What would inspire a former police officer and a veteran of more than 20 years with animal welfare organizations from across the United States, Canada, Mexico and Australia to leave a year's worth of well-deserved retirement on a boat off the Florida coast and, instead, brave Chicago's decidedly less temperate winters?
The answer: A lifelong love of animals coupled with a fervent belief in the mission and future of the 45-year-old nonprofit Tree House Humane Society, described on its website as "the largest cage-less, no-kill shelter for injured, sick and abandoned cats in the Chicagoland area."
Ohio-born Kerri Burns, who is lesbian, has served as Tree House's interim executive director since earlier this summer.
"They had some leadership changes," Burns told Windy City Times. "I've been able to go into [animal welfare] organizations and see what works for them, what works for the community, and help them to grow their programs and strengthen their message."
Windy City Times was invited to speak with Burns at Tree House's original building in Chicago's Uptown neighborhood, bought and paid for in 1975.
The steps to the main entrance lead to a cat lover's dream.
In rooms with as much function as they have a well-worn coziness, cats roam free sometimes, trailing one of the organization's volunteers and staff members around spoiling for mischief, some seeking attention while others are out just to satiate their curiosity. Others are nestled on a high perch watching the day's events with aloof contentment.
Throughout the nonprofit's history, both this and Tree House's Bucktown facility ( opened in 2007 ) have seen more than 16,000 of these purring "residents," as they are called.
"In this building we have about 75 cats that are available for adoption," Burns said. "We have 65 in foster homes and we have a waiting list of cats to come to this facility. Between here and the Bucktown facility, our capacity is at about 200."
However, Tree House's residents, as well as the many hopeful people who come to foster or adopt them, will soon experience a brand-new center of operations at Western Avenue and Touhy Avenue in Rogers Park.
It is the result of hard-fought capital campaign.
Tree House's staff has always dreamed big. To hear the new facility described and shown in architectural drawings would seem more akin to an unbelievable fantasy were it not just $800,000 in finishing touches and preparations for a stress-free transfer of the cats from becoming the kind of reality that trades creaking floorboards and aging walls for absolute state-of-the-art cat care.
The estimated 15,000-square-foot, fully accessible, two-story building will house the first cat cafe in the United States.
If someone's landlord or budget doesn't allow for a cat, that person can have a coffee with felines. All of the money from the coffee sales will go to saving the lives of other cats. When not enjoying a latte with patrons, the cats will be found relaxing on outdoor "catios."
There will also be a surgical suite and two on-site clinicsone of which will be open to the public for services including spaying, neutering and microchipping.
An education center will bring schoolchildren and members of the public to Tree House to learn everything from how to bottle-feed kittens, to the differing behaviors of cat breeds, to the life of a feral. That center can also be converted into a cat-friendly meeting room and made available for businesses who would like to include the always invaluable feline input during their strategy sessions.
Meanwhile, the new site will include suites of play rooms where prospective adoptees can spend as much time as they want with their new mums and dads and a retail store replete with enough items to make even a Persian cat feel overly spoiled.
Each of these areas contains naming opportunities for potential donors of every budget to immortalize their legacy in this unimaginable cat world.
Burns hopes that, depending upon how well the cats adjust, the new facility will open by the end of the year.
Meanwhile, and for the next 12-to-18 months, Burns is on a mission to "Get things stabilized and get this place rocking and rolling" so Tree House is where they need to be when they take their next steps.
"When we get into our new building, we need to tell the community that we're here and all the wonderful programs that we have."
Those programs include outreach to local schools to educate students about animal welfare, a food pantry for people who can't afford to get food for their cats or dog, grief counseling for those who suffer the loss of a pet, work with seniors and the placement of less social or feral cats with businesses who are combating a rodent problem.
"They keep the rats away," Burns said. "We actually have a waiting list of businesses and communities who want us to place cats with them. We were one of the first to do this in an inner-city."
Burns wants Tree House to build even more partnerships with community businesses. In an increasingly competitive philanthropic market, such partnerships are not only mutually beneficial but essential if the work of Tree House is to continue to expand.
"We have to get creative and work together," she said. "We'll tell your story if you tell ours. We want people to support local businesses and adopt their pets locally. We don't receive any funding from the city, county or national groups. We survive because of our programs and our donors but, as nonprofits, we forget that there are really creative ways to partner with businesses. You don't have to do things traditionally. You can create really cool things to bring in the money. Luckily for us, we have our cats. They can't speak for themselves but we can market them in wonderful ways. "
For Burns, all the wonderful ways to love animals was a talent with which she was born.
"I always related better to animals than I did people," she said. "Animals are always there for you. I think they give us so much more than, as humans, we will ever recognize. There's the love, care and compassion that we give to each other but tend to overthink. Animals don't. They are just true with everything they do."
Those feelings explain why, as a child, Burns constantly brought home neighborhood cats and dogs.
"I thought, 'How can I make a living in this field?'" she remembered.
At first there were no answers as Burns felt she wasn't smart enough for the science of veterinary work.
Instead, she got into law enforcement.
"As a police officer in Arizona, I learned about different disasters, incident command and reporting structures," Burns recalled. "I was also a federal and state grant writer for women and children's health issues."
They were both professions that served her well when, one day, animals needed her help.
"There was an opening at PetSmart Charities for someone to review grants from animal shelters across the U.S. and Canada," Burns said. "A year-and-a-half into it, a wildfire broke out in Northern Arizona. Over 600 animals were displaced from their homes. I got calls saying that all these animals needed to be fed. So I asked the right questions and in a logistics manner."
Within 24 hours, Burns was behind the firelines side-by-side with firefighters rescuing animals from their homes.
"It gave me such a great joy to be saving these lives," she said. "Then the American Humane Association asked me to be a part of their team."
In that capacity, Burns was involved in animal rescue during Hurricane Katrina, the 2009 federal, state and local law enforcement coordinated raid of dog-fighting operations ( the largest of its kind in the U.S. ) and throughout the devastating aftermath of the 2010 B.P. Deepwater Horizon oil spill.
"I became one of a handful of trainers who would teach people how to work with animals in times of disaster," Burns said. "When they evacuate their homes, people sometimes forget that their dogs or cats are still in there. They are part of the family. They matter too."
Over the past seven years, Burns spent time working with three animal shelters helping "to bring them to the next level."
On each of those occasions and in the case of Tree House, a significant part of that work means making sure stories about the residents and how they came to be there get told.
"Organizations in animal welfare have so many wonderful stories," she said. "Tree House works with sick, injured and stray cats in the community. I'll bet most of Chicago doesn't even know that."
Burns added that there also needs to be a shift in the animal welfare culture.
"It has progressed and everyone in this field needs to progress with it," she said. "Don't just do something because that's the way it's always been done. Tree House was the first cage-less humane society in the United States. We stepped it up a notch. Now there are other programs and messages that we can get out into the community that say how important animals are in our lives."
Just as important to Burns is the Tree House infrastructure of 50 tirelessly dedicated staff members alongside a network of more than 100 active volunteerswith always room for more no matter what the skill set.
"Our staff are some of the hardest working people around," she said. "They don't get paid a whole lot and yet it is amazing to look at the things that they do. I have encouraged them to see themselves as professionals in the animal welfare fieldtotally knowledgeable when it comes to any kind of resources for the cats in our community."
Tree House also prides itself on being a "no-kill" shelter.
The proliferation of facilities who have adopted that policy was already on the rise as early as 2008, when the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals ( ASPCA ) estimated that 3.7 million animals were euthanized in U.S. shelters that year.
Current numbers released by the ASPCA state: "Each year, approximately 2.7 million animals are euthanized ( 1.2 million dogs and 1.4 million cats )."
The ASPCA adds that the same number of animals are now adopted annually ( 1.4 million dogs and 1.3 million cats ).
Today, there is a significant and progressive movement to only euthanize animals that are behaviorally unable to adjust or in untreatable pain.
"In Chicago especially, we work well as a community with rescue groups, foster homes and shelters who say, 'How can we help so that Animal Control does not have to make a decision to euthanize because of lack of space?'" Burns said.
However, she believes there is so much more that can be done, including a simple change in message.
"I think 'no-kill' is a really harsh term," she asserted. "We don't come to work at shelters to kill animals. We come to work to save lives. Years ago, people didn't understand the importance of spaying and neutering their pets otherwise we could have made a much bigger dent and not had five or six million animals per year entering shelters. This is where the community needs to step up and help us with the problem."
It is a problem illustrated by Burns in a staggering number.
"In seven years, one pair of breeding cats and their kittens can produce 420,000 kittens," she said. "That's why we have so many cats running around."
"Too many people decide to shop instead of adopt," she added. "I encourage anyone who, for example, wants to adopt a Great Dane to realize that there are plenty of Great Danes in shelters or in specific rescue groups who need a loving home. There's no need or reason for anyone to go out and purchase a puppy-mill dog or cat when, on any given day, we have 200 cats in our care. Why not come on in and get one here? They're already spayed and neutered. They are vaccinated, microchipped. They are ready to go."
For Burns, leaving her boat in Florida to oversee all those cats ready to go to loving homes was more than worth the trip.
"Tree House is such a cool organization," she said. "It is so unique even nationally. We deal with cats who are typically underserved. We have a specific niche that helps us tell even more stories about all these cats who have come in here so very sick and, within a few weeks, are like little kittens again. Chicago is a great city which supports its animals so it is just up from here."
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