a large group of cat gift bags
Joy 4 Cats gift baskets in progress. Photo by Meagan Larrea/Joy 4 Cats

Like many grassroots rescue groups, Happy Jack Cats in Meridian, Idaho, doesn’t have a brick-and-mortar facility. Instead, the nonprofit relies on about a dozen foster homes and cage space at local Petco stores to find homes for about 600 cats and kittens a year.

Those adoptions come with an easy return policy, says board treasurer Emily Sullivan: People who can no longer keep their pet, for whatever reason, can return the animal, “no questions asked.”

Usually that doesn’t present a problem; the group plans for a certain number of returns each year. But during one week in September 2018, Happy Jack received 16 returned cats, taxing the group’s available foster space to the limit. “It was the first time we had that many adult [cats] languishing with us,” Sullivan says. And with dozens of kittens still in foster care, the group needed a creative way to promote its full-grown felines.

Boise resident Meagan Larrea, who adopted one of her two cats from Happy Jack, read about the group’s plight on social media and wanted to help. Combining her lifelong love for gift giving with her passion for cats, Larrea offered to create baskets filled with kitty toys and other goodies for the 16 cats, essentially “sweetening the pot” for potential adopters, Sullivan says.

And it worked. In online adoption promotions, Happy Jack shared photos of the baskets alongside pictures and descriptions of the cats. “Engagement went up, and it was kind of like a contest,” Sullivan says. “There was a free gift to be had; that was exciting.” All 16 cats were soon in new homes.

Encouraged by this success, Larrea founded Joy 4 Cats, a nonprofit that has since provided gift baskets to nearly a dozen animal organizations, helping to pave the way to adoption for about 60 cats. Larrea focuses mainly on adoptable cats in Idaho but hopes that with increased fundraising, to cover shipping costs, she’ll be able to help groups farther afield. “I want people to think of Joy 4 Cats when they’ve had a cat in the shelter for like 100 days,” she says.

a woman leaning on a railing near a beach
Meagan Larrea, founder of Joy 4 Cats, gets about 60% of basket goodies donated by pet supply companies, simply by emailing them and explaining her mission. Photo courtesy of Meagan Larrea

About 60% of basket goodies, which typically include a bed or window perch, treats, and a variety of toys for different play styles, have been donated by pet supply companies. All it took, Larrea says, was emailing her favorite companies and explaining her mission. “I was shocked by how many said yes.”

The rest Larrea purchases with help from friends, family and online donations, taking advantage of post-holiday sales and special promotions.

Her favorite part of the process is assembling the baskets, and when possible, she tailors the contents to the individual cats’ play styles and preferences. In this way, she says, the baskets also help create a bond between the cats and their new owners.

Larrea, who works as a civil engineer, understands the challenges of animal rescue. Her mom, who recently joined the board of Happy Jack Cats, is a longtime rescue volunteer, and Larrea grew up with a home full of foster cats. She hopes Joy 4 Cats inspires other animal lovers to get involved by demonstrating that one person with a demanding job and a small budget can still make a difference.

“There are a lot of different parts of rescue; the sad sides get me down,” she says. “This is a brighter side of that. It’s a very fulfilling thing to do.”

About the Author

Julie Falconer

Julie Falconer is a senior editor at the Humane Society of the United States. She’s passionate about a wide range of animal protection topics, which she writes about for HumanePro, All Animals magazine and humanesociety.org. She is a longtime volunteer with rescue and animal advocacy organizations and spends much of her free time immersed in trap-neuter-return for community cats—which means her car is perpetually filled with traps, carriers, cases of canned food and cat hair. She lives in Maryland with her partner and they share their home with a neurotic hound mix, three cats (one of whom they can pet) and an assortment of foster animals.


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