Happy 75th Birthday to Kathy Centala, the Founder of Purrfect Pals!
By Whitney Whitworth
From birth, Kathy Centala was brought in to this world as a cat lady. Born in a time when wives’ tales about cats sucking the breath from babies were common place, Kathy’s father ignored superstition and saw a special connection between his infant and their family kitty, appropriately named ‘Mama Cat’, while the two snuggled peacefully in her crib together.
Having spent her entire youth in a family that openly embraced felines, Kathy began to develop an unspoken and deep connection with her family pets. Her kind, caring nature left her brokenhearted when, in the second grade, a nun from her school told the class that no cats go to heaven. Crying, Kathy ran home to her mother, informing her that she “didn’t want to go to a Heaven with no cats.” Her mom, with all of her motherly wisdom and sharing Kathy’s same compassion, reassured Kathy that, “of course there are cats in Heaven! There are all sorts of cats of every size and shape, and there were even purple cats if Kathy wanted there to be!” Of course, Kathy didn’t have to wait to experience kitty nirvana, as she was able to create her own piece of heaven right here at Purrfect Pals.
Much like the first time I met Kathy, whose humble yet powerful mission inspired me to get involved with Purrfect Pals, we met at the Arlington shelter headquarters. Just as any good tour guide, Kathy introduces me to a few residence of the office – Shaleah, who weighed twenty-six pounds when she arrived but is working hard with the staff on her weight-loss mission, Daddy’s Girl, a beautiful nine-year-old tabby who was receiving extra-special meal time from Kathy due to her renal failure, and Shamara, a long-haired tuxedo who lovingly mixes purrs and nibbles for me throughout our interview. And, though I personally am easily distracted by adorable kitties, Kathy and her story engaged me with warmth, passion, and genuine heart that quickly had my full attention:
Whitney Whitworth: Who was the first cat you can remember having as a pet?
Kathy Centala: “The first cat I can remember was ‘Mama Cat’. We used to call her that because she mothered lots of kittens. At that time, we didn’t know as much about cats as we do today, like spaying and neutering. We always had cats since the time I was born.”
WW: Can you tell me a little bit about your history with Purrfect Pals? What inspired you to make Purrfect Pals your life’s work?
KC: “I asked myself, ‘What can I do to make a change?’ I can’t build a Humane Society, but I could buy a house to take in animals. I started in Brier, but Brier wasn’t very happy with the animals. They even refused to pick up my garbage because of the poop. I had to take (the waste) to the dump, but even they turned me away. I started calling around asking about regulations, because I knew I had to move. I called Snohomish County and they answered asking, ‘are you the Cat Lady of Brier? Snohomish County would be glad to welcome you!’ I guess they had read about my home in the local paper, and knew who I was before I even called. Now, justice has come totally around because I watch the garbage man come collect it from me!”
WW: What was it like in the beginning for you and for the cats?
KC: “When I started, I was so utterly poor because all of my money was spent on the property. I worked at United Airlines in reservations. I would work all of the hours that I could between 1:00pm and 4:00am so I would have time to take care of the cats in the afternoon. At our first fundraiser, a booth at an event in the Westin Hotel, we raised $400 and, gradually, the word about Purrfect Pals started to get out. Soon we had volunteers, like Janice Johnson, who would come in just to wash litter boxes and help wherever they could. We saw steady growth through our adoptions at local places, like a bookstore on Capitol Hill. Now, we have just exploded! I remember I would have to stop every day after work just to buy Friskies for the kitties, and now, it seems, we have no place to put it! (At the time,) I didn’t know how to fundraise. Now, I sit back and watch the generous donations come in. Connie Gabelein (formerly Executive Director and now Director of Marketing and Development for Purrfect Pals) has been the biggest force in helping with this. We are using things like Social Media now to get a bigger audience for our cats and for our fundraising. We don’t just have big donors, but we have a lot of little, dependable contributors now. We still have a very grateful mindset and are still frugal by nature.”
WW: How has the shelter environment changed since you started Purrfect Pals?
KC: “We see spay and neuter being a big focus now. It wasn’t always that way. In the beginning, Purrfect Pals was one of the only no-kill shelters in this area, and now it is pretty common. I’ve started noticing the next generation take an interest in special needs animals and volunteerism. A young man came recently who wanted to work specifically with special needs kitties and those that are hard to place.
I used to volunteer in a veterinarian’s office. We had a lot of families who would come in and get their cats declawed. After seeing cats come out of surgery bleeding from their bandages on their paws and looking miserable, I asked him, ‘why would you want to declaw?’ He told me, ‘there’s money in that.’ I’m really glad that we have moved away from that (mindset) and are more educated now.”
WW: Do you have any favorite kitties?
KC: “The ones we have rescued and made whole again. Our mission was always to get those adopted who were hard to place. I remember going to a shelter to pick up a batch of cats and some guy said, ‘who would ever want that cat?” and Janice and I both said, “Oh, I’ll take that one!”
WW: Are there any that specifically stick out in your memory?
KC: “Gwen. I remember when we first got her she came in with her ears back and unhappy with everyone. We worked very hard with her. Shortly after adoption, her owner sent us a picture with (Gwen) lying on their legs. She is a completely changed cat from when she came in.
We took in a cat named Rex once, who was so unhappy when his people moved to Japan. Despite our best efforts, he was never quite happy. Three years after he came to Purrfect Pals, his owners moved back and were thrilled that he was still here. As soon as they entered the building he ran to them, recognizing them immediately, and was so happy to see them. We watched his entire attitude change.
Then there is Moochie, the blind cat. He came here with glaucoma and our shelter’s veterinarian had to remove his eyes because they were so bad. His adopters originally were not ready for a new pet, as they had a cat that recently passed away and were just stopping by to drop off donations. However, we introduced him to them and they fell in love immediately. Now he is living the high life and even has hired help who comes and sits with him so he is never alone if his family is not around.”
WW: You’re sort of an expert in cats. Is there any advice you would give first time cat owners:?
KC: “To new cat parents – don’t force yourself on them. If they go under a bed and hide, don’t go after them. Any change for a cat is hard. It’s like if you were airlifted from here to Afghanistan- the change would be hard. Expect that it is going to take time. Don’t come back one week, three weeks, three years later and say that it just doesn’t work. We all know that it takes time to make friends, and every cat is different and adjusts differently. Be Patient!”
WW: Where do you see Purrfect Pals in the future?
KC: “Helping more special needs cats. Now, I feel comfortable that Purrfect Pals will go on even after me. There is enough support, and I am very grateful for that.”
Will You Please Help Us Wish Kathy a Happy 75th Birthday?
Kathy Centala will be celebrating her 75th birthday this September. As she likes to say, “I’m entering my fourth and last quarter of my life, and, as Seahawks fans know, final quarter is when exciting things happen. I’m looking forward to it!”
Anyone who has met Kathy will tell you that she isn’t willing to let a silly little thing like age get in the way of helping cats and kittens. They will also tell you that Kathy lives very modestly and it is next to impossible to buy her a birthday gift because she will turn around and donate it for our Black Cat Ball auction in order to help save more cats!
Don’t tell Kathy but, In honor of her birthday and to show our gratitude for her passion and commitment to helping cats and her community, we are hoping to raise $75,000 in donations to Purrfect Pals.
Please consider contributing to this very special birthday gift by donating online today.
We will also be compiling all of your birthday messages for her so please feel free to send them to firstname.lastname@example.org or 230 McRae Rd NE, Arlington, WA 98223!