It started more than 60 years ago in Istanbul, Turkey, where a trail of cats used to follow Shaki Shahin to school.
The compassionate little Armenian girl fed her lunch to hungry strays and when it rained, she was their champion, staying outside with them and refusing to go indoors until adequate shelter and bedding was set up in the backyard for her feline friends.
I can not stand for any animal to be in pain or suffering in any way.
Today, Shahin spends nearly half her income feeding abandoned and feral cats in west Fresno. Although she’s 73 and in need of knee surgery that she has been putting off, every night, for up to two and a half hours, she visits cats behind shopping centers. She’s also spayed, neutered and vaccinated many strays, what she used to do more of when her income was greater.
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Earlier this year, a San Francisco man staying in a Fresno hotel, Joseph Baliva, worried about the fate of a couple of cats who decided to take up residence beneath his parked vehicle when Shahin pulled up like a knight in shining armor, the back of her car loaded with cat food.
The two cat lovers hit it off, talking for close to an hour, and Baliva felt compelled to help. With Shahin’s permission, he set up a Facebook page and donation account online through razoo named “Cat Lady of Fresno,” which has yet to gain traction. The account has raised $190 for cat food so far, almost all of it from Baliva.
She cares for these animals kind of like their guardian angel.
“This woman is a warrior,” Baliva says of Shahin. “A gentle, caring, compassionate, empathetic warrior who is a leader, because one of the main markers of a leader is even when no one was helping her before, she was still doing it and sacrificing what she had herself, hurting herself, in order to give to her cause. … I pray she does get help.”
Shahin retired as a legal typist over a decade ago to care for her ailing mother. Shahin’s household income dropped from $3,800 to $1,140 a month after her mom died in August of 2014.
“It’s kind of hard. I miss my mother a lot,” Shahin says. “We were together all our lives, even when I was married, my mother was always with me. It’s a difficult thing, but she was 96 and she had a long life. We had a long journey together. She was my friend, she was my friend.”
But the cats, both on the streets and a number in her neat, three-bedroom home, are also family.
“I feel like we can read each other,” Shahin says last week from her Fresno home with several healthy and happy looking cats laying luxuriously nearby. “All these cats are my babies.”
Each of her house cats comes with a rescue story.
“I don’t go looking for cats. I never said, ‘I want this cat that is Siamese, that’s beautiful.' To me all cats are beautiful.”
My ex-husband used to say that I must have been a cat in my past life.
Cats get a bad rap for being aloof and ungrateful, she says, but that’s not true. Shahin talks passionately about national news stories spotlighting tales of cats coming to the rescue of their owners and babies to make her point.
She says with cats, it’s a matter of trust.
“Cats are very intelligent, they can read your inside. They have this special talent and you can not make a cat like you. Dogs you can. I love dogs, too. As soon as you are nice to a dog, he’ll jump, he’ll kiss you, but cats – you can not make a cat do that. The cats will choose their owners and I like that about them.”
She started feeding homeless cats in Fresno in 1998. As a volunteer for SPCA and the California Feline Foundation, now Valley Animal Shelter, a friend who knew she had a “special talent” with cats asked if she could catch some skittish strays behind a shopping center.
“This is when I started realizing there are these cats out there.”
Shahin started feeding more and more cats as people heard of her work and gave her new locations to check out. On her busiest nights, she stops at around a dozen places. On “off nights,” about a half dozen. Between homeless and household cats, Shahin still spends up to $600 a month on cat food. It used to be around $1,000 a month.
She’s also been known to come to the rescue of many other creatures, including dogs and ducks.
“I can not stand any animal being in distress or being hurt. As much as I hate snakes – and I’m terrified of snakes – if I saw an injured snake, I would try to help him, too.”
Beth Caffrey, a spokeswoman for The Cat House on the Kings, a no-kill shelter in Parlier, calls Shahin a “gem.”
Caffrey says people like Shahin help cats immensely, especially since many animal controls stopped catching stray cats several years ago unless surrendered by an owner or reported.
Central California SPCA took in 11,809 stray cats during the 2014-15 fiscal year and euthanized 8,301.
“I’m glad the cats aren’t being warehoused and euthanized,” Caffrey says, “but it’s not slowing down the number of cats on the streets, getting sick and reproducing.”
Caffrey says it’s extremely difficult to find no-kill shelters for cats.
“We are in a third-world country when it comes to animals,” Caffrey says of the Fresno area. “It’s shocking how many animals are on our streets. … We have got to be 30 to 40 years behind other communities that have been proactive for animals. We haven’t ever designated (local) spay and neuter funding and we are not really good at doing things as a whole. We don’t have an animal coalition anymore, where we all come together.”
In the meantime, Shahin will continue tirelessly caring for her beloved Fresno cats.
Friends sometimes tell her to just stop feeding them.
“But I can’t do it – they are waiting for me,” Shahin says. “You should see when I go. When they see me, they will come out, they will rub against each other, they will come and lay on the ground because they are happy to see me. How can I not go?”
How to help
A donation account to help Shahin buy cat food was set up through razoo online under “Cat Lady of Fresno.”