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Stray Cat Strut: Two teens build shelters to help community cats

Anagha Rao and Emily Keller, two students at Skyline High School, build 24 shelters to keep stray cats warm during the Utah winter. (Photo courtesy Emily Keller)

SALT LAKE CITY — Two teens are behind a new project to protect stray cats from cold weather with shelters. 

How it started

During the summer of 2020, there wasn’t much to do because of canceled events and social distancing protocols caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Emily Keller, a 16-year-old in Salt Lake City, started her own project to pass the time: She began fostering kittens found in her community. 

From there, she discovered a new passion — caring for stray cats. She began seeking new ways to do more, especially as the cold weather began approaching. 

“I realized after researching, so many cats are outside living in the cold,” Keller said. “And it made me so sad. So I wanted to make shelters for them.”

Once the school year started, Keller joined forces with her classmate Anagha Rao to start a project building shelters for stray cats. 

Shelters to help stray cats

Subzero temperatures can cause serious medical issues for stray cats like frostbite and hypothermia, according to the Animal Humane Society. By creating shelters that are insulated and trap heat, community kittens can seek warmth to stay alive throughout the winter. 

“We took initiative to start our own project of building insulated cat shelters for stray cat communities across the Salt Lake Valley,” Keller said. “Already, we have made 24 shelters thanks to several generous donations of styrofoam boxes and other supplies from our Salt Lake Community. We plan on delivering them to stray cat colonies across the valley.”

Anagha Rao and Emily Keller, two students at Skyline High School, build 24 shelters to keep stray cats warm during the Utah winter. (Photo courtesy Emily Keller)

To cover more ground, Keller and Rao teamed up with local nonprofit Kitty CrusAIDe, an organization that opened in September 2020 to help community cats. Keller started volunteering there after her summer of fostering kittens, creating a partnership to deliver cat shelters throughout the Salt Lake Valley. 

Joining the Kitty CrusAIDe

Dani Braun, founder of Kitty CrusAIDe, said the organization operates through a Trap-Neuter-Return-Maintain (TNRM) system — meaning they collect community cats to spay or neuter them before returning them to their community. 

“If we’re not fixing them, they’re going to keep making more babies and we’re going to have more cats,” Braun said. 

The system also works as “disease containment,” Braun said, because volunteers will administer vaccinations and perform any necessary medical treatments to trapped cats. 

The TNRM method also helps to control community cat populations, which often house more animals than people may think. Without intervention, the communities can grow to be much larger than what is manageable. 

Utah may need more shelters for cats

However, the push for TNRM shelters is lacking in Utah, according to Braun. 

“South Salt Lake and other counties are working on creating more TNR programs but there aren’t enough volunteers or awareness on what to do,” she said. “Where there’s one cat, there’s probably 10 or 12.”

The system is different from other methods often utilized by some shelters that euthanize stray cats after they’re trapped. 

“That is not good because when you euthanize a cat, another cat will come in and replace it, so it doesn’t solve the problem,” Keller said. “And it creates a cycle of killing.”

Instead, Keller and Rao say they hope to inspire Utahns to create their own shelters to preserve cat populations in their communities. It’s easier than one may think, they said. 

“Our long-term goal would be to inspire other people and tell them this is such an easy project and it has such a big impact,” Rao said. “We want to help other people realize that it’s a simple project that they can do themselves.”

How it works

The two students began creating their own shelters with recyclable materials like styrofoam, cardboard boxes, trash bags — things that would otherwise be thrown away. 

Emily Keller, a student at Skyline High School, along with classmate Anagha Rao build 24 shelters to keep stray cats warm during the Utah winter. (Photo courtesy Emily Keller)

“All that extra insulation that’s in [boxes] are all things that can be used in these shelters,” Braun said. “So over time, it can diminish waste, too.”

Overall, the project helps to bring Utah closer to becoming a no-kill state — a designation the state has been working toward through Best Friends Animal Society since 2014. To be deemed a no-kill state, all animal shelters in Utah must reach a 90% save rate, meaning 90% of animals who enter the shelter leave alive.

“This is the most humane way to help cats in our community,” Keller said. “If you think about it, there are thousands of cats living outside and we need to be able to help them.” 

What’s next for the teens

Looking to the future, both Keller and Rao said they hope to inspire more teens across the state to build shelters of their own. 

“It doesn’t take too much time or money or big supplies to make a difference,” Rao said. “Just taking things you have in your home and using them to make a difference can be more powerful than going out and buying expensive things and using those.”

The project will be hosting several donation drives throughout the valley for Utahns to drop off materials — such as cardboard boxes, newspapers or styrofoam — that will be used to help with TNRM efforts. Drop-off locations will be placed at Skyline High School, where Keller and Rao attend school, and several restaurants or stores in the valley. 

Other drop-off locations include: 

  • Cafe Rio (Skyline location)
  • Network Funding near Cottonwood Heights
  • Pet Spawt in Holladay
  • Great Harvest in Holladay

You can find more information at kittycrusaide.org.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include drop-off locations and to correct what the donations will be used for. They will be collected to help with Trap-Neuter-Return-Maintain efforts. 

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