Protecting the Pitter Patter of P.A.W.S.

Words by Louise Casini Hollis
Photos courtesy of Lori Cawley

Poquoson Animal Welfare Sanctuary (P.A.W.S) has only existed for eight years, but the people behind the organization have been making a huge impact on the lives of kitties in Poquoson for decades. Since the formation of P.A.W.S, its staff has saved 1800 cats through community service, adoption and T.N.R. (Trap, Neuter, Return) and built a volunteer base of over 50 people whose love of animals motivates them. “We all love what we do. We’re very passionate,” boasts Lori Cawley president and co-founder of P.A.W.S. That passion has helped the organization grow and it is what keeps the volunteers working to help and enhance the welfare of the cats of Poquoson.

The word PAWS in a circle with whiskers on the side and 2 cat ears on the top.

Lori Cawley began feeding cats in the community after meeting Shirley Myers through a mutual friend. Shirley, who had been feeding cats in the community for some twenty years, introduced Lori to her dear friend Barbara Holloway. When they met, Ms. Barbara, “had received a cancer diagnosis that she thought [meant] she only had a few years to live,” shared Lori. “She decided with the last few years of her life she wanted to do something good, do something for the community, do something to help the cats. So Ms. Barbara Holloway started taking care of [feral]colonies in Poquoson and rescuing cats on her own, getting them spayed and neutered at her own cost as we all did at that time,” Lori explained.  Knowing that the cats needed continued care, Ms. Barbara would bring the cats to her husband Paul Holloway’s (former director at NASA Langley Research Center) childhood home located in Poquoson. Amazingly, “Ms. Barbara lived 13 years beyond her diagnosis. They only gave her 2-3 years to live,” shared Lori. “Given that purpose, every day she got up and knew those cats were waiting for her and relied on her,” Lori affirmed.

Two women wearing shirts that say "I heart Poquoson Animal Wellness Sanctuary"
Lori Cawley and Shirley Myers

Lori and Shirley, along with Karen Ayer, co-founder and first Vice President of P.A.W.S. all met Barbara through their mission to help the cats of Poquoson. “Ms. Barbara knew that we were all coming together, and that we would help her in any way we could. And I think when Ms. Barbara realized that she didn’t have to take on this burden on her own, that we would be there, Ms. Barbara actually passed away. She passed away knowing that her kitties would be cared for – Karen told her, ‘We’ll help you, we’ll take care of these cats, we’ll do whatever we need to do’,” Lori reminisced. Knowing how important her cats and rescue efforts were to Ms. Barbara, her family worked with the group to donate the house to them so that they could continue to offer a home to the community cats. The idea of P.A.W.S. crystalized after the Holloway family’s gift. Today the house acts as the forever-home to 85 cats that P.A.W.S. cares for who are not up for adoption due to medical or behavioral limitations. “They’ve come from the community and they’ve just had nowhere else to go,” explained Lori, noting, “we’ve got some very, very sweet kitties.” P.A.W.S. also has a number of cats and kittens in their foster program that have been raised by people and are ready for adoption. (We have all the information you need to adopt a kitty from P.A.W.S. at the end of this article!)

The idea for an organization such as P.A.W.S. began brewing when Lori Cawley and Karen Ayer were notified that a colony of feral cats they had been feeding at a marina in Poquoson were being threatened. Feline advocates call cats in this situation “community cats” because, as Lori puts it, “It’s a human problem, it’s a community problem,” because the cats did not ask to be put in such a situation. Lori and Karen sat with the animals several nights gaining their trust so that they could trap them and relocate them to a safer area.  It was during this time they sat together talking, discussing what they could do.  Shortly after the Holloway family donated the house to the group, concrete plans for P.A.W.S. began to come into focus.  Jim Rohrbach, P.A.W.S. second Vice President, who has been rescuing cats all his life, joined the group shortly after, as well as Kelly Holloway, head of fundraising/marketing.

Two women holding a cat who is looking away.
Barbara Holloway and Karen Ayer

One of the key measures P.A.W.S. takes with the community cats is the method T.N.R (Trap, Neuter, Return). “It is proven and I have seen it with our own colonies,” said Lori. “Shirley and I used to see over 30 cats from 4 colonies. She’s now feeding less than 10.” Cats that are cared for do not need to roam to find food. “They stay in their colony. That’s their territory. They’re not roaming the streets getting in trash, because they’re cared for, they’re fed,” observed Lori. “Cared for cats also a leave smaller impact on the environment.”  

The impact that feral cats have on the environment is what led Girl Scout Troop 1416 to P.A.W.S. The Junior Scouts participating in the Bronze Award project to help animals as the focus of their project. In their research, the girls found that in the United States between 1-4 billions songbirds are killed by cats every year and two-thirds of those are by feral cats. “The girls became concerned about both the birds and the cats themselves. They wanted to do something that would impact both,” saysAshley Smith, who co-leads the troop along with Stephanie Adcock. After much research, the girls decided to construct feeding stations and shelters for the cat sanctuary. “When they visited P.A.W.S, they were amazed to see just how many cats have found a haven there and that there are far more who don’t have that resource,” said Ashley, “but as they watched the cats at P.A.W.S explored the feeding stations and shelters theyhad built, the girls felt that they had made a difference in this moment for these animals and that mattered.”  

The project not only alerted the girls to the perils songbirds and feral cats face, but also how they could make a positive impact in their community. Ashley says that as a leader she, “learned that there is no end to the goodness and quality of heart you can find if you look around. We live in a time of great change and upheaval. Some days, it can be hard to see the good. Walking the  grounds at P.A.W.S and seeing so many shelters and feeding stations, built by volunteers and the love and care that goes into rescuing these animals, it reminds me that there is so much good in our community and when we choose to focus on solving problems in our local community, the doom and gloom fades away.”

A brown and white cat emerging from a white cylinder onto a small platform
Sanctuary resident Stanley emerging from a cat shelter.

Community support is what helps P.A.W.S. continue to help these animals day after day.  Unfortunately, with the onslaught of COVID, two of P.A.W.S. biggest fundraisers of the year had to be canceled.  The “TACO CAT IS TACO CAT SPELLED BACKWARDS,” event, which usually happens in March, and P.A.W.S. participation at the Poquoson Seafood Festival in October were canceled this year.  “It costs us about $1100 dollars a month to feed the cats [at the Sanctuary],” explained Lori. They also provide food to people in the community to help care for community cats. “This is why our fund raising is so important. That’s why we’ve really, really have a hard time with not being able to do TACO CAT and not being able to do the Seafood Festival. Those are our big fund raisers.” A handful of local businesses have helped in holding small pop-up fund raisers, yet P.A.W.S. still has many bills to pay.  All kittens who are adopted from P.AW.S. are vaccinated as well as spayed and neutered, which is a big cost for the Sanctuary. Dental work for the community cats is another big expense they face, along with the costs of spaying and neutering, and annual vaccinations. Dental work for the cats can cost as much as $10,000 a year!   

But you can help! P.A.W.S. offers a variety of ways you can contribute. By using Amazon Smile, sending coupons from Purina, or making a monetary donation are just some of the ways you can make an impact to better the lives of these cats. Please visit their donations page here to figure out whichoption is right for you. P.A.W.S. is also in constant need of paper towels and other cleaning supplies, a list of which may be found at the bottom of their website’s donations page. Another way Lori suggests you help animals in the community is to take responsibility for any homeless animals in your area.  “It takes the community to help. It took the community to cause the problem, now we need the community to fix it, to understand it,” explained Lori. 

One man and three women on the steps of a house. Each person holds a cat.
Jim Rohrbach, Shirley Myers, Kelly Holloway, and Ashley Barker

Of course, if you are ready to add some whiskers to your family, P.A.W.S. is here to help you find your purrfect pal.  P.A.W.S. has a network of 8 foster homes that help kitties find homes.  Available cats, along with stories about former rescues enjoying their fur-ever homes may be found on  P.A.W.S. Facebook page.  You may also find P.A.W.S. fosters on  Pet Finder and on Instagram at: paws_va.  If you’re not on social media, you can contact Lori at the number at the end of this story and she will connect you with their foster and adoption coordinators to help you find the perfect companion. “If we don’t have a kitty that we think is the best fit, then we [send people to] Peninsula Regional Animal Shelter to save a cat from euthanasia there or to the S.P.C.A.,” said Lori.  

“We’re a fun group of people, and like I said we’re all there for only one reason and that’s for the cats – to make their lives better and give them a quality of life that they would not have if we were not involved,” said Lori. Because of this dedication, the community, as well as the hundreds of cats they have rescued, are grateful for all their hard work.

Like to help out P.A.W.S? If you would like to volunteer your time or donate to help some feline friends, you may do so in the following ways:

Send a check or Purina coupons to:
P.A.W.S. , P.O. Box 2204, Poquoson, VA, 23662
Visit their donations page
or contact
Lori Cawley, President:  (757) 593-0441