Raymond St. John was ill with terminal cancer and becoming increasingly worried about his cat, Dalyma.
The 8-year-old longhair tuxedo cat had been a constant in St. John’s life for more than three years. St. John, a 61-year-old former long distance truck driver, had adopted Dalyma from the Humane Society of Southern Arizona and named her for his grandparents, whose surname was Dalyma.
St. John died May 20, just two months after his diagnosis. But he died with his worry resolved. Dalyma now resides in a bright, spacious ranch house in the Catalina Foothills operated by an organization called Hearts that Purr Feline Guardians. The nonprofit’s leaders say it is not a shelter, but rather a care home for cats.
“Whenever my brother was home, that cat was glued to him,” said St. John’s older brother, David St. John. “He was not able to take her to hospice and that was very upsetting to him. I promised I’d find a good home for Dalyma.”
Hearts that Purr was created by Jeanmarie Schiller-McGinnis, a local businesswoman and cat lover who came up with the idea when she was looking into the future, wondering what would happen if she and her husband, Kelly McGinnis, were to die.
“I had an old, crabby cat and the thought of him being in a shelter ... he would have never survived,” Schiller-McGinnis said. “Shelters do the hardest work in the world. But cats that lose their homes, especially the seniors, they don’t do well in shelters. They deteriorate rather quickly.”
The Hearts that Purr Feline Guardians organization has two main purposes — providing shelter and loving care for felines made homeless due to the terminal illness, incapacitation or death of their owners; and educating the public about the importance of planning for the ongoing care of companion animals.
“We encourage people to make a plan while they are well,” Schiller-McGinnis said. “If people knew what really happens … If you die and there is no one to take your animal, the pet is confiscated by animal control. Often they don’t even know the pet’s name. That’s probably the most traumatic thing for a cat to experience.”
Schiller-McGinnis is doing her best not to make Hearts that Purr a shelter. The cats live in separate rooms, usually two or three cats per room depending on temperament and right now she’s about at capacity with 22. Her promise to owners like St. John is that their pet will always have a safe and loving home.
Many of the cats are older and on multiple medications. Dalyma is the youngest; the oldest is 17.
The organization’s first rescues were in July 2013 when a 99-year-old owner of two cats died. The owner had been living alone in a trailer in Cochise County and had no known family or friends. Her only concern as she was dying were her two elderly cats, one of whom was deaf and partially blind. Hearts that Purr wasn’t nearly ready open yet, but took in the two cats anyway.
Both of the cats — Sal and Sam — developed serious illnesses and died within a year of being taken in by Hearts that Purr. But Schiller-McGinnis said the experience of caring for the cats solidified her commitment.
Two benches in honor of Sal and Sam sit at the Hearts that Purr home. Schiller-McGinnis doesn’t give out the address because she knows she’d be overwhelmed with cats if she did.
Not all of the cats at Hearts that Purr are there because their owners died. Phoenix resident Ella Horrell, 78, was forced to give up her orange tabby Rusty because she had multiple health problems and was moving into a facility that doesn’t allow pets.
“I adopted him at 10 weeks old from the SPCA in Phoenix. Rusty put his paw up as if to say, ‘take me’ and we had a good life until now. It breaks my heart to have to leave him,” Horrell said. “I got to where I couldn’t take care of him. I became so disabled.”
Rusty is now a feisty geriatric cat who suffers from hyperthyroidism, diabetes and arthritis. Horrell visits when she can and Hearts that Purr sends her pictures of her beloved pet.
Schiller-McGinnis routinely hears from relatives trying to find a home for the cat of a loved one. Typically they’ve called a long list of rescue groups with the same response — sorry, we’re full.
Laura Feldman was relieved to find Hearts that Purr in 2014 for Sweetie, a now 17-year-old gray-and-white cat that belongs to her 84-year-old aunt, Sylvia Feldman.
“Sweetie was with my aunt for 12 years and that cat is the love of her life,” said Feldman, who lives in Washington D.C. “I thought I’d have to take the cat to a shelter and my aunt would have been devastated.”
Feldman learned about Hearts that Purr from a local veterinarian. Her aunt, who is now in assisted living, visits Sweetie when she’s well enough.
“Sweetie is pretty old and they take great care of him,” Feldman said. “Who wouldn’t want to retire in that house? It’s beautiful and it was a lifesaver. I didn’t know what to do and I had no experience with cats.”
Schiller-McGinnis asks for a donation when people commit a pet to Hearts that Purr, though it isn’t mandatory. Sweetie’s family, for example, pays $100 per month. Some pay more, others less. Many of the owners who are alive put money aside for Hearts that Purr in their will. The organization relies solely on donations and since many of its residents have chronic illnesses, veterinary and medication costs run steep.
Hearts that Purr also rescues cats at risk of euthanasia that end up at the Pima Animal Care Center, 4000 N. Silverbell Road, after their owners die or go into nursing homes.
“About half of our cats came to us that way,” Schiller-McGinnis said. “That’s where the public donations go.”
The Pima Animal Care Center doesn’t turn any animals away and is frequently overcrowded.
While many of the owners of cats at Hearts that Purr were old when they died, one was in her 30s. Schiller-McGinnis has taken in blind cats and older cats in “bonded pairs” who can’t be separated.
“Statistically, most people will outlive their pet. But in those cases that don’t, a spoiled, pampered pet might end up on the street,” she said.
The care home can take in only a limited number of felines and Schiler-McGinnis says no a lot. But she hopes to expand the group’s scope this year with a new foster program called “Senior Citizens and Senior Kittizens.” The program matches older, homeless cats to older people in the community, with the guarantee that the cat will always have a forever home and lifetime veterinary assistance with Hearts that Purr.
“A lot of seniors are socially isolated and having a kitty is such wonderful company,” Schiller-McGinnis said. “It would be a permanent foster but if you can no longer care for the cat, the cat must come back to us.”
David St. John has four dogs, including a terrier that doesn’t get along with cats. Otherwise he’d have kept his brother’s cat Dalyma himself.
“The day before my brother passed I was visiting with him at hospice and he was totally unresponsive. His eyes didn’t move and he was just despondent. I told him I’d found this absolutely terrific home for Dalyma and there was a spark in his eyes when I told him that,” he said.
“Dalyma is really a memory of my brother, and the fact that she’s doing so well makes me feel really good.”