Episode 134 – Siri Zwemke

Siri Zwemke Siri Zwemke Siri Zwemke is the Director and Founder of Siamese Cat Rescue, which has been placing cats for more than 20 years.  An entirely internet based organization, they have placed more than 12,000 cats over a 20 state area and are proudly supported by more than 1,000 volunteers that do transport, fostering, evaluation and many other tasks.  Siri recently wrote the book “Rescue Meez” which details the events and learning that she’s had along the journey of running the organization.  Through Siri’s leadership Siamese Cat Rescue continues to evolve and is focusing more attention on TNR and home-to-home placements in addition to providing mentoring and support for Siamese cats already in loving homes.
Website: https://www.siameserescue.org/
“Welcome to the Animal Professionals podcast, where our goal is to introduce you to amazing people helping animals and share how you can get involved. This podcast is proudly sponsored by Doobert.com. Doobert is a free platform designed to connect volunteers with rescues and shelters and the only place that automates local rides and transports. Now, on with our show!  Siri is the director and founder of Siamese Cat Rescue, which has been placing cats for more than 20 years. Entirely an Internet-based organization, they’ve placed more than 12,000 cats, over 20 state radius and are proudly supported by more than 1000 volunteers that do transport, fostering evaluation and many other tasks. Siri recently wrote the book Rescue Meez, which details the events and learnings that she’s had, along the journey of running the organization. Through Siri’s leadership, Siamese cat rescue continues to evolve and is focusing more attention on TNR and hometown placements, in addition to providing mentoring and support for Siamese cats, already in loving homes.  Hey, Siri, Thanks for coming on the program today. Well, thank you for having me. I’m delighted to be here. I’m so glad that you joined us today and I’d love you to start us off and tell us a little bit more about you. Sure, I’d be glad to. I am the director of the Siamese Cat Rescue Center. We’ve been around since 1998 and Siamese Rescue started kind of on a whim. It was not a plan. I was actually a teacher of the hearing impaired and I was looking to rescue a Siamese cat. My family has always had Siamese cats. Just one of those things I grew up with loving Siamese cats. And so here we were, in Central Virginia, very, very rural. And I thought, I really want to rescue a Siamese cat. So I started calling around and you know, the counties are big. So I called, I don’t know, maybe 20-25 different counties, around Central Virginia and left my name and number and said, “Hey, if you get a Siamese cat, you know, call me.” Well, guess what? You know, it wasn’t too long before, the shelters were calling me. They had a Siamese cat. They were referring people to call me that had a Siamese cat that they had found or couldn’t keep or whatever. And after I got to about 12 Siamese cats in my house, I thought, Okay, this has got to stop or I’ve gotta sort of change my direction here, and I started thinking about maybe I can do a rescue. And again, I was still working full time, and so it kind of started as a hobby. But, you know, I would like to jump into things without a lot of research, without paying a lot of attention for the consequences. You know, I called the IRS, and I said, Hey, what do I need to do to become a nonprofit? And I started doing, filing all the paperwork and stuff. And here we are, sort of 22 years later and 12,000 plus cats, that have come and gone. And 1000 or so volunteers. Absolutely incredible in what they brought to the organization and how they’ve helped and allowed us to be sort of an Internet-based group that is focused on, I’d say, the eastern third of the US and, you know, function in maybe 15 to 20 different states on a fairly active level. Working with probably about 250 public shelters, throughout the years, to bring in Siamese cats and then get them vetted and get to know them and then find homes for them. So it’s been a great ride and a lot of fun, and we’ve just met the most amazing cats and the most amazing people, through this process. And it’s just been great.  Yeah, it sounds like you don’t, like a lot of people, you kind of stumbled into this and then I’m curious, so Siamese cats, you said, you grew up with them. You love them. Why Siamese cats? What makes them different? My mother always had one, so I just kind of always thought, Well, they’re great cats. But as I started to learn a little bit more about their personalities as an adult and learned about how they were turned in so much, into the public shelters. And of course, that’s partly because they’re just a very popular breed. But I think it’s also because people don’t really understand, I mean, any breed, you’re going to get, cat or dog, you need to research a little bit, you know? Is this the right breed for me? And I think a lot of people look at the Siamese cat and they say, Oh, it’s so pretty, you know, I’m gonna get one, and then they just don’t realize that the cats can be very, very smart and they can be very demanding and they can be extremely people-oriented. And they’re not, you know, necessarily the cat for someone who works really long hours and just wants to come home and have sort of this quiet relationship with a cat. They’re often cats that are very needy and demanding, and their intelligence gets them into trouble. And that’s a generalization, of course. But you know, we have seen so many people contact us and say, as a matter of fact, yesterday someone called and they, you know, I have this Siamese cat, it’s like talking all the time. My husband and I are like, Well, yeah, it’s a Siamese. What did you think? I think a lot of people sort of get into the ownership of this cat and don’t realize all the parameters that sort of go with owning a Siamese cat.  So they end up in the shelters a lot. They don’t do well in the shelters, obviously. And of course, the other thing is Disney did them no favors with the original movies. And so a lot of people are like, Well, they’re kind of mean. And then they get into the shelter and they act up or they act intense or they’re meowing and they sound a little scary. And people are, you know, taken aback. And so the shelters historically have been kind of anxious to get them out of the shelters and into smaller situations, rescue groups where they, you know, can do better. They could be in a foster home or they could be in a room. And anyway, it’s been a wonderful experience, and we just love the breed. I mean, we just think they’re so interactive and so smart and a lot of fun.  So tell me how the rescue I mean, you started with 12 cats and like you said, figuring stuff out. So how has the rescue evolved over the years? Last year, I penned a book called Rescue Meez and I sort of did the history of Siamese rescue. And looking at all of the really funny stories, at the time, they were not funny. But now that I look back and I think, Wow, you know, I didn’t know what I was doing, and I kind of went into this so blindly and it just sort of snowballed. I mean, starting with calling all those shelters and then all of them calling me back with, Oh, yeah, sure, we have a Siamese and, you know, back in the days before, many of the big cities had nice big shelters. I remember, probably year 2000 or so, Fairfax County. A huge County in Virginia called and said, Hey, we’ve got 65 Siamese cats that were just seized from the home. And can you help? And so there were a lot of situations like that where there would be either collectors or hoarders or whatever you want to call them. That had started probably, with just a couple of cats and collected more and didn’t spay, neuter and had these awful situations. And so we would go in and end up with way more cats, than we were really prepared for. But we managed, but, you know, making mistakes along the way and learning as we went, which I think is one of the key things. You know, everybody makes mistakes that you got to kind of learn from those mistakes and adjust your policies and protocols.  So the entire organization snowballed and developed as we had all of these various experiences. Like I said, that I’ve documented in the book and in an attempt to just enlighten and educate and give people a good laugh, at some of the things that have happened, as we learned the ropes if you will. And then now, here we are, sort of 20 some years later, the organization just really blossomed, thanks to, again, primarily volunteers who helped, from states all over the country, by being able to interview applicants for us. We developed a transport system so that we could transport the cats. You know, if they were being fostered in North Carolina and we found a home for them, in Pennsylvania or in Florida or in Kentucky, we could put together a transport. Volunteers who did crafts for us, and we went to all the local cat shows and had booths, of course, and you know, volunteers who did that. And then, of course, foster homes. So all of those different opportunities that we found volunteers and many of our volunteers, we were so fortunate, joined us sort of year one and year two and you know are still with us today, which is really kind of cool. We’ve sort of grown as this enormous family of Siamese lovers and cat lovers. And it’s been fun.  At what point did you decide that working a full-time job and doing this on the side, wasn’t gonna work. I used sign language in my job right, because I was teaching the hearing impaired and I actually fell asleep in class one day. I was so exhausted, and I kind of had a little sort of teacher breakdown and the principal, you know, was a lovely lady. She pulled me out of the classroom and she took me to the doctor and she said, You know, something’s going on. And the doctor just diagnosed me with exhaustion. And I came back to the class and I thought, OK, I can’t do both of these things. I’m not providing a good service to either. I’m not doing right by the kids, and I’m not doing right by the cats because I was just sleeping maybe 2-3 hours a night and teaching during the day. And then having hours and hours of cat care and Internetwork and all, when I got home and I had a small child on top of that. At that point, I just decided, Okay, something’s gotta give. And the rescue was sort of snowballing along, to the extent that I thought, you know, I can probably make this into my full-time position, and it would be great. That’s sort of where I just made that the end of that school year. I thought, OK, that’s what I’m gonna do and gave up teaching and took on cat rescues. You made it your full-time passion. Yep. And haven’t looked back since.  I have to point out, I love the fact that you call yourself the CPS. The chief pooper scooper. I think my husband came up with that label. Yeah, that’s pretty much it because, you know, there’s just been over the years, just two employees, my husband and myself, who both do this full time. He does all of the tech stuff and, you know, I ended up doing a lot of the pooper scooping. So we were able to build a small facility on the property here that we kind of called home base, where we can house up to 50 cats at a time. And then we had, at one point, about 75 foster homes, throughout different states. We’d usually have about 125 to 150 cats in the program at any one time, located throughout the different states, and then here at the center.  And most of our adopters, so one of the interesting things that was really I think made us different is most of our adopters never met the cat before they adopted their cat. Yeah, so that was kind of a really different approach. We had to take into really doing a lot of in-depth matchmaking, not only because they weren’t meeting the cat, but because we weren’t meeting the people. And because the Siamese is like, I said, it’s kind of an intense cat or can be kind of an intense cat. So we really had to develop a lot of screening procedures, both for screening the cats as well as screening the applicants and then documenting all of that information in a way that a team of people could access everything that was documented. And we did that kind of by having a group of volunteers who were the interviewers. And they were sort of the agents for the applicants. And they spent a lot of time on the Internet and on the phone with the applicants, finding out all about them and their household and their other pets and what they were looking for. And then the fosters did a similar thing with cats. You know, they got to know cats and what the cat’s liked and what their behavior was like and all their medical stuff, and they documented all of that. And then we kind of put that all together in a software program that my husband put together. And then for every single placement, there were several of us that looked at each placement, to make sure we felt it was gonna be a good match. So we weren’t set up like a public shelter, where someone could come in and say, Hey, I like that cat. I’d like to adopt that cat. It was much more of you go through a screening process and then we’ll help you identify what cat’s gonna work. And not every cat is gonna work, for every household. I think that’s one of the keys. And one of the greatest things I’ve seen that has changed in the rescue community and the shelter community is a lot more of this matchmaking going on. Yeah, what I really love about this, is that you weren’t just doing this on your own. You have now created a website, and resources and you’re really trying to help other organizations out as well. Yeah. So things have changed a lot in the rescue community, and that’s great. We’re seeing a lot more, as I mentioned, all of these bigger shelters, now have built big facilities. A lot of them, at least in the urban areas,  they’re doing a lot more of this matchmaking and placement, and that’s wonderful. And so we’re now putting ourselves out as the organization in trying to assist with some mentoring and some protocol development and assist with business tools if we can. Do whatever we can to assist some of the other groups that are, you know, still sort of trying to find their way, or perhaps working to develop offsite adoptions and that sort of thing.  So tell me, how has the organization changed over the years? And where do you see it going? In the area that we cover, again, so that’s sort of the eastern third of the U.S. With a focus on the larger urban communities, we have seen the need for our assistance decrease, which is good. I have always said, Hey, if we could put ourselves out of business, that would be really good. I mean, if we’re not needed to help us much. And so what I’m finding now is we’re not needed to help us much in pulling cats from the public shelters because many of those public shelters are now able to place those cats, they have good adoption programs. Not true in very rural areas. And I get that many of those areas are still struggling, but ourselves, as an organization, for a lot of different reasons, including the change in the rescue community and all, we’re gonna now focus a little bit more on really what the root of the problem is, which is TNR. So we’re looking at our local counties, to see how we can get involved, in assisting with some of the groups that are already out there and working to do TNR. Again, we’re in very rural communities, so they are kind of still in their initial stages of trying to get up and get developed and get funding and all that.  So we’re hoping to do that, to get involved in that way and then, as I mentioned, also to assist with other groups if they need help in sort of developing business practices or thinking about doing offsite adoptions or many of those things that we can assist with. We’re looking more at doing more home to home placements, which we typically have not done over the years. We’ve always said, you know, if someone calls up and says, Hey, they have a Siamese cat, they need the place. We’ve always wanted to bring the cat into our program and then send it home for a variety of reasons. But now we’re going to focus more on trying to assist home to home placements so that you know, we’re not the middleman so much. We’re just assisting in the transition. And then also keeping cats at home. We find a lot of people call and they are just having trouble with their cat. They don’t understand. And some of its basic stuff, you know. Somebody called yesterday and they’re having difficulty with their young female cat. Well the cat’s not spayed. I said to her, You know, if you get this cat spayed, a lot of these behaviors are going to disappear, and oh! So there’s a lot of lack of information out there still. So our goal now will be to still be active in the rescue community, in the TNR community, more so than we were before, but also in assisting groups as well as Siamese out there, in different ways. We’ll see where it goes.  So I’m curious, Siri. Is this how you thought things would turn out? I tried to sort of forecast where we were going a lot of different times, and it was always so hard to see. And in all honesty, for the first probably 15 years of the rescue, there was no time to think. It was just so crazy, busy. That every single day, seven days a week was just filled, from the minute you get up to the minute you go to bed and you’re so busy kind of putting out the day to day fires. Now, I sort of feel like we’ve had a chance to kind of take a deep breath and look at, and actually I don’t want to say, pat ourselves on the back, but just feel really good. You know about the footprint we’ve left in the world and they look at, you know, how can we sort of continue to have a good footprint, but maybe not be quite as physically involved? And that’s partly we’re getting older. I mean, we’re getting ready to retire, and we’re not going anywhere. But we want to, still want to stay involved with rescue and all. But I’m not sure I want to scoop 50 boxes every morning, for the rest of my life. You’ll draw the line at 20 right? That’s right. My back is killing me. So Siri, what have you learned about yourself along the way? You know the biggest thing I’ve learned probably is that there are so many cool people out there. I don’t know, I grew up. I didn’t have a great upbringing. I didn’t have a great family situation. I didn’t have a lot of friends. I sort of grew up feeling like the loner and the outcast, like I never belonged. As I became an adult, I thought, there aren’t really that many great people out there. And that was just because I hadn’t been, I think, involved in the right group of people, because as soon as I got involved in animal rescue, my eyes were just open to so many wonderful, wonderful people, who were ready to help. The very first example was one of the first cats I found, that I wanted to adopt, was out in Kansas, and this was before the organization had started. And I was trying to figure out, and I was still teaching full time, and I was trying to figure out, Okay, how can I drive with my three-year-old daughter, Can I drive all the way to Topeka and back, on a weekend and still be back in time to go to school on Monday morning and teach? And I’m trying to figure all this out, and then it occurred to me, and this was the early days of the Internet, right. Not everybody was on the Internet. Not everybody had computers, but I thought, well, I’ll get on the computer and post on some message boards and see if I can get some help. And the people that came out of the woodwork to help, I just was like, my jaw hit the ground. I was like, look at all these nice people And some of those people, actually, almost all of them that offered to help, I think there was, like, 12 drivers, when we finally organized this trip. There were, like, 12 strangers that said, Oh, yeah l’ll drive from, you know, wherever it was, this place to that place. And almost all of those people then joined up, when I started the rescue, to be volunteers and it just was like, Wow, this is so cool, you know? So I think that’s been the biggest thing is this is a great world, you know, you just gotta find the right people. But there’s just amazing people out there and I was like, That’s your tribe. Yeah, it’s cool. Well, this has been great. Siri. I really appreciate you coming on today to talk about things and to share the book, Rescue Meez. So I’m excited to get that and learn more about the stories. Is there anything else you want to mention before we wrap things up today? Not that I can think of. Other than you know, anybody who’s listening, keep us in mind if you have an issue with the Siamese or anything we can do to try to help, we would like to, we’re available. We can be found on the Web, you know, Siamese Cat Rescue and we’re just eager and anxious to help, If there’s anything we can do. So I hope people will take advantage of that. Yeah, definitely. And as you pointed out, your website Siameserescue.org is a great website with tons of information that people can check out. And I’m sure that people will and they can contact you from there. So thanks for coming on today, Siri to talk to us. I appreciate it. Yeah, Thank you. I’ve enjoyed it and had a great time and I appreciate the opportunity.  Thanks for tuning into today’s podcast. Be sure to subscribe to your favorite podcast platform and feel free to leave us a review so we can help even more animals. Also, don’t forget to sign up with Doobert.com to join the tens of thousands of Dooberteers across the country and around the world helping animals and the organizations working to save them.”
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