Friends for Life

Who needs 101 Dalmatians, when you have 110 cats thriving in a no-kill animal shelter?

Who needs 101 Dalmatians, when you have 110 cats thriving in a no-kill animal shelter?

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Don Sanders and Salise Shuttlesworth visit with the temporary residents of Friends for Life in the Heights. Photo by Shelby Hodge
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Even with more than 100 cats in the 3,000-square-foot space, there seems to be plenty of room for all. Photo by Shelby Hodge
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The space more resembles an art gallery than an animal shelter. Photo by Shelby Hodge
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The cats have made themselves right at home in the executive director's office. Photo by Shelby Hodge
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Nancy Kinder gets friendly with one of the lovable felines. Photo by Shelby Hodge
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"Take me home," he seemed to say. Photo by Shelby Hodge
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This cat purred throughout our visit. Photo by Shelby Hodge
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Don and Chris Sanders are keen supporters of the shelter and donated funds for the "kitty lounge." Photo by Shelby Hodge
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As we sat having lunch at Shade with Friends for Life executive director Salise Shuttlesworth, we could see across the patio to cats frolicking in the window of the animal shelter located next door to the popular Heights eatery.

"It's more like an art gallery than an animal shelter," she explained.

Indeed, right there on bustling 19th Street in a typical Heights storefront, Friends for Life is raising the bar for animal shelters, first by adhering to a no-kill policy (the only one in Houston) and second by creating an environment so pleasant and fresh as to inspire even the most reluctant to consider pet adoption.

Educated as an attorney, Shuttlesworth sold her legal practice and founded the non-profit Friends for Life in 2002. But it took two years of in-depth research and fundraising before the first animals were accepted. Today, the shelter is actively saving the lives of tens of thousands of cats and dogs each year.

Shuttlesworth said over lunch that in 2010, 500 animals were adopted from the shelter which was also involved in saving close to 40,000 animals through the Thinking Outside the Shelter program. In many cases, pet owners were aided in keeping their pets through foster care, through pet food donations and donated veterinary services for those without means.

The no-kill policy and the sophisticated approach to the concept of animal shelters attracted Chris and Don Sanders, huge animal fans who have more than a few felines in their family, seven at the height of their indulgence. Chris volunteers at Friends for Life daily and sells her line of silver jewelry there with all proceeds donated to the non-profit. Don has committed to personally fund a new state-of-the-art shelter that he estimates will cost between $3 and $5 million. He is currently looking for property.

Over the lunch with Shuttlesworth, Chris and animal lover Nancy Kinder, Don outlined his plans. He's already auctioned off part of his valuable watch collection through Christie's and plans to auction some of his art in the next few months. Money from both is earmarked for the Friends for Life building. Last spring, the couple underwrote all expenses for the shelter's fundraiser last spring.

"I got to thinking that I'm not going to live forever (Sanders turns 75 in June)," he said in an earlier conversation. "At the end of my life, I'd much rather leave to posterity one of the best animal shelters in the country than a watch collection or an art collection."

When Sanders and Shuttlesworth achieve this world-class animal shelter, Sanders hopes that, "In a way it forces the other shelters to look at what we're doing and say maybe there's a better way we can do this."

Currently, Friends for Life houses only cats in overnight accommodations. Dogs, which are housed in foster homes, are in the shelter on weekends for adoption.

The place is worth a visit just for the experience if not to take home a snuggly pet. Artful photographs of cats and dogs saved by Friends for Life line one wall while whimsical paintings line the others. Individuals with allergies to cats best stay away. The felines are crawling everywhere, getting along amazingly well and presenting very friendly and loving personalities.

Friends for Life operations are funded by donations from individuals, corporations and foundations.