their own, make up for an awful lot, MacLeod said. As she begins to cut back her time at the shelter, she’s hopeful that more people will support their operations and join the already excellent team of volunteers.
“It isn’t me that did it all,” MacLeod said. “The volunteers are the backbone of this organization, because without them, we wouldn’t have all this…Tom gave it, and I hope I’ve pleased him.”
To make a donation or to find out more about volunteering, visit Comfie Cat’s website and follow the shelter on Facebook for regular updates. See pictures from the shelter, past and present, in the slideshow below.