Pam Miller has devoted more than two decades to helping cats – founding and running a no-kill shelter that has found homes for 8,000 of them over the years.
But her feline focus was more of a practical matter than a preference. In the midst of a personal awakening about animal welfare in the early 1990s, Miller saw a need to help cats, which are killed at disproportionately high rates in animal shelters.
“Cats are the underdogs of the shelter,” says Miller, who has three cats and hopes to soon adopt a dog to replace one that recently died. “I like dogs, too. I just want to go on record with that.”
SAFE Haven, founded in 1994 in Miller’s garage with an elderly neighbor’s two dozen cats, is now the county’s third-largest shelter overall, and is likely the largest in the state devoted solely to cats. The shelter routinely adopts out 600 cats a year and is on track to place 1,000 this year.
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With an annual budget of more than $1 million, the organization includes a veterinary clinic that offers low- and no-cost spaying and neutering for cats and small dogs and a pet food pantry that helps families in crisis keep their pets.
SAFE Haven has brought in up to 42 cats at a time from a number of hoarding cases statewide, and Miller has become a pet advocate in areas from encouraging trap-neuter-release programs for feral cats to providing for pets in wills.
Cats and pit bulls are among the most overlooked groups in shelters nationally, says Jennifer Federico, director of the Wake County Animal Center, which transfers some of its cats to SAFE Haven.
“Being dedicated to cats, they can focus on those needs and really fill that gap that no one else is filling,” says Federico.
Miller’s work over the years helped reduce the number of unwanted cats, says Kim Janzen, president and CEO of the SPCA of Wake County.
“The inroads that she’s been able to make in helping the cats in our community is enormous,” says Janzen. “She was ahead of the curve in understanding the problem of overpopulation in felines, and she has led that organization to incredible heights.”
Miller grew up in Ohio, an animal lover whose family always kept a number of pets. She earned her bachelor’s degree in theater from Ohio University, and went on to work for hotel chains in sales and marketing.
It was a successful career, and one that brought her to Raleigh, where she worked as a sales manager for Brownstone and Hilton hotels. But she felt the pull of the nonprofit world, and started taking evening classes at Meredith College in nonprofit management.
She landed her first nonprofit job as director of the Raleigh Ensemble Players, and would go on to work with the local United Arts Council chapter and the Raleigh Symphony Orchestra.
Miller says her interest in animal welfare was piqued nearly 30 years ago, when she read the book “Save the Animals: 101 Things You Can Do.” The book detailed issues with our treatment of animals that Miller had never considered – and it made a serious impression.
“You won’t believe me, but I put down that book and never ate meat again,” she says.
It was a few years later that she turned her newfound passion for animals to benefit cats. She was living in North Raleigh when she started noticing a number of dead cats along a busy road on her way to work.
She traced them back to an old farmhouse, where a woman was feeding 23 cats from a metal bowl full of bread and water. In helping to find homes for the cats, the idea crystallized in her mind to create a nonprofit devoted to cats.
“There was nothing for cats back then, and the no-kill movement was really just starting,” Miller says.
She and her husband, who have since divorced, started the shelter by housing cats in their garage.
It was the pre-internet early 1990s, so she scoured microfilm directories at the library to find no-kill shelters nationwide and mailed them letters asking for more information. She visited several before opening her own shelter in 1994.
She started with $800, but within a few years raised enough to rent a space near the group’s current one off Durant Road. The shelter has since moved through several nearby locations, each bigger than the last, and has expanded with programs aimed at stopping cat overpopulation.
At the shelter
The shelter houses 85 cats at a time that stay for an average of six weeks. A network of two dozen foster homes enables SAFE Haven to house more than 100 cats at a time.
They come to SAFE Haven from less than ideal circumstances: strays found roaming neighborhoods, groups of animals rescued from hoarders, and a steady stream diverted from the Wake and Franklin county animal shelters, where they face euthanasia if not adopted.
Once they come here, whatever happened to them is over.
Pam Miller, founder of SAFE Haven for Cats
They start out in a special area where shelter workers observe them for at least 10 days, treating any illnesses and assessing their dispositions before they go to the adoption floor.
It’s detailed work. One cloudy-eyed, orange and white kitten at the shelter last week was lucky to have escaped going blind. A chart on another cat’s cage kept track of the consistency of his stools.
Many newcomers come from lifetimes of abuse or neglect.
“Once they come here, whatever happened to them is over,” says Miller.
A staff of 10 and a group of more than 100 volunteers care for the cats and help raise the money to keep the shelter running – efforts that include the “mouse-makers” who make and sell catnip-filled mice for $2 each to the group’s annual ball, which raises $100,000 in one day.
Across the parking lot, a full-time veterinarian and two vet techs spay and neuter up to 20 cats and small dogs a day. The cost of $85, which includes vaccinations, can be waived for low-income pet owners.
In a back room, piles of donated cat food await distribution to pet owners in need. Miller says both the food pantry and the clinic aim to make sure fewer cats show up in shelters.
“People go through hard times and aren’t able to feed their pets,” she says. “The idea is to help them keep those pets in their homes.”
Miller hopes to expand her efforts. Her nonprofit owns an acre of nearby land where she envisions building a larger facility that has room for expanding the shelter, clinic and pantry while adding educational programs aimed at lowering the population of unwanted cats.
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Pamela Ann Miller
Born: October 1952, Akron, Ohio
Residence: Wake Forest
Career: Founder and CEO, SAFE Haven for Cats and The SAFE Care Clinic
Awards: Finalist, “Cat Hero of the Year,” Animal Planet, 2007
Education: B.F.A, Ohio University; Advanced Nonprofit Management Certificate, Duke University
Family: Daughter Jennifer; grandson Simon
Fun Fact: SAFE Haven staff and volunteers try to give each cat an original name – a difficult task given the number of cats that move through the shelter. A whiteboard lists potential cat names, and residents last week had the names Scorcese, Dr. Strange and Serta.
Events at SAFE Haven
The shelter is offering $50 neuters for January and is selling tickets for its Tuxedo Cat Ball in April. Learn more at www.safehavenforcats.org.