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New shelter initiative in Willmar, Minn., to help adopters and cats find the purr-fect match

Elizabeth Fixen, a volunteer at Hawk Creek Animal Shelter in Willmar, spends some time Thursday bonding with Cercei, a feline available for adoption from the shelter. Tribune photo by Ron Adams

WILLMAR -- Call it for cats.

Hawk Creek Animal Shelter is launching the ASPCA's Meet Your Match program this month to engage the public and increase the adoption rate for shelter cats.

Like finding the right marriage partner, the shelter's staff hopes it leads to a good match that helps ensure a long-term, successful relationship between human and feline.

"I think it could really be fun," said Darlene Larson, a board member of the Humane Society of Kandiyohi and Meeker Counties and one of the volunteers working to implement Meet Your Match at the shelter.

"We really do need to work on getting the cats out faster," Larson said. "We really needed to promote to the public that we have great cats here."

The public will receive a sneak preview from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday at the Kandi Mall, where shelter staff will have some cats on hand who have been assessed through Meet Your Match. People also will have a chance to fill out a practice survey aimed at helping identify lifestyles and preferences of potential adopters and matching them with cats who might fill the bill.

The shelter will be closed Tuesday for staff training, conducted by a staff member and a consultant with the ASPCA.

Meet Your Match will be rolled out the next day for all cats nine months and older. An official introduction to the program and open house will be held June 1.

The initiative is funded with a grant received late last year from the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Included in the one-year grant is money for a marketing campaign to be launched this summer.

Adoption rates for cats generally lag behind those for dogs. The average length of stay for a dog at the Hawk Creek Animal Shelter is two weeks; for cats, it's 30 days, said Bobbie Bauman, operations director.

Long stays in a shelter can lead to overcrowding, stress and upper respiratory infection, and ultimately can lower a cat's chance of being successfully adopted, she said. "We've got to come up with something to get them out the door."

Enter Meet Your Match, a national program developed by the ASPCA. It's based on research into cat traits that are reliable markers for how individual cats behave in various settings.

Using data collected over several years, the ASPCA established what it calls a "Feline-ality" assessment that looks at key indicators: When someone approaches her cage, does the cat come forward or does she hide? How does she respond to being held? What is her response to toys?

Results of the assessment, which can be done by staff or volunteers, are used to give each cat one of three color codes and a label -- for example, the Party Animal, the Sidekick, the Private Investigator -- to describe them and help match them with a prospective adopter.

Adopters fill out their own survey that identifies what they want in a cat companion and which color code is the closest match.

Mismatch between human and cat is one of the reasons adoptions sometimes fail, Bauman said. "This is hopefully taking out some of the guesswork. It's meant to give people a better idea what personality and temperament the kitty has."

Larson calls it "a good start" to helping adopters find the right cat companion.

"They are very well-selected questions. It helps to make a good match," she said. "It pulls them first toward the ones they would be more successful in finding a match."

What if opposites attract? There's nothing to stop an introverted adopter from taking home a gregarious Leader of the Band, Bauman and Larson assured.

Meet Your Match is meant to be a guide, Larson said. "It simply sparks people to look first at the cats that are the best fit."

Shelters that have implemented Meet Your Match saw "a very significant increase" in cat adoptions, she said. They also experienced a drop in the number of cats who were adopted and then returned to the shelter.

Public engagement increased as well, Larson said. "A lot of the shelters had a whole lot of fun with it."

Bauman said Meet Your Match gives the shelter another tool for getting cats into new homes. Adoption numbers will be tracked to determine its impact, she said. "Hopefully we'll see the results in our database and see that it's working."

Anne Polta

Anne Polta covers health care, business/economic development and general assignment. Her HealthBeat blog can be found at Follow her on Twitter at @AnnePolta.

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