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Petting it forward

TALENT — A chance encounter with a hefty tabby-and-white-colored cat named Ernie five years ago inspired a one-man campaign of prepaid adoptions for more than 100 lucky felines.

Central Point resident Sid Layton, a retired Darigold plant engineer who owns his own refrigeration company, was called to do some work at the Jackson County Animal Control shelter.

“It was a big job and took me over a week to do it. So, I’m inside and outside this building throughout the course of the day. There was just this one cat — I had to walk by all the cat cages every time — and this one cat would follow me with his eyes every time I walked by,” Layton said.

“I finally asked the people there, ‘What’s up with this cat?’ The lady finally told me, ‘Oh that’s Ernie.’”

Turned out Ernie had been an office ambassador before reacting poorly — twice — to visiting dogs. Dogs are allowed to dislike cats, teased Layton, but a cat that hates dogs are decidedly less popular.

Fired from his gig as office ambassador, and not as adoptable as a tiny kitten might be, Ernie was overdue for the right home when he finally, after much deliberation, “selected” the fix-it guy.

“She said we don’t know much about him. He came in with a purple collar on. Somebody dropped him off. They knew he had a problem with dogs. And that he was huge — 15 or 16 pounds back then. I had them haul Ernie out of the cage, and he and I instantly had chemistry,” said Layton with a chuckle.

“I didn’t need another cat. I already had two. So, of course, I ended up bringing him home.”

Not long after adopting Ernie, Layton said he noticed the weekly Pet of the Week feature in the Sunday Mail Tribune and decided, because his cat vacancy rate had been exceeded, to send a check for the cat’s adoption fee. He wrote the cat a letter, signed “Sid and Ernie,” and included a quote about life with cats.

“After seeing all those kitty cats at the shelter, it was just kind of heartbreaking. They’re all just hoping that they eventually get a home. I thought, ‘You know, it’s 45 bucks or something. So I sent in a check with a little note saying, ‘I wanted to pay for the adoption of the regularly featured cat,’” Layton recalled.

“I didn’t know if the folks at the shelter would think it was too weird or whatever, but turns out they didn’t think it was weird. They thought it was wonderful.”

Shelter Manager Barbara Talbert said Layton’s recurring gift of prepaid adoption fees has been a bright spot in the world of shelter statistics. The shelter uses the prepaid fees to promote harder-to-adopt animals who perhaps require special care or are older or more ordinary-looking than others.

Donations like Layton’s help reduce extended kennel stays for those animals who are harder to adopt.

An added touch, longtime FOTAS and cat room volunteer Marilyn Edwards said Layton’s letters to the cats, which she has saved, have been a topic of conversation.

“Whenever he’s prepaid the cat of the week or a chosen group of cats, he always sent them a letter addressed to the cat he prepaid for. It’s always signed, and there’s always a quote at the bottom,” Edwards said.

“It always says hello to the cat and talks about the kind of home he hopes this cat gets and says how he’s going to take care of the adoption cost. We have no way of knowing how much it makes a difference in terms of whether people will adopt a particular cat or not, but it certainly makes people feel good. And sometimes they’ll say, ‘Oh, well I want to pay for another cat to be adopted!’”

Edwards said “harder to adopt” cases, or animals who have endured a long kennel stay, will have notes on their crates announcing prepaid adoption fees.

Layton said he could sympathize with families on restricted budgets who could afford food and vet care, “but maybe the adoption fee was just too much and the one thing keeping a cat from being adopted.”

His most recent checks, $1,000 to help with overcrowding and another $300 for black cats, will be used to clear out the cat room to make room for anticipated intakes this month.

Layton said he’s not one for much fuss or publicity but hopes his story will inspire more prepaid adoptions and support for the shelter.

“I’m not rich. I can’t afford everything. I guess I just felt like there are so many programs out there for dogs and horses and people but not many for cats,” he said.

“When I started this, I had no idea it would be anything more than an occasional adoption fee, but it just feels right and it works. I haven’t missed any meals and I can only hope it’s helped get a few cats into some good homes. Cats are seen as independent and sometimes aloof, and people just say, ‘Well, cats just are.’ I don’t know everything about cats, but if you give them a chance in the right surroundings, they can be incredible companions.”

Chuckling at his now 20-plus-pound Ernie, Layton quipped, “When people tell me they don’t like cats, I just tell them they just haven’t met the right cat.”

Talbert said interested adopters can visit the shelter, 5595 S. Pacific Highway, Phoenix, or call 541-774-6654 to find out about available cats with prepaid adoption fees.

Available pets are listed online at fotas.org.

Reach freelance writer Buffy Pollock at buffyp76@yahoo.com.

Andy Atkinson / Mail TribuneSid Layton holds one of his cats at his Central Point home.
Andy Atkinson / Mail TribuneSid Layton picks up one of his cats that he adopted at his Central Point home.