Woonsocket cat sanctuary celebrates 25 years the valley breeze

The attachment grew, and Tessier often found herself picking up stray cats and helping them find new homes. At the time, the city was lacking in nonprofit services for animals, and a friend who ran the North Smithfield Animal Rescue asked her to consider starting a similar organization in Woonsocket. In 1993, she opened the shelter as the Woonsocket branch of Volunteer Services for Animals, an animal advocacy group that continues to operate out of Providence. In the early days, she ran the shelter right out of Buddha’s Bazaar, with the store licensed to have a pet department.

Within three years, the shelter outgrew its accommodations, and when the store closed in 1995, the Cat Sanctuary remained, expanding to fill most of the back half of the building.

In the early days, said Tessier, they received a steady stream of calls from city residents looking for a place to send stray cats, many of them found at apartment complexes where residents would abandon pets when they moved out. A core group of volunteers and staff members quickly stepped up to meet the demand.

One of those early supporters is Deb Adam, who began with the organization a year after it opened and took over as director when Tessier moved to Florida. According to Adam, the sanctuary continues to take in strays and unwanted cats whenever space is available, though volunteers are often disappointed with the attitude of cat owners who call to say they no longer want their pets.

The shelter offers discounted spay/neuter clinics for low-income cat owners and works with local veterinarians to ensure all cats who come through the shelter are up to date on their medical check-ups and vaccinations. For many years, said Tessier, Dr. Linda Hanson at the Diamond Hill Animal Clinic was a key partner who provided discounted veterinary services, and the shelter has recently started working with the South Bellingham Veterinary Hospital.

Its largest service, however, continues to be the adoption of cats who arrive from many sources. As of last week, the shelter had taken in 9,111 cats in its 25-year history, quite a tally for a group that runs almost entirely on donations and volunteers. Gail Desmarais, assistant director, said prospective cat owners are welcome to visit the sanctuary any time to meet the cats and speak with volunteers about adoption, but emphasized the shelter is careful to match cats with the right families to ensure their new homes are a long-term arrangement.

This Saturday, the Cat Sanctuary invites newcomers and longtime supporters to mingle with the cats and their caretakers at the 25th anniversary open house. The event will feature live music, food, raffles and kids’ activities and take place from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the shelter, rain or shine. Adam encouraged all ages to come out and see the shelter’s work in action.

As for the future of the Cat Sanctuary, Tessier said she anticipates it will continue to serve the Woonsocket area for years to come. She has no immediate plans to sell the building, and if she does do so, would help find a new space for the shelter that was for many years a personal passion sparked by one lonely stray cat on a cold November night.