It all started when a scared and starving mama cat and her three kittens sought shelter for a spell in the backyard of an Atlanta home. It was a serendipitous moment for those fragile felines and resident Samantha Shelton, who found them quivering and alone. Knowing they needed help, Shelton called the local animal shelter but was stunned to learn the entire family would be euthanized because they did not have any room to keep them.
“I was shocked. I didn’t understand. They were perfectly wonderful and healthy cats, this little family I had found. At that moment, I realized that we have a problem,” Shelton recalls. “I am a native Atlantan, and I was never aware until that moment of the pet overpopulation problem in our state. It resonated with me, and I just felt a calling to change it.”
Shelton jumped into action. She took it upon herself to find homes for the cat family and all was well. That is, until one kitten named Tortie was returned to her because she “wasn’t a lap cat.” But as it turns out, she was, just as long as it was Shelton’s lap she snuggled in. This unveiled another problem: the returning of unwanted pets.
At that moment, Furkids was born, a non-profit charity that operates the largest cage-free, no-kill shelter in the Southeast for rescued cats and Sadie’s Place, a no-kill shelter for dogs. No cat was too sick, no dog too scruffy; all had a loving home and could hope to be adopted by a loving family one day. Since its founding in 2002, Furkids has rescued more than 55,000 animals in Georgia. And that’s just the beginning of the story.
ONE PAW AT A TIME
Shelton dug in right away, starting her nonprofit, no-kill shelter Furkids in Atlanta in 2002 while working her part-time job. After five years, she quit her office job and focused on Furkids full time.
She created an extensive network of staff and dedicated volunteers to create adoption centers and foster homes and even partnered with PetCo to offer regular pet adoptions in stores. When her neighbors began grumbling about her large yard sales and the traffic they caused, she opened thrift stores to help continuously raise money for Furkids. Shelton was a woman on a mission and was unstoppable.
Their dedicated staff has driven success, financial benefactors, generous veterinarians and an army of dedicated volunteers from children to seniors all over North Georgia. They currently have more than 1,000 active volunteers, but more are always needed and welcome to save more “Furkids.” Just like pets, no help is turned away, and there is a way everyone can lend a paw.
“People can volunteer seven days a week, 365 days a year, anything they want to do,” confirmed Shelton.
To be considered a no-kill shelter, the organization must have 80 percent or more live release rate. Furkids is about at 98 percent, and they take in every pet, even the sickest cases in the state.
“Out of 159 counties in Georgia, only two [counties] are considered No-Kill. That’s not good. We have a lot of work to do,” laments Shelton.
No cat or dog is turned away from Furkids. Cats with fragile medical conditions like Feline Immunodeficiency Virus (FIV), irritable bowel syndrome or anti-social issues are cared for and may be adopted by those prepared to care for a special needs cat. But even if they are never adopted, they will always have a home at Furkids. “We will provide for them and ensure their medical needs are met. We have the love in our hearts for them,” Shelton said. “At Furkids, we take any animals back, no questions asked. Once a furkid, always a furkid. We want to be a resource for our adopters for the life of the pet.”
Furkids has a state-of-the-art Cat Shelter that recently opened in Cumming, a Peachtree Corners Adoption Center, four charitable thrift stores, and 10 Petco sites around Metro Atlanta that host pet adoptions. Soon Furkids will open an East Cobb adoption facility as well.
In fact, Shelton’s love for animals, truly has no bounds. Furkids launched an Outof-State transport service to shuttle cats to northern states, whose stricter animal laws and harsh winters equal fewer cats in their shelters. These custom vans transport Georgia cats to empty no-kill shelters up north to then be adopted by loving families.
PET PARADISE FOUND
Shelton was looking to expand in 2018 when she came across the abandoned Wakoola Water Gardens in Cumming. It had once been a hidden backroad community oasis—a garden center replete with ponds, waterfalls, flowering gardens and koi ponds. But after closing in 2014, its ownership had changed hands a couple of times and its once beautiful retreat was overgrown, rodent/termite-infested and unrecognizable from its former splendor.
But just like those kittens she found in her backyard, she knew this place held great promise. It just needed some very much-needed TLC.
Furkids purchased the property and for the next four years, they got to work, clearing the property from walls of bamboo, graffiti and overgrowth. They were like jungle explorers, uncovering treasure as the koi ponds, waterfalls and beautiful hardscapes returned to life.
“It’s exciting to see what blooms each season,” she exclaims.
It became what she dreamed of, a destination not only for shelter cats and dogs but a community treasure reclaimed, which now offers large event space rentals for corporate events and picturesque weddings for animal lovers. Once a store and office, the main building is now home to Furkids offices, five free-roaming cat rooms complete with outdoor enclosures for some much-needed fresh air, sunbathing and bird watching over their picturesque garden.
The landscaped grounds are even more spectacular, with an outdoor patio bar and grill area for special community events and its large event space just completed for groups up to 250. This beautiful private event facility overlooks the picturesque grounds and comes complete with a catering kitchen and guest restrooms. And best of all? Each rental helps give back to the animals, as a part of your rental fee is donated back to the shelter. [Check out our YouTube page for a video tour of the new Furkids Sanctuary.]
More plans are in the immediate works to build a larger cat shelter on site with a Cat Café and move the dog shelter to this space, with additional buildings planned over the next twenty years to increase animal capacity and even bigger events.
Many in the community are excited about the opening of the Cat Café. Hayden Hilton, who previously ran the five-star-reviewed Java Cat in Grant Park and Marietta, which closed during the pandemic, will now run the future Cat Café at Cumming’s Furkids.
“Cat Cafes are great because we give exposure to shelter cats that don’t typically have it, but this location also provides an amazing setting. It just makes the Cat Café the cherry on top,” Hilton says.
And to add more fun into the mix, they have even partnered with GoGo so that they will have Goat Yoga sessions on their ground this summer.
Looking back over the past 20 years, Shelton feels like it was just yesterday. Yet there is so much more work to do.
“Our goal is to provide the best care we possibly can while they are with us until they find their forever home,” Shelton says. “And if they don’t, then we are their forever home.”
“I am really proud of the work we have done over the past twenty years. I have to pinch myself sometimes,” she concludes. “But in my mind, I am still back in the back yard years ago with that mama and her kittens.”
FURKIDS CAT SHELTER AND HEADQUARTERS
5235 Union Hill Road, Cumming
Open by appointment only
PEACHTREE CORNERS PET ADOPTION AND COMMUNITY RESOURCE CENTER
4015 Holcomb Bridge Road Suite 390, Peachtree Corners
Open by appointment only
SADIES PLACE DOG SHELTER
1520 Union Hill Road, Alpharetta
Open by appointment only
Shop or Donate to Furkids Thrift Store locations in Johns Creek, Norcross, Marietta and Lawrenceville. Visit furkids.org for more information.