Junior Animal Science student, Ali Chavez, is shown holding (from left to right) Lambo, Porsche, and Mac before the quarantine. “The feeling I get after rescuing and adopting out a cat and getting the happy updates where they’re thriving in their new home makes all the worry and lack of sleep worth it.”

In the wake of the COVID-19 outbreak, animal science junior and Mustang News photographer Ali Chavez dealt with the same challenges as most students loss of end-of-the-year milestones, stress of online classes and uncertainty over the future. However, unlike all of her peers, she also has the lives of more than 40 rescued cats to worry about.

Chavez began volunteering for the Cal Poly Cat Program (CPCP) two years ago. She has since become a co-manager of the shelter and introduced a neonatal kitten program, which allows people to foster and care for kittens who are not yet ready for adoption.

In the past few weeks, Chavez’s life has been a whirlwind of cats and coursework. 

“I’m in a lot of labs right now, which is really weird, because I have literally cow intestines in my freezer right now,” Chavez said. “Yay, pre-vet.”

Chavez often paused in the middle of a sentence to endearingly scoop her cat Fresno away from the camera. Her Foothill Blvd. apartment was decorated with streamers and “Baby Boy” balloons left over from her CPCP co-manager’s “kitten shower.”

Chavez said she continues to keeps the balloons up as part of a “perpetual celebration of cats,” and she often uses them as a backdrop in photos with Derik, one of the four kittens she is fostering in her apartment.

“I love showing off my kittens,” Chavez said. “I’ve been fostering since 2016, my senior year of high school, when I managed to convince my dad that I could foster and not keep them. Five cats later, that didn’t really happen.”

Chavez trains new foster parents in addition to fostering her own kittens. The statewide shelter-at-home order brought in an increase of interested volunteers, foster parents and adopters in San Luis Obispo. The shelter’s management has since limited traffic into the shelter for safety reasons.

Chavez and co-manager Sam Cvetovac have each been meeting with potential foster parents and adopters at the shelter three times a week. 

“I definitely have, in a weird way, appreciated quarantine,” Chavez said. “It kind of made our business really great because we’ve gotten a lot of cats out, which makes my life really fun.”

In the next few months, Chavez said she hopes to see more people interested in fostering kittens from the shelter — as well as stay on top of her coursework.

“It’s a pain in the butt handling this many classes and also handling a cat shelter,” Chavez said. “It’s a lot, but I’m hopeful that it keeps going in the same direction.” 

A Q&A with the Cat Program co-manager

The responses in this interview have been edited for brevity and clarity.

What made you want to get involved at the shelter in the beginning and what has made you stay there for so long?

I’m definitely a crazy cat lady. I have grown up around cats my entire life, so it primarily was because I was having separation anxiety from my own cats at home. I heard about the cat program, and knew I wanted to at least be involved in some way. 

What were your biggest concerns about having to shelter in place due to COVID-19?

Personally, it was just being able to see my family and go home for spring break. My brother’s immunocompromised, and I didn’t want to put him in any danger, obviously.

But as far as the cat program goes, the biggest issue that we were having were volunteers, because we have people coming in three times a day usually. We’ve had so many volunteers and a ton more people coming to us after quarantine started, because it’s like, ‘Oh, well there’s something to do. Let’s go chill with cats for an hour every day.’ We’ve had to limit the amount of volunteers in the shelter, because it’s such a small, small space. The six-feet distance is kind of impossible to enforce with eight people in there trying to work at the same time, so that was a really big concern. 

How much did your involvement at the shelter impact your decision to stay in SLO?

I went home for about a week at the beginning of spring break. My entire motivation to come back here was to take care of the cats and help out at the cat shelter. I knew that it had been crazy and I was keeping up with the group chat and emails. I usually had 20 people emailing me a day asking to volunteer and foster. Having to push that all onto my team, who was still here, felt really awful. If it hadn’t been for the cat shelter and the fact that I pay $800 per month for this apartment, I probably would still be at home right now.

How does it feel to be on campus when it’s isolated? 

It’s creepy. It’s so dead. There’s no one there, and you totally feel like you shouldn’t be there. It’s kind of like, ‘Is someone gonna arrest me ‘cause I’m walking around?’ The cat program is on campus, but it’s kind of in the outskirts, so it’s not like I’m in the UU. We’re right next to the Rose Float lab, so normally there’s people going in and out of that building. It definitely feels like a ghost town. 

How else have you had to adapt your management style and adjust to safety precautions?

I’m staying in contact with all the foster parents that I’ve arranged the last few weeks. Trying to keep up with them with the neonatal program means a lot of communicating with foster parents and trying to get my hands on kittens, because there aren’t very many in SLO right now. I’ve been doing a lot of foster parent trainings. It’s just been kind of chaotic.

Getting supplies has definitely been a pain in the butt. We had a shortage of paper towels for a while, which was a huge issue, because that’s what we use to clean. The inevitability of the unknown, of how long we’re going to be in quarantine, how long COVID will be an issue and not knowing the next time we will be able to restock has been difficult [to manage].

Why do you think there’s been a peak in adoptions during the COVID-19 outbreak?

A lot of people come to us and have straight up told us like, ‘Hey, all my roommates are gone, and I don’t know when they’re gonna be coming back. Can I have a cat?’ You can’t blame them, my life would be pretty boring if I didn’t have all of my cats too. I support people in that. I am a little worried that after quarantine lifts, all these cats are going to come back to the shelter. We’ve definitely been having to vet our adopters a little bit more harshly just because we want these cats to stay in their homes. 

How have you balanced the cat shelter with your own personal courses and other life responsibilities?

It’s a lot of planning. I have a giant planner that’s like my Bible basically, and that’s how I plan out my day. Obviously, things change from minute to minute. I’ll be at the shelter for like five seconds to grab a syringe or something for a foster [parent], and then I’ll spend time there until 8 p.m. Stuff happens, but it definitely is a lot of juggling and balancing and a lot of late nights. [Wipes face] I have cat hair on my nose. I’m so sorry. I look like a crazy person ‘cause this cat is getting hair all over me! But yeah, it’s a lot of balancing and juggling and time management. 

What are your plans for the the shelter in the next few months?

For the kitten program, I basically just want to keep getting as many babies as we can. There’s a lot of willing fosters who would love, love to take them. I’m hopeful that we can still get supporters, because that’s been a big issue. We [also] had to lock up all of our hand sanitizer, actually, which is nuts, because we had a couple of bottles go missing right as coronavirus was becoming a thing. We were like, ‘You’re stealing from a fucking nonprofit.’ But that’s a whole other thing.

What are your plans for yourself in the next few months?

As far as my own goals go, I guess just staying on top of schoolwork is my main thing. Trying to remember all the damn dates and stuff like that, ‘cause virtual classes are hell. I, half the time, don’t know what day of the week it is, so I have to keep reminding myself what day it is. Everything’s just melding together as I sit in this apartment and sit in this damn chair on Zoom all day. 

How do you keep yourself uplifted and optimistic day to day?

Honestly, I survive off of Spotify. My playlists are kind of the only thing getting me through right now. I’m just trying to see the quarantine in as positive of a light as I can. I’ve been trying to keep myself looking at it like, ‘Oh, so instead of how many people are getting coronavirus in SLO County, why don’t I look at how many cats have been adopted in SLO County?’ I try and turn everything and avoid the negative media as much as possible. And my cats obviously keep me happy every day.

Read more about Chavez and Kumagawa’s reporting in Behind the Story.

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