They do their best to stay out of sight of people. So, it might surprise you to learn that there are up to a million feral cats living in San Diego County. But in one part of the city, there is a unique place that provides care for dozens of these felines.
It's probably not what you’d expect to see at the back of an assisted living facility for seniors — gardens, fountains, cat houses, a tree house.
“This is our main cottage. Welcome to Shanti’s House," said Kristina Hancock.
Hancock founded Shanti’s House five years ago. It’s not like she didn’t have enough to do — she’s both a lawyer and a critical care nurse.
But then one day on her way to an appointment, she took a wrong turn and found herself face to face with a feral kitten that would change her life. She named the cat Shanti, and began driving to the neighborhood every day to feed her.
“I thought, 'I’ll trap her and then bring her home,' and then I discovered she was the tip of the iceberg," Hancock said.
Hancock soon learned there were more than 60 feral cats in the area. She and a handful of volunteers started feeding them, getting them spayed and neutered, and caring for their medical needs.
But Hancock said she knew that wasn’t enough — the cats needed a place to live. So, she contacted the owners of a nearby assisted living facility and proposed building a cat sanctuary behind the building. That's when Shanti’s House was born.
“We have a ground lease for 12 and a half years for this. They gave us this space," said Hancock.
Hancock spoke about the interaction the human residents have with the feline ones: “The residents love the cats. We’ll come in in the afternoon and one of the residents will go, ‘Sabina hissed at Michael,' or they’ll say, 'Sebastian and Michael were doing somersaults.’”
You might be wondering where this special place is. However, Shanti's House prefers to keep its address private. Hancock said she's afraid if people know where it is, they’ll be inundated with feral cats. The abandonment of cats or any other kind of animal is a crime, she adds.
For the cats who are lucky enough to live here, life is good.
“This all happened very organically. First, we built the first cottage to get them out of the rain and we’re like, 'Let’s have a treehouse,' and we’re like, 'Let’s have a waterfall,'" Hancock said.
The sanctuary is divided into a series of pavilions that are meant to be calming for the cats. There's another building set apart from the main sanctuary built with healing in mind.
“This is the new infirmary that we just built, so cats can go in and out," Hancock said of the new building.
In the new infirmary, soft music and wind chimes are in the air. Hancock says the cats have everything they need, but that donations and volunteers are always needed.
“We can always use food, kitty litter … and volunteers. And we can use volunteers just to cuddle the kitties that are now tame and who want to be cuddled. We are stretched pretty thin," said Hancock.
There weren't many cats out and about at Shanti's House on this particular day. Cats are crepuscular, meaning they tend to sleep during the day. Sabina, however, seems to have taken a keen interest as Hancock shows us around the place.
The residents always change at Shanti's House because the goal is to adopt the cats out once they’ve become tame. If they remain feral, they can stay at Shanti's House for the rest of their lives.
Kristina Hancock hopes other people follow her model for a feral cat sanctuary.
For more information or to make a donation, visit Shanti's House's website.