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by Anna Stalker
Published March 26, 2014

Anna is a writer, reader, and observer-at-large who grew up in the South without a Southern accent. She had an early inkling that lives are built of stories, and ever since she has been trying to write them down. She enjoys St. Louis for its afternoon thunderstorms and knack for attracting good people.

A Sanctuary for St. Louis’ Stray Cats

According to Tenth Life Cat Rescue’s Facebook page, Earl is having a good week. In a recent photograph, he is surveying the city skyline from a high-up window ledge in his new home, his brown fur shining in the warm sun. Beneath the photo, people personally congratulate him on his adoption. “Hello Earl you are doing so well, I love you,” one admirer posts. “I had somebody ask me once why we didn’t focus on the sad part,” Elizabeth Frick, director of Tenth Life and Earl’s former foster parent, says. “Because you see a lot of that in other organizations– they tend to focus on the abuse or the sad situation they came out of.” The first cat Tenth Life placed for adoption was found eating old flour to survive in a boarded-up basement. Frick, however, prefers to talk about the positive side. “I think it gives people more hope, as opposed to anger and discouragement, because there’s enough sad in the world … Let’s focus on what we are doing and what we can do.”

Tenth Life, located on Cherokee Street, focuses on rehabilitating and finding homes for stray cats with medical issues and special needs. Frick discovered her passion for this work several years ago, when she and her husband began looking to adopt a second cat of their own; her husband shares her attachment to cats, although perhaps not to the same degree. “Mine might border on obsession, and he likes them,” she says. They were living in Chicago, and Frick stumbled upon an unconventional shelter called Tree House Humane Society, a converted three-story Victorian house where adoptable cats roamed freely among the former bedrooms. Frick searched their available cats online. “We saw this cat, and his name was Belfrey. And Belfrey was this little tuxedo kitty who had no eyes, and I just lost it. I burst into tears– I’m like, ‘Oh my God, we have to have this cat,’” she remembers.

When she moved to St. Louis in 2006, she looked for an organization like Tree House to support, but couldn’t find what she was looking for. “I loved Tree House because they would get a cat with crazy special needs, and just say, ‘Ok, how can we help this cat?’ And I love that approach,” she explains. At the time, she had a for-profit business making and selling sock monkeys– cartoonish, lanky dolls with wide red smiles. “I wasn’t passionate about it. And this, I was passionate about.” She decided to start her own cat rescue. “The organization started as me, one cat, and 50 bucks,” she remembers. “I just got everybody in my email address book– my friends, my family, my high school classmates– emailed everybody, told them what I was doing, and asked them to support me. And they did.” From a small group of Frick’s friends and acquaintances, Tenth Life continued to grow, and on January 2nd, 2009, it became approved as a 501(c)(3) by the IRS. “Once that paperwork was done, it’s kind of funny how easy it was to just start taking in stray cats.”

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When Frick first started Tenth Life, every cat was dropped off at her house; although she now coordinates placements with a fluctuating network of 40-50 foster homes, she still takes care of many cats herself. Her husband works from home, doing post-production sound for film and television, and he has had to adjust to her new vocation. “He has an office in the basement that’s very nice and furnished and all that, so that is our foster area. Much to his dismay, I think,” she laughs. Her husband has grown to accept the curious cats constantly underfoot while he works, and probably more than a little cat hair. “He’s a very patient man. Very patient.”

The cats live in his basement office partly so Frick isn’t tempted to keep them permanently. “I think that physical separation helps me to keep emotionally separated, to a point.” She has managed to adopt only two of the many cats she’s fostered in the last five years, although she recently came close to keeping another one– Lewis, named after his resemblance to one of her former cats, Lew. “I think it’s a matter of telling yourself from the outset, that you’re a foster, and this is a foster kitty. You still love them, and treat them like you would your own cat, but at the end of the day they’re someone else’s cat.” Today, they typically keep no more than one or two foster cats at a time; their record was seven, when a mother gave birth to six kittens in their basement. “Both my husband and I were like, ‘This is too many cats.’”

When she started taking in cats for Tenth Life, Frick had just brought home two daughters, Olive, now 6, and Ingrid, now 5.  “My girls are from Korea, and pets aren’t super common in Korea. I think neither of them had seen cats before they came home with us,” she says. “They were both little, and we’d put them on the floor and a cat would come in, and they were just riveted by the cat. My eldest, Olive, was– she was just fascinated and she would just watch them. My youngest is Ingrid, and she was scared. She cried when they first came in the room.” Both girls met the hundreds of cats Frick estimates passed through her home. “It was fun to teach them how to interact with cats– literally take their hand and show them ‘Gentle’, and we’d just say the word ‘Gentle’ over and over, teaching them to pet,” she remembers.

Frick is sometimes torn between growing Tenth Life and raising her daughters. “It never gets any easier, because your heart is always in two places. If I’m working, I wish I could spend time with my kids, and if I’m with my kids, I keep thinking about all the work I need and want to do.” She can’t keep from imagining the cats she has yet to help. “There are nights where I lay awake in bed thinking of all the poor little animals in cages who are terrified, or the ones out in this weather who are freezing to death.” Sometimes, the scale of the problem becomes overwhelming. “But you’ve got to pull it together and realize that you’re doing what you can, and that has to be enough right now.”

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Frick has teamed with with several local animal control teams and shelters, who know to call her when they encounter a cat with medical needs they can’t afford to handle. “It takes a very special adopter to take a cat home who needs more care than your average cat. But those people are out there.” A few months ago, Earl needed treatment for a condition called hyperthyroidism while Frick was fostering him. “It is actually curable by this procedure where they inject radioactive iodine into the cat. Which is kind of crazy, but it’s really cool. So it cures the cat– but it’s 1200 dollars.” Tenth Life raises the money for procedures like this one entirely through grants and donations from its supporters. The Internet’s affinity for anything involving cats has unquestionably helped Tenth Life; the organization has 10,114 Facebook followers and 1,595 Instagram followers, eager for updates on the antics of their favorite cats. “We posted a little plea online, and we had 1200 dollars in under 12 hours, which was just crazy,” Frick marvels.

A silver-haired cat named Nimbus confidently claims her lap, his claws catching in the thick yarn of her charcoal sweater. It’s difficult to notice anything unusual about him, until she points out his intense black-rimmed stare. “His eyes are a little different.” Nimbus was born with a condition called eyelid agenesis, meaning his eyelids never fully formed. Unlike Earl’s hyperthyroidism, Nimbus’ condition is relatively simple to treat– an eye specialist will soon laser out the hairs that irritate his eyes. “Cats are incredible at adapting. So I think it’s almost misconceptions of the maintenance of a special need that keep humans from adopting them, because so many needs are very manageable.” Today, Nimbus is shadowed by his “near-twin” brother, Cirrus, who has the same condition. “The kitties that can’t go to the bathroom on their own– that’s a harder cat to adopt. So they tend to stick around for a while.”

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Today, Tenth Life’s foster parents collectively care for almost a hundred cats. “As sad as it is that I don’t get to meet every cat, it’s really cool that it’s grown so much that that happens. But yeah, it’d be nice to shake their little paw before they move on,” Frick says. Her dream is to renovate a historic three-story building Tenth Life has purchased near Jefferson and Shenandoah into a shelter space like Tree House– where colonies of cats live together, wandering between bedrooms and sunning themselves in the windows.

“We’re going to make it as cat-centric as possible– so water fountains and little runners on the wall for the cats to climb up and look around. So I’m really excited.” The building would serve as an adoption center, finding homes for the many cats that currently live and die invisibly in St. Louis, seen only for seconds as they dart across an open lot or behind a building. She’s finalizing plans with an architect, and preparing to do the intensive fundraising necessary to make her dream a reality. “I’m hoping it’ll be a destination for people who love cats,” she says. “I want it to be something that people haven’t seen in this area of the country.”

For more information about Tenth Life and Elizabeth Frick, visit here.

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You're doing what you can, and that has to be enough right now.”

– Elizabeth Frick

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