Jenny Schlueter

"On the other hand, people will say, "Oh, it's so weird how many resources you put into rescuing cats, there are so many problems in the world." But, I always say, "Well, we've never had a call or an email from a cat.""

I met Jenny Schlueter when I was looking for a location and cats for a short film I was making. Jenny and her husband let me shoot in their apartment and use their fantastic nine cats and singular dog, Fritz. I got to know her during that time and found her to be delightful, caring, and very busy. With a film crew in her home for two days, she was still fostering alley kittens in her garage, leaving to participate in the Pride Parade as a representative of the Tree House Humane Society, and she somehow remained helpful and engaged. I simply wanted to know more about her and I wanted to see what we could do to represent her ability to move animals. Obviously animals can already move themselves, but they often want to move in the wrong direction, especially when in front of a camera. My crew and I met up with her at a fundraiser that happened to have all of the kitten extras we could possibly need.

Special thanks to Alexis Mansfield, the fosterer and off-screen wrangler of the featured kittens.


I've been asking everybody: Who are you?

That is a tough one.

There have been a lot of different responses to this so far. I think you'll like Emma's answer, she's twelve, but I'll share it with you later.

I think like everybody, I am still searching for the exact answer and experimenting to find that out... I can't really tell you my goals. That's not really who I am, is it? I'm looking to serve my fellow humans and creatures and learn something new every day. I'm looking for what my most useful talents are, for the world, because I think you're happy when you find the way that you can contribute to humanity doing something that you're good at and that you enjoy. I guess that's what I'm pursuing. I don't know, is that who I am? I guess that's who I am.

I think part of the reason why I like to ask that question is maybe to repeatedly show that people don't tend to answer: I'm a lawyer, period. They don't tend to answer with their job title. No one really wants to do that even though we might assume that that's the answer at first.

A lot of people in Spain, when I lived there, always said that they hated that and then when I was just in California, a lot of Californians say "Oh it's so refreshing to talk to Midwesterners because the first thing you ask isn't 'What do you do?'" and then the Spanish said that too. "Oh, Los Americanos, they say 'What do you do?' Why do you say that?" Jobs are a big part of people's identity and certainly my job has been a huge part of my identity.

I think most recently I realized that, it sounds cliché, but you try to find your balance. I think people's jobs are kind of broad too, so within that, you'd keep focusing and focusing to find the best way to be productive and be happy.

For your portrait we decided to do the summoning of the kittens and it was certainly convenient to do that at a Kitten Shower. Part of the reason I thought that would be a fun way to visualize your powers was because you wrote in an email about wishing you had magical powers when you do trap-neuter-release.

Yeah. Get them in, get them out.

First of all, could you describe that event we were at, the Kitten Shower?

I came up with the idea for the Kitten Shower as a joint fundraising and educational event because kitten season is pretty demanding in our field. Basically April through October it's kind of non-stop kittens being born and they require a lot of work and a lot of resources, but also, everyone loves kittens. A lot of people say, "Oh kittens are fun and they're cute," but they're a lot of work and it can be complicated caring for them. So, we need more people to help us and we need money to do it, but nobody likes to just get letters saying "We need money, we need money."

So, if we could bring people in and have it be a celebration... And actually some pretty hardcore animal welfare activists when we first announced it, eight years ago or whatever, we had a couple of supporters write me hate mail about it and say, "How dare you celebrate kittens when too many kittens are what leads to cats being killed every day in shelters. We want to stop kittens from being born!" But everybody loves kittens!

Yeah, right. People who love kittens don't make them occur. These are two separate things. The love of kittens doesn't cause them, but the neglect of them causes them.

Right. I thought that was pretty crazy, because we're never going to stop them entirely, but we want to just get a handle on it and if we ever come into a time where there aren't enough kittens then that will be a different problem to address. I don't think we'll ever get there. You know, there are sad stories that people deal with every day, not just in this field, but look at the state of the world right now. And kittens make people happy. So, if we could make people happy and celebrate them and also raise money and raise awareness about how people can help them, I think that's a good way to do it. And, you know, this is baby shower season too, so the theme just lends itself to it and it's fun.

Did it do well?

It did very well. Our best one ever. We did raise the price a little bit. You don't usually charge people to come to your baby shower, but we raised the price and we may always make a lot of money off of those Meow-mosas. People like that. Like I said, booze and kittens on a Sunday afternoon, pretty good combination.

What's your work process like? Because you have worked at shelters and you trap-neuter-release, which is outside of the shelter.

Right. I always tell people I'm a marketing and fundraising executive by day and then prowling the alleys by night as a cat lady. The passion for the actual rescue work has always been a big part of what fuels me to do the more serious work during the day. I could do marketing or fundraising for any cause or any business, but I feel so lucky to be able to do it for a cause I really believe in and that I enjoy. So, during the day I'm looking to raise awareness about what we do and raise funds for what we do and then I guess now, as a hobby, I'm participating in the actual proactive rescue of a lot of the animals.

Can you talk about your journey towards becoming the cat lady of the night?

Professional cat lady. One of my degrees was in social work and one was in journalism, and even though my grandmother still often laments that, "It was too bad you had all that schooling to sit around and scoop litter boxes all day!" Actually a lot of what you do as a director in a shelter is putting those skills to use. I did work for a while for Reuters and as a correspondent in Spain and Portugal and it was a great job, but I also was trapping cats on the side there.

Oh really? How did that start? What's the first trap?

Actually I didn't have the right equipment. Like a lot of people that fall into it, I didn't know what kind of equipment there was and certainly it wasn't as organized as it is here, so basically I would jog or walk in some of the parks, like behind the royal palace in Madrid, and there were so many cats. That's where Sita [one of Jenny's cats] was from. I brought her from Madrid. She was from the Royal Palace Gardens. There was this beautiful park that used to be like a private zoo and then, eventually, they gave it to the city and there were all these ponds with different wild birds and peacocks roaming around and lots of cats would be abandoned there. Then different people would bring them fish and different things to feed them and there would just be billions of kittens in the spring and they'd look like crap with eye infections and stuff. I had adopted a cat when I was there from a regular group.

And at this point you were just a cat fan?

Yeah, just a cat fan. I had volunteered at shelters before, but just a little bit, just dabbling. I always liked animals, but then I talked to my vets, there was a little vet office in my neighborhood there, and I just started saying "There are all these cats, can you help me?" So, little by little, I was capturing them, and they were pretty wild, but I didn't have traps like we use. I would get carriers and tie a string to it and pull the door shut, or take towels and jump on them, and crazy stuff like that. It was amazing to come back here and find about humane traps where they go inside and the door closes, because I didn't use any of that there. Mostly I helped friendlier ones, but I did what I could to spay and neuter them. Then I had a little bookshop in Madrid eventually and I would bring them to the bookshop and it was just like, "Buy a book today and get a kitten!" I just did grassroots.

How long did you live in Madrid?

Six-and-a-half years. I loved it there. When I moved to Chicago, I wanted to continue doing cat rescue stuff so I found Tree House and started volunteering and then a job became available and then the girl who hired me said, "Oh, you worked as a journalist, I could use some help writing things." So that's how I fell into it.

That's the amazing path that you could never predict. Like when you're a kid and you're thinking about the future, you're not like, "Well first I'm going to be a journalist in Madrid and then I'm going to get into cats!" How does that happen?

Exactly, that's what my grandma's point is.

Yeah, but it's interesting to think about how it does all go back to helping people and just being aware.

That's another thing, when I did move back to Chicago, I started thinking about grown up responsible things like if I'm paying into the Social Security system over here, but if I don't live here 15 years, I'll never get it out, and I'm not paying into it in the US, so I better get a job there. I started to think about practical things, and I thought about my Masters, and so I came back and fell into my job at Tree House Humane Society. Since it had a pretty grassroots start-up mentality at the time, I was able to help with so many different initiatives, to grow the organization. It's been a big learning process, it's been really exciting, and I've been able to help with so many things. I always wondered if I wanted to pursue more social work stuff or stay in journalism. My career has actually been a perfect mix of these things because I'm doing all kinds of communications work and marketing, and writing our publications and grants.

Then on the other hand, people will say, "Oh, it's so weird how many resources you put into rescuing cats, there are so many problems in the world." But, I always say, "Well, we've never had a call or an email from a cat."

That would be weird.

That's my favorite way to explain that our work actually is helping people. It's just a byproduct, that we're helping them with cats, but the people who contact us do because the cats are important to them, and they need assistance. Even if they have other problems, helping them take care of this problem is just lightening their load so they can address other issues. We work with a lot of low income people and elderly people, families, we work with all kinds of people.

I don't know what I would do without my cat and then if I didn't have a vet to take care of the cat, it would be a disaster, because I want her to be around. That's important.

It's expensive and a lot of people can't afford it. There's a whole other thing that fascinates me about the movement right now, the animal welfare movement, which has been a pet project as well in terms of our internal culture, because there's a little bit of a tendency sometimes for animal rescue people to have a little bit of a judgmental side. You get tainted a bit because you do hear a lot of sad stories of neglect and it's pretty easy for anybody to get a pet, and there are no requirements to get them usually. So a lot of people find themselves in circumstances where they don't know what to do and it can be misconstrued as neglect or abuse or whatever and that they don't deserve to have the animal. That's no good either because so many animals are being killed in shelters in the US now. We should look to see, before we condemn someone for not taking care of the animal, we need to ask how we can help them.

That's an ideological shift that's happening, but there's still some resistance and that's something that we're really trying to focus on. There are some volunteers and staff that get nervous because they don't ever want to put an animal in a situation where they don't get the care they need, but on the other hand, if we want people to adopt from us, we have to help people.

Right, it's about education.

It's education and providing resources. Maybe for example, someone comes in and they have a cat who, as they get older, they might get a chronic condition like hypothyroidism and we know it's a pretty easy treatment, but they didn't know what to do, so we could say, "Oh, you didn't really take care of him so we'll take him now from you." But then who's going to adopt a 12 or 13 year old cat who needs a pill twice a day? So, we might have the cat for the rest of their life and pay a lot of money to take care of him. Or we could just help subsidize the care of the cat in the owner's home, which is cheaper and it keeps the room open for another cat.

Right, and that person learns something and then maybe they get something out of taking care of that cat with that problem and then maybe they get another cat. I feel like education would also engender more fostering and adoptions in the future.

For sure. Now they come back for another cat from us instead of saying, "That horrible place that took my cat away!" This morning I helped rescue a pit bull in the alley. My neighbor told me she had been there since last night, she was injured, she wasn't looking good at all and I called some friends to help me trap her. I have some feral dog trapping friends that I help sometimes, but I don't have all the right equipment, but now I know I need to get some.

They came by and, long story short, she got chased away. But she finally came back and we did get her, but then right as we were getting her, her owner came up and the lady that was helping said, "Oh, this is your dog? You're going to have to show me some proof. I'm taking this dog to the pound." I said, "Alright, well, hold on."

It's that kind of attitude, she immediately judged him, figured that this guy wasn't taking proper care of the dog. The dog was in pretty rough shape, but he said he just got her a week ago and so I gave him a name of a local vet who's pretty inexpensive and then I told him where he could get a collar and tag, because she didn't have any tag. And I'm going to stay in touch with him, but instead of judging him and taking the dog away, we'll make a relationship and help him get her what she needs.

What else do you like to do that doesn't have to do with animals.

Good question.

Because you're very busy. I can vouch for the fact that you seem to have a lot going on.

This is the first Sunday that I've been home in a long time and it feels so great just to be relaxing a bit. I like gardening. That seems like a pretty cat lady thing to do too. I love gardening. I like dancing, I used to sing in bands. I would like to try to get back into singing more because I feel like it's something that I put aside and I think it would be a good thing to get back to. I always feel so happy when I'm singing. I was thinking of joining a local choir. I used to do choral stuff. And I'm hoping to sing some backup vocals for Ollie, my husband. Ollie is recording an album.

I used to play percussion and the xylophone and so I was thinking of getting that back out. A lot of things I'm trying... I'm in a moment in my life where I'm trying to redo some of the stuff I used to do. I also love documentary films. You've inspired me to think about how I could do that again.

Another question I've been asking everybody: What's something that makes you feel powerful or a time when you felt the most powerful?

Powerful... I will say, it's such a simple sense of gratification, but a powerful sense of gratification when you are doing a trapping project and you get the first one of the project it's like, yes! Because then you hope you're on a roll. Then of course, the last one that you're targeting is great.

I come from Wisconsin with a lot of male family members who hunt. I was always turned off by that, because of my sensitivity towards animals, but now I understand that satisfaction of the hunt. You know what I mean? Now I can identify. I can now see that's part of who I am. They get in there and it closes and YEAH!

There was this macho dude who lived with us for a while and he didn't like the cats at all. But when he moved, he moved a few blocks from here and there were a bunch of feral cats in his yard, that a lady was feeding next door, and so they called me. I went over to help them and I was like, "Alright, here's how you do it. You are going to like this." He's like, "Yeah, whatever. I'll do it for you." Then he got so in to it, he was like, "Yeah, we got them!" He started talking to me and he started naming them all and telling me, "Now we've got to get this guy. And I think this guy made a lot of kittens..." He identified with them. It's very fulfilling, so that's powerful.

There's another form of power that is really gratifying when we're dealing with people who are opposing what we're doing. Whether it's getting their animals fixed or when we relocate feral cats or sometimes when we go in to help someone who is feeding alley cats and their neighbors are upset. We walk into a lot of situations where there's a lot of conflict and to be able to go in and mediate that. Mostly the people who call us for help, when we explain our strategy as, "We're going to talk to your neighbors and we're going to be really transparent and open." They're like, "No, no. no. We don't want to do that. They're not going to like it. They're going to be nasty. They're mean. They're not interested. They're not ever going to go with it, we have to keep it on the down low." But we're not about that. The idea is that we're really open because we're not going to get people into this by sneaking around. I always say, we've got to come out of the alleys at night, we've got to be out in the daylight, we have to be visible. And when we finally get people to work together, that's really a great feeling. There were these two guys, I didn't do this, but my colleague Liz did, there were these two guys across the alley from each other and the one guy called first and he complained about the other guy, thinking he wasn't going to like it, that he was going to be mad and wouldn't want to help. Then when we finally met the other guy, we realized he was feeding the cats too.

Both of them hated each other. They thought they were going to be mad at each other, but they were both feeding the cats! We got them together and now, I love this story, now, every evening at like 5:30, 6:00, they meet to feed the cats and share a beer in the alley. It's awesome.

I love bringing people together. When we get into these neighborhoods we're meeting people and it's all this common thread of these alley cats that we're just trying to get fixed for people. They have a billion other things that they've been angry about for years and years and they've been holding grudges against each other, and it's the cats in the end that bring them together.

If you stop to ask yourself, what is it about animals and pets? Why do humans like to have pets?

Isn't it great? They're bringing people together. I think if you look at little children, almost every baby, toddler, little kid loves animals. Have you ever met a kid who's like, "Oh, I hate animals." They might own a dog, a cat or whatever, but they always say they love animals. There's something I think innate in all of us that identifies with and appreciates other creatures and then I just think as we get older, we may or may not live with them and we get preoccupied with other things and they just don't become important.

I think the innocence of animals, the unconditional love and acceptance that they give to people is something everybody needs. I especially love it with cats and men, because so many men are still afraid, cats seem to be considered more of a feminine animal, and so a lot of men won't admit that they like them and so when we find these big rough guys that fall in love with them...Real men love cats. Real dudes love cats. It's our motto. It's a tough world, and people get so caught up in their day-to-day stuff that they start to forget to be good neighbors. I think people lose a lot of friendship as they get older. More and more people are more and more isolated in their homes, in work and preoccupied with just making ends meet. There's a connection with animals. You shouldn't lose that connection with other people, which can be another thing we see, but I think animals do help to provide that sense of unconditional love and acceptance that people really thrive on. Everyone identifies with it.

What about a moment in which you feel particularly powerless?

That's a good one...it would be the opposite situation, where there are times that no matter what we do, there are people who just aren't going to accept what we're doing and why. Whether it's a trap-neuter-release project or why we're offering services and that they're not going to take advantage of them. A theme that's reoccurring now with our organization is that we're trying to make a lot of changes in protocol that are there to further the mission to help animals, but it's also important in any field to stay on top of best practices and not be afraid to take risks. But no matter what you do, I think people get caught up in their routine and the way things have always been done. So, that's a theme that has impacted us a lot lately, where we're trying to make some changes and it's hard, because a lot of people don't like change. I think what is hard for me is I know that a lot of people don't like to be persuaded, like no is no.

And sometimes I know that I have a hard time taking no for an answer. I try to find different angles to convince someone why maybe they should consider doing things a different way. I know that my intentions are good, and I know that I always want to just save more animals and help more people and have good relationships with them. But sometimes there will be colleagues or volunteers or donors maybe who don't want to listen and they don't grasp the intention behind it, and then it can be hurtful because it's like, "But you know me. Why would I want to endanger our animals or our reputation?" I don't know. It's hard for me not to take it personally when people don't trust what we're trying to do as leaders in the organization.

This is interesting, to go back to your Communication and Journalism degree and background. No matter what, at the core of any job or everything you do, communication is super important. It makes things move. And then with miscommunication, you can't control how someone else hears you. Even if you state every word very clearly, it sometimes doesn't work that anyway because there's nuance and people's histories, etc. It can get really tricky.

That's for sure. Lately good communication has been really important. Process development and that kind of stuff. We're really trying to analyze that right now, and make those kinds of improvements so that everybody does feel like they've had sufficient opportunities to commit. And I know how important that is, but sometimes we really are faced with life and death scenarios. The other favorite thing that I like to say lately is don't let perfect get in the way of good. You have to have process, but sometimes making exceptions is important too in order to achieve the greater goal.

What I find sometimes too, and I'm sure this happens everywhere, but people are so focused on the process, and every step has to be met and if you don't meet it, it's a disaster, but then you can't, sometimes it's not realistic and you're not going to achieve your goal. I hate that. That's my pet peeve.

Oh and I should tell you what Emma, the 12 year old, said when I asked her "Who are you?"

Oh yes, please.

So, I just met her for this project, I didn't know her before. I asked, "So who are you?" And she paused...and said "A cat."

That's awesome!