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Northshore Thrift Store Offers Cat Therapy

Tegan Wendland

Thrifty shoppers often seek hidden treasures and surprises at thrift stores. But visitors at one store outside New Orleans can also help stray animals.

The St. Francis Animal Sanctuary thrift store offers a unique gathering place for the Mandeville community — a room full of happy cats.

Sometimes customers are surprised when they notice one corner of the St. Francis Animal Sanctuary thrift store is screened off. It holds about 20 cats, who lounge around and play with one another while volunteers sit in recliners and pet them.

Jessica St. Pierre likes to bring her children, Adam and Emma, to play with the cats. They only have dogs at home. The kids wandered through the room, petting the cats and watching them climb and jump.

Volunteer Barbara Croznier greeted them as they entered, while she held a sleepy black cat on her lap. She explained that, while their goal is to find good homes for the cats, they are highly selective.

“When somebody comes in we will talk to them and we’ll greet them... but what we don’t do is try to get them to take a cat because that’s not what it’s all about," Croznier says. "There are many people who come in and they just visit and they are here often. They know the cats' names and we know their names and they just come to visit the cats.”

What it is all about is happy cats.

Sibyl Eckert helped start the shop with her husband five years ago. The thrift store raises money for St. Francis Animal Sanctuary in Tylertown, and the cats all come from there. She says a lot of people just come to hang out.

Credit Tegan Wendland / WWNO
Happy cats lounge on beds prepared for them by the volunteers at the St. Francis Animal Sanctuary Thrift store outside Mandeville.

Eckert says the setup is unusual. She jokes that they should start a “cat café” like some businesses in Japan, where customers pay to have coffee surrounded by cats.

They have adopted out about 430 cats since the shop started. It’s a lot of work for Eckert and her husband. Many of the cats are special-needs and require extra care. Several are blind and disabled. Plus, there is the nonstop process of washing the bedding, feeding, cleaning and play with the cats. But Eckert says there is something kind of magical about it.

“It is a seven-day-a-week job and it is a lot of physical labor. We love it,” she says. The work never tires her out —  “although it’s hard at times, just being around them. It’s like working in a state of grace... Whatever you want is in this room. People come in to relax, to enjoy themselves. My volunteers, no matter what’s happening outside, they come in here and they love it. They don’t get paid either, and they are here consistently, you never have to worry about the room being empty.”

Sandy Grabner always wanted to be a veterinary technician, and now that she is not working she’s able to volunteer. She held a little black and white cat with one eye and a paw infection, petting him and comforting him while he heals.

Grabner says the cats cheered her up, “I think animals know... if something’s wrong or if you’re having a bad day, I think they’re responsive to that. We’ve had a couple of deaths in my family and I come here and they kiss me and lick on me and I get to rub on them and take care of them, and they take care of me. I love it.”

Credit Tegan Wendland / WWNO
New volunteers are always welcome at the thrift store.

Eckert says they are very careful about matching the cats with the right owners, so they have to know each cat’s personality. She held a brown cat named Lele and described her story.

“This cat can only go to an older person or a handicapped person. This cat would make somebody so happy. See how she sits at my feet until I pick her up? She’ll sit at your feet until you pick her up and hold her. She will be held all day and be happy. Lele was actually deserted, abandoned in a strip mall, and she’s so sweet.”

She and the volunteers love to pick out nice blankets and towels from the thrift store to make cozy beds for the cats and bring in little toys for them to get excited about.

“We call it “kitty heaven” and the reason we call it “kitty heaven” is because the cats are so spoiled and love it so much, you know?”

But she and others also kept calling it their “cat therapy,” and they may be on to something.

Credit Tegan Wendland / WWNO
Cats lounge in the window of the St. Francis Animal Sanctuary cat room at the thrift store outside Mandeville.

Support for Northshore Focus comes from the Northshore Community Foundation.

Tegan has reported on the coast for WWNO since 2015. In this role she has covered a wide range of issues and subjects related to coastal land loss, coastal restoration, and the culture and economy of Louisiana’s coastal zone, with a focus on solutions and the human dimensions of climate change. Her reporting has been aired nationally on Planet Money, Reveal, All Things Considered, Morning Edition, Marketplace, BBC, CBC and other outlets. She’s a recipient of the Pulitzer Connected Coastlines grant, CUNY Resilience Fellowship, Metcalf Fellowship, and countless national and regional awards.

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