Tar Heel of the Week

Deborah Fox: Saving cats is what it’s all about

CorrespondentFebruary 16, 2013 

TARHEEL.021413.TI

Deborah Fox, founder and president of Cat Angels Pet Adoptions, poses with Mollie, one of the cats available for adoption.

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  • Deborah Fox

    Born: Feb. 14, 1956, McHenry, Illinois

    Residence: Chatham County

    Career: Founder, president and secretary, Cat Angels Pet Adoption; former software tester at IBM

    Education: Coursework in aeronautical engineering at Purdue University

    Family: Husband, Mike

    Fun Fact: Fox has also rescued abused horses, two of which now live at her rural home near Pittsboro.

— It is a lucky crew that lounges in the gleaming white cottages at Cat Angels Pet Adoptions, or chases the red dot of a laser pointer along the brightly colored walls of its six cat rooms.

Each resident has a session in the organization’s dedicated photo studio, posing with a wagon or a pair of shoes or, as in its namesake photo, donning angel’s wings, in an effort to entice potential cat owners who browse the photos on the Internet.

But even those of the 80 cats here that don’t find homes will live out their lives in the homey storefront shelter – even if they go blind, or fall ill and require expensive surgeries.

Deborah Fox spent money from her IBM stock options, and most of her time since retiring from the company seven years ago, securing a safe home for stray cats, and she wouldn’t have it any other way.

“It’s all about the cats here,” says Fox, 57. “If anyone doesn’t get that, I’ll show them the door.”

But if Fox’s love of cats is what motivates her, it is her steely determination and outsized personality that have helped her build Cat Angels from a small cat fostering program to a self-sustaining no-kill shelter that has saved nearly 1,000 cats and now encompasses its own thrift store.

“She works 25 hours a day with focused energy for the sole purpose of achieving the goal of Cat Angels,” says volunteer Mary Ruth Roth. “She has a magnetic personality and has recruited dozens of volunteers to help keep the organization purring along at a nonstop pace.”

Fox’s personality is a curious mix of toughness and sensitivity. She says she cries, with happiness, every time a cat is adopted, and her eyes indeed start to redden at the thought.

But she’ll also turn away a potential adopter at the first sign they might not give a cat a good home – including unwillingness to fill out an application form with references. And she doesn’t mince words with frustrated callers hoping to surrender a cat, only to find the shelter is full.

“They’ll tell me ‘If this cat dies, it’s on you,’ ” she says. “And I tell them in no uncertain terms, ‘No. It’s on you.’”

Spending her savings

Fox grew up in a town outside Chicago that she says was much like the Cary she found when she he arrived here in 1979 – a farm town experiencing its first wave of suburban growth.

Her subdivision was adjacent to a dairy farm whose cows were constantly finding their way out of the fences – earning her a day off of school to help round them up.

Fox says her parents, also animal lovers, took in many a stray pet.

“There were cats and dogs and bunnies and cows everywhere,” she says. “Every cat and dog in the neighborhood came to our house.”

She went to college at Purdue University through an Air Force grant program aimed at training more female pilots. But when the funding for that program fell through, she couldn’t afford to continue in college.

Instead, she turned her aptitude for tinkering with computers, which was helping her pay her bills in college, into a career.

She moved to Cary with her first husband and found a job with IBM. After her divorce, she met her second husband through an IBM intramural volleyball league.

She retired after nearly 25 years with the company in 2006, and cashed in her stock options to open Cat Angels, where she continues to work full time for no pay.

Asked why anyone would give up a six-figure salary and a good part of their savings to foster cats, Fox points to the high rate of euthanasia in North Carolina shelters. About 65 percent of animals at the state’s animal shelters were put down in 2011, including more than 5,000 cats in Wake County alone, according to statistics compiled by the N.C. Department of Agriculture.

“The need is just so great,” she says. “I want there to be no cats killed in shelters anymore. That’s why I do this.”

Plans for expansion

On a recent morning, a small bell in the couch-lined office section of the shelter heralded a volunteer bringing in two blind cats she fosters at her house for shots. She and Fox opened up a folding table and administered the shots, talking the whole time to the leery cats, who hardly made a peep.

Fox started rescuing animals long before she opened Cat Angels. She always keeps dog food, cat food and a leash in her car.

She started with more organized rescue after stopping to help a woman at a PetSmart who was bringing a bunch of cats in to try to get them adopted.

She started to think about opening a cat-only shelter after finding that some groups she worked with seemed to devote more of their resources to their canine charges. At the time, the only other one she knew of was in North Raleigh, so she saw a need in Western Wake.

“It’s like UNC and Duke fans,” she says. “In an organization where there are dyed-in-the-wool dog and cat people, sometimes it can be difficult to make financial decisions that benefit both species.”

Her organization started by placing cats in foster homes until they found permanent homes, and soon moved into a space in an industrial park.

Now, a dedicated volunteer staff of about 50 people works shifts that can last several hours three times a day at the shelter, caring for the cats and visiting with potential adopters, and all day at the thrift store, which she opened two years ago to raise money for the shelter.

A $50,000 Pepsi grant helped them upfit and move into their current location, which is twice the size of their first.

She hopes to expand the shelter further and add a spay/neuter clinic. She also wants to devote more time to advocating for animals. One effort she was involved with successfully pushed to legalize the practice of trapping, fixing and returning feral cats to the outdoors instead of bringing them to an animal shelter.

It’s one way to attack the problem of euthanizing cats where she says advocates have the greatest chance of success – reducing the number of animals that show up at county and municipal shelters.

“They have to respond to every call, and there’s only so much space,” she says. “At some point the sad math of the situation kicks in.”

She credits her upbringing for instilling in her the entrepreneurial impulse it takes to start such a venture. Her parents both worked day jobs and ran a restaurant in addition to raising four children.

Her husband has approached each step in the process more warily, Fox says – pleasantly surprised by each success.

The couple carefully reviewed their finances before Fox retired, and practiced cutting their expenses before they made any commitments.

“This is that important to me,” she says, and, by way of explanation, pounds her fist over her heart: “This feeds this part of me right here.”

Then, holding out her hand, she laughs: “But boy, is that part empty!”

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