WESTMONT – Every year, hundreds of stray or abandoned cats undergo a transformation from being scared, hungry and homeless to being affectionate, healthy and part of a family thanks to St. Sophia’s Forgotten Felines, which just opened its first location this month and chose Westmont as its base of operations.
The storefront, 112 E. Chicago Ave., features a colorful, inviting room where cats are encouraged to roam freely, climb on the furniture and socialize with each other and new visitors.
St. Sophia’s Forgotten Felines Director Lauren Rizzo hopes to attract cat lovers to adopt a furry friend or apply to temporarily foster a feline and to raise awareness of pet overpopulation and the need for sterilization.
“At this point, we’re amazed this happened,” Rizzo said. “We started on $250 and never thought we’d be as big as we are.”
Rizzo began the nonprofit six years ago by rescuing five cats in danger of being euthanized by county animal control, placing them in foster homes and eventually finding pet owners to adopt them permanently.
Now St. Sophia’s is licensed to have up to 125 cats in its care through as many as 32 foster homes.
Rizzo had been running the rescue organization out of her home in Addison, with five local pet stores providing cages to house St. Sophia’s foster cats when they became available for adoption. The new facility is designed to be a more welcoming place for interaction.
“Our cats will still be raised in foster care,” foster caregiver Christina Pignato said. “The office will be a way to do a meet-and-greet with potential adopters, so we don’t have to go to a pet store. When we do adoption events in stores, we are competing with canine events. Cats and dogs don’t always mix.”
Up to 15 cats are allowed at the new location, and each cat will stay two weeks and return to foster care unless it is adopted. The storefront will be open to the public Thursdays through Sundays, and about 30 volunteers will ensure the cats are fed and their room and litter is cleaned twice a day.
“I want to help some other family experience the joy I have,” said Pignato, who has fostered nursing mothers and kittens as well as disabled cats for three years for St. Sophia’s. “I want to make sure my babies that come through me have that loving family experience, and I can train them not to jump on counters and scratch on furniture and behaviors that come up at home.”
Rizzo said DuPage County Animal Control has not euthanized a cat since 2011, thanks to groups that trap-neuter-release such as Feral Fixers or rescues such as St. Sophia’s. The nonprofit now takes in cats from Chicago Animal Care and Control, which Rizzo said euthanizes about 1,000 cats a year. St. Sophia’s, named for the patron saint of orphans, is not licensed to accept abandoned or stray animals.
“The goal is to reduce the population of unwanted cats,” Rizzo said. “More are still being born than there are homes. If you ignore a problem, you’re part of the problem. I want to make the world a better place.”
Rizzo noted her organization is run entirely by volunteers, including herself.
“I’ve always had a high value toward animals. I view them as having just as much right to life as we do,” Pignato said. “A lot of rescuers are the same. We don’t distinguish our lives as any better than theirs.”