Local | Pets

Tucson philanthropist advocates for human and animal welfare

Bonnie Kay with Maximus

Cats are the stepchildren of the animal world, says Bonnie Kay, current president of the Hermitage No-Kill Cat Shelter & Sanctuary. Compared to dogs, cats don’t have nearly as many programs and services, and are more likely to be euthanized in other shelters.

Last year, the Hermitage adopted out almost 650 cats. About 200 cats live at the cage-free shelter, with up to another 150 in foster homes. “It is very expensive to run the shelter,” says Kay, who is also the Hermitage’s de facto fundraising director.

But the Hermitage is just one of many local nonprofits for both animals and humans that Kay’s been involved with since moving to Tucson in 1993, including Jewish Family & Children’s Services, Planned Parenthood, the Humane Society, and the Community Food Bank.

“I’ve always done a lot of work related to social justice,” says Kay, who earned a master’s in social work and criminal justice from the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, and ran a program for women coming out of federal prison. For two years between undergraduate school at Washington University in St. Louis and graduate school, she worked at the welfare department.

While Kay is a philanthropist, money is never enough. She’s a hands-on leader, who spent a hot July morning in her garage cataloging gifts for the Hermitage’s upcoming online auction before sitting down to talk inside her Foothills home. The light and airy rooms are filled with artworks that reflect her love of cats — she has six of her own — and of horses. She used to own a horse farm outside Philadelphia with her former husband.

As an advocate for the bond between human and animal welfare, another organization she’s helped is Cody’s Friends, started by 10-year-old Cody Allen five years ago, which distributes free pet food and other supplies to organizations that help people in need. It started with neighborhood donations, but in 2016, GreaterGood.org’s Rescue Bank in Houston began sending monthly donations of thousands of pounds of pet food. Ever practical, Kay bought them a forklift.

For 11 years, she served on the board of the Animal Welfare Alliance of Southern Arizona, which administers most of Pima County’s free or low-cost spay and neutering. During her term, they began offering free shot and exam clinics twice a year in South Tucson, and published a directory of 150 animal services in partnership with Information & Referral Services.

A petite 70-year-old, Kay is limber enough to sit on the floor every day to brush her six cats. “It only takes 10 minutes” if you do it daily, she says, explaining the regimen keeps the cats from developing hairballs.

Kay admits that she is a “foster failure”: her two most recent additions come from a litter and mother she fostered for the Hermitage. The other cats come from various shelters in Tucson and one in San Diego. All but one are special needs cats, including several with FeLV (feline leukemia virus) or FIV (feline immunodeficiency virus), both of which weaken the immune system. At the Hermitage, such cats are kept separate from the other residents.

Born with birth defects, Roo is one of Bonnie Kay’s six pet cats. (Bonnie Kay)

And then there’s Kay’s Roo. Born with foreshortened front paws, he often hops on his hind legs like a kangaroo. He’s also polydactyl, notes Kay, with six toes on his back paws, and has FeLV. In a less progressive time or place he might have been euthanized, says Kay, instead of finding a loving home in which to thrive.

After she and her husband moved to Northern California in the early ’90s, and subsequently divorced, Kay became involved with the Sonoma County Task Force for the Homeless, which got the city of Santa Rosa and the county to declare a homelessness awareness week. They hung art by homeless children in malls and government buildings with a placard stating that half of the homeless in the county were children under 12, “dispelling the stereotype of the drunk guy with a paper bag,” she says.
Recently, she’s been helping the Primavera Foundation’s homeless women’s shelter in Tucson, Casa Paloma.

“A few years ago I went on a tour of all the women’s facilities, and their women’s homeless facility was just hideous,” she says, so she offered to do a matching grant that funded a complete rebuild. Now she’s figuring out how to raise enough so Casa Paloma, which takes up to 25 women Mondays through Fridays, can stay open on the weekends.

She’s also been involved with Youth On Their Own, which focuses on homeless teens {see related story, p.4].
Kay sees her social action work as tikkun olam, the Jewish precept of repairing the world.

“I’ve always been like that — I can’t not see all the need out there,” she says, adding, “Jews generally are into social justice.”

She was born in Winnipeg, Canada, to parents who grew up during the Great Depression and still didn’t have much when she was little. The family was not religious, but “certainly ethnically part of the tribe,” she says, and celebrated the major holidays. Later, when her father did well in business, he became involved in the Jewish communal world, leaving a large trust to the Jewish federation in Minneapolis-St. Paul.

Working with JFCS on an auction a few years back, when she served on the board, was enlightening. “They had 300 items,” she recalls, but many of them were not great. After the auction, “I analyzed it and found that the top 10 items brought in half the money, which means don’t bother with a lot of the small stuff.”

The Hermitage No-Kill Cat Shelter & Sanctuary’s online auction will be held Sept.16-30. To view and bid on items, visit www.32auctions.com/hermitage.