For the past 25 years, the volunteers and staff at Venice’s St. Francis Animal Rescue have shared a deep passion and commitment to one overriding mission: to rescue and care for homeless cats until a loving home is found for them. A no-kill shelter since its inception in 1993, St. Francis Animal Rescue seeks to provide care and comfort to abandoned cats as space becomes available since the shelter has limited capacity and is generally always full (Please contact the shelter before bringing in any cats). For some of the cats, too traumatized by past experiences or habitually unwell, the shelter itself will always be their home. Eager to grow and do more for cats, St. Francis is always in need of volunteers and donations.
A two-building complex on the 1900 block of the Tamiami Trail in south Venice, the shelter includes various trauma and treatment rooms, playrooms, socialization areas, kitten nurseries, a reception area and administrative offices. Right next door, a well-stocked thrift store is full of collectibles for sale. Though its location has changed over the years, the thrift store has always been a part of how this Venice nonprofit attempts to fund itself.
According to Gail Carson, one of the original volunteers at St. Francis Animal Rescue and a past president of the board of directors, the idea for the shelter came together after three women had rescued a number of cats in the Venice area and started to feel overwhelmed fostering them in their homes.
“They bought this building to house those cats because they were getting to be too much to take care of,” Gail says. “I came on as a volunteer cleaner. When I first saw this place, we had our tiny, little thrift store in the same building as the cats, and all the cats were mixed up together. Another girl and I managed to get the thrift store moved to another place, which gave us more room. The thrift store moved from place to place to place around town over the years. We finally decided on buying the building next door. It has worked out because it’s right next door. We have truly come a long way.”
Early on, the founders of St. Francis decided to only focus on cats.
“We just don’t have the capacity to house dogs,” Gail says. “We’d have to do a whole different set of parameters for other animals, and we excel at this.”
According to current board president Bruce Guilmette, St. Francis has more than 50 regular volunteers between the shelter and the thrift store. Potential volunteers are always invited to stop in and fill out a volunteer form. Help is especially welcome at the thrift store, and adoption counselors are needed at the shelter.
“Almost everything we do is done by volunteers,” Bruce says. “All the board members are volunteers. Our goals are to run the shelter, fund the shelter, and help all the cats. Right now we have about 160 cats. We have an intake room for the cats when they come in, an infirmary for the ill, and then we have an adoption side for those cats that can be adopted, and a residents’ side for those cats that are too old or have special needs. We are committed to them living out their lives right here.”
The shelter works with local veterinarians to provide medical care. Other costs include medicines, food, staffing and transportation. St. Francis has to fundraise continually. On Monday, Aug. 12, St. Francis will be hosting a fundraising dinner at Cassariano Italian Eatery in downtown Venice, part of a series of annual fundraising events.
“I have been a volunteer here more than six years,” Marylou Loughrey says. “The things that attracted me to St. Francis and what keeps me volunteering here are twofold. First, the volunteers are appreciated, and they have a sense of belonging. ‘St. Francis is my shelter.’ That is very important to the volunteers whether they are adoption councilors or socializers (volunteers who patiently work with abandoned cats to reacclimatize them to human contact.) The other is that we are truly a rescue. ‘Give me your tired, your poor. You have three legs? Oh yeah, come on in. You have one eye? We’ll deal with it. You have one and a half ears? We will take you. Have you been beaten up or you’re ill? Come on in. Let’s see what we can do to fix you up.’ That is this organization.”
Marylou travels 30 miles one way from Lakewood Ranch to volunteer at St. Francis.
“I do it because it’s special,” Marylou says. “People who come here love cats, and they understand ‘cattitude’.”
Bruce says most of the cats eventually find adoptive homes. The shelter has a Facebook page and a website, but it is really word of mouth that gets information about St. Francis’s cats out to the community since the shelter has operated for so long.
“We work on the cats’ behavior to make them adoptable,” says office coordinator and volunteer Ingrid Blokzijl. “It takes a lot of patience. You have to gain their trust; they have to be touched. It’s a long and tedious process. You don’t really see their true personalities until they go to an adoptive home where they can relax.”
St. Francis Animal Rescue
1915 S. Tamiami Trail