By: Jacqueline Vaughn
As one of less than a handful of rescue facilities devoted to cats and kittens in the Southwest, the Ark Cat Sanctuary, 35 miles west of Flagstaff, fills a special niche among animal welfare organizations and shelters. There are about 175 felines on this 10 acre rescue located in Parks, in the middle of the Kaibab National Forest, often more than the number found at the nearby High Country Humane and the Coconino Humane Association combined. The cats that live there have a magnificent view of the San Francisco Peaks, and it is almost certain that they will one day have a forever home.
Sue Marue, the founder and executive director of The Ark, has lived on the property for the past 14 years, turning the scrub-and pine-covered landscape into a remote site where cats and their kittens can feel safe, be socialized, or, if they choose, hide from people. Sue took a horse barn that was already there and converted it into a cat room and storage area for food and supplies, and turned a sunroom at the back of the small house on the property into a kitty-exclusive solarium. The cats lounge about on cat trees, roll on their backs in the sun, and snooze on blankets and chairs. The rare visitor is likely to find cats in her living room, on tables and chairs in the tiny dining area, in the bathroom, or looking at you from some hidden perch or hidey hole.
In addition, there is a separate, smaller building used for pregnant cats and kittens during kitten season, weatherproofed sleeping sheds and igloo-style houses for outdoor cats, and what she calls “habitats” comprised of predator-proof fencing, with trees, juniper shrubbery, and logs or branches for scratching and reclining. Each of the habitats provides less social animals a place to hide from visitors or other cats. Marue says that the outdoor habitats, unlike a conventional “catio” used to give cats fresh air, help reduce stress and consequently disease frequency and propagation. Cats at The Ark are grouped by age, temperament, food requirements, and health, so that a single cat with a respiratory virus does not infect others, and those that are more socialized can help calm down a new resident.
She says she did not start out to be a cat lady, and never planned to start a cat sanctuary. Her interest in animals started when she was about 7 years old when she used her meager allowance from her parents to buy Hartz Mountain Catnip. A year later, her parents let her keep a stray cat in her neighborhood, and she began to ask them “What happens to the cats that do not get adopted or cared for?”
Prior to her career in animal welfare, Marue received a chemistry degree from California State University, Northridge, and decided to go to pharmacy school for a year. Deciding that pharmacy was not the path she wanted to choose for further study, she went to graduate school in Oregon, later teaching at a community college and developing her skills in material science. An avid runner, mountain biker, and kayaker, she left Oregon with 48 cats, renting a Cruise America RV that she lined with plastic tarps, stacking it to the ceiling with cat carriers. She admits that she probably was a little vague in telling the rental agent how many passengers she would be driving to Arizona.
The extent of the need for a cat-specific rescue in northern Arizona is not widely known, although Marue and her organization did provide statistics as part of a stakeholder input questionnaire prepared for local officials in January 2018. In that document, they noted that Coconino Humane Association, which had the contract with Coconino County and the City of Flagstaff for animal sheltering services until January 2, 2019, did not have “enough space, personnel, or time within the existing shelter to accommodate the relatively large numbers of cats coming in without heavy use of euthanasia or a large support network of rescues.” The Ark has been taking in between 700 and 750 cats each year, approximately one-third of Coconino Humane’s yearly total cat intakes. More importantly, while Coconino Humane was able to find homes for healthy, adoptable animals without euthanasia through an active adoption program at its facility and at the Petsmart store in Flagstaff, those with health conditions or behavioral issues like a lack of socialization were not being treated. In 2015 and for a number of years prior to then, for instance, the euthanasia rate for cats at Coconino Humane was about 36 percent when the intake number was about 1,500 cats. Dogs, however, were being euthanized at a rate of about 16 percent even though the intake number was much higher at about 2,400 animals.
With the partnership that was developed between The Ark and Coconino Humane, the euthanasia rate for cats dropped to 5 percent in 2016, with significant procedural and policy changes at the county shelter. For instance, bite-case cats were no longer routinely euthanized when staff members at Coconino Humane were trained to understand that most cat bites are not due to aggression but to improper handling. The shelter also began treating upper respiratory infections among its cats differently, and The Ark began rescuing large numbers of cats from them when shelter space became scarce. Those animals might otherwise have been euthanized. Marue also credits the 13 year long partnership that developed between herself, Coconino Humane, and Michelle Ryan, the current executive director of Coconino Humane. “She is open to the perspectives that others have to contribute to the effort to save the creatures that the public discards,” she says.
In an interview with the Arizona Daily Sun, Marue said that in 2015, The Ark placed 546 cats for adoption without having to euthanize a single one. Fewer than 40 died while in her care, making them a truly no-kill facility. All animals that The Ark takes to Petsmart for adoption are spayed or neutered, vaccinated, given a microchip, and treated for appropriate medical conditions as needed. In 2019, she expects to take in about 800 cats, with almost all of them adopted within a calendar year. She draws a monthly salary that puts her well below poverty levels for income, and pays three part time kennel staff that is always busy keeping the cats’ quarters clean, feeding them, and helping with recordkeeping. She also has a network of about 15 fosters who help socialize the cats, bottle feed kittens, and treat them for various ailments. The non-profit does not receive any government funding, with adoption fees accounting for about half of its yearly income. The rest comes from donations and an occasional grant from the Arizona Community Foundation.
One of the factors that makes The Ark Sanctuary somewhat unique among feline rescues elsewhere is that the organization focuses on the most at-risk populations, including cats that are feral or fearful, those with medical issues, injuries, and those that are pregnant or with nursing kittens. “We accept the ones with respiratory problems, those with ringworm, the undersized cats, those that have been trapped, and those that require bottle feeding,” she says. “We take all kinds.” Some of the cats she rescues and cares for come from Holbrook Animal Control, the Tuba City Humane Society (which does not have a physical shelter), from members of the public that need to voluntarily surrender an animal, and, despite the changeover in the city/county contract for animal shelter services that was negotiated last year with a new group, High Country Humane, she continues to take cats in need from Coconino Humane.
Marue is dedicated to each of the animals in her care, and although she may not know the name of each one (most are named by the staff) she does know their temperament, where they came from, and how they like to be treated. She does not appear to hesitate at all when a cat named Ginger who was surrendered by a Navajo woman is brought in with pneumonia. And she is blunt about the challenges she faces in dealing with Flagstaff’s notoriously divisive political climate, saying she prefers to leave the public relations and politics to the members of her board of directors while she cleans out the habitats and washes litter boxes. Funding, perhaps, is her biggest challenge, as she took stock of the dwindling supply of cat food she receives from the local Purina company. “We’ll find a way to make it work.”
The Ark Cat Sanctuary