Caring volunteer gives time to shelter cats

Jeff  Berger finds direct work with the animals rewarding. - Photo by Leslie Kelly
Jeff Berger finds direct work with the animals rewarding.
— image credit: Photo by Leslie Kelly

Not hardly a Wednesday goes by that Jeff Berger isn’t snuggling with a cat at the Kitsap Human Society. It might be his love for animals. Or it might just be an addiction.

“Once you get loving cats in your system, it never goes away,” Berger said.

And that’s part of what brings him to the Kitsap Humane Society animal shelter in Silverdale each week. The other part is his love for people. Berger isn’t sure whether it’s the cats or the other volunteers and staff that keep him coming back.

He’s been a volunteer with the animal shelter since 1991 when he responded to an advertisement in a local newspaper.

“They were looking for someone to play Santa Claus for the shelter’s Posing with Pets event during the holiday season,” he said. “I’d played Santa before with humans and enjoyed that. So I volunteered.”

For the past 21 years he’s been the humane society’s Santa. He’s also played Santa for the Humane Society of Mason County. He’s held cats and dogs, posed with llamas, pot belly pigs, ferrets and even a snake.

But his volunteer work hasn’t stopped there. He’s helped with other events like the annual auction, Animal Crackers, and the Pet’s Walk to raise funds for the shelter. He now serves on an advisory committee that helps with community concerns about the shelter. And for a time, he took pets to the professional photographer who took their pictures to advertise them for adoption.

It was about two years ago when the shelter was finishing its cattery that someone asked him to come in on Wednesdays and help care for the cats.

“Now that I’ve been doing it for a couple of years, I wish I’d started years ago,” he said. “I love the direct  work with the animals. There’s much to be said for it. When I’m not here I really miss it.”

A cat-owner since he met and married his wife, Ruth, he enjoys helping to socialize the cats. Holding them and petting them and learning what each cat will tolerate is part of his work.

And sometimes, he admits, he gets too close to them.

“There was a very special cat, Hera,” he said. “She was a short-haired tortie and rather portly. She was about 12 or 13 years old and had been here at the shelter for almost a year. When she finally got adopted, I was glad, but I was sad, too, that I wouldn’t see her again. That’s the hard part of all of this.”

Berger is a native of the East Coast but came west in his early 20s with his brother and four friends. They caravanned in three cars arriving in Seattle in 1974. They came here because one of them had been stationed at Fort Lewis and they all decided they wanted to live near the mountains and somewhere “where there wasn’t 162 inches of snow every winter,” he said. For a time they shared a one-bedroom apartment on Capitol Hill.

Eventually, Berger began working for the Washington State Liquor Control Board as a store employee, a store manager and then a district manager. He and his wife moved to the Kitsap Peninsula in 1990. He retired eight years ago.

Now he splits his volunteer work between animals and humans, he said.

“My other volunteer work is driving people to their cancer treatment appointments for the American Cancer Society,” he said.

He is a musician and plays guitar at local farmer’s markets. And he writes a blog about his other hobby — wine.

“I spent so much time in the liquor business that I began to learn about wine,” he said. “I write about wines that are exclusively sold in grocery outlets. And I have my own wine cellar.”

When he misses a week at the shelter, he can feel it, he said.

“I will come in and there will be a bunch of new cats, and some of my old friends will be gone,” he said. “Of course, that’s what we want to happen — to have all the cats get good permanent homes. But you can’t help but miss the cats that have left.”

At home he has a cat, Marmalade, a rather big orange tabby.

“He found us when he was about a year old,” Berger said. “Now he’s about 13.”

Other cats have found Berger from time-to-time, too, including a feral cat he named Buddy. He and his wife also had a dog, and he said his wife still wants to have a pug at some point  in time.

As for his volunteering, Berger said he finds it gratifying.

“With all I’ve read, I understand that cats live in the moment,” he said. “But I like to think that the cats appreciate me making them more comfortable, playing with them and loving them.

“And just being here gives me a sense of belonging. I love the staff and the other volunteers. They’re just great people.”



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