Local cat shelter is the country’s oldest lifesaving shelter you’ve never heard of

Get to know the cat shelter that survived the Great Depression, two world wars, and an ever-encroaching urban landscape. –Gifford Cat Shelter

Long before the green line crawled its way up Commonwealth Avenue to Boston College, bulls, goats, and cats lived together on Undine Road in Brighton. The landscape where the Ellen M. Gifford Sheltering Home for animalsnow Gifford Cat Shelterstill operates has evolved since its founding in 1884. Among new residences, train tracks, and college students, you’ll find the same shelter with a distinction its founders would be proud of: it’s now the oldest cageless, life-saving shelter in the country.

130 years ago, the Gifford Sheltering Home was built on land belonging to Captain Nathan Appleton, a Civil War veteran from a prominent Boston family. Appleton’s sister would marry the renowned poet, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, to give you a sense of just how New England this family was.

Nathan Appleton's land and the three acres that would become Gifford Cat Shelter.
Nathan Appleton’s land and the three acres that would become Gifford Cat Shelter. —Brighton Allston Historical Society
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At a time when animals were primarily raised as livestock, Appleton deliberately parceled out sections of his own land to construct an animal shelter. He felt strongly that all animals “had a right to their lives and pursuit of happiness.”

Ellen Gifford, an animal advocate from a wealthy Connecticut family, agreed.

“If only the waifs, the strays, the sick, the abused would be sure to get entrance to the home, and anybody could feel at liberty to bring in a starved or ill-treated animal and have it cared for without pay, my object would be obtained.”                 —Ellen Gifford, 1884

Appleton would receive an initial $25,000 donation from Gifford, who would serve on the Gifford Sheltering Home’s board of directors for years to come. Appleton and Gifford were both contemporaries of George Angell, founder of the MSPCA, who visited the shelter during its construction to advise the founders.

The original Gifford cat building and surrounding shelter.
Gifford’s original cat building and surrounding shelter. —Brighton Allston Historical Society

Since much of Brighton was sprawling farmland in the 1800s, the shelter was constructed to care for a range of animals that were commonly owned at the time. This included livestock like goats and bulls, as well as smaller animals like dogs and cats.

The shelter itself was cageless, allowing animals to roam freely in designated outdoor spaces rather than confining them to small, restrictive cages. Its attendants prioritized care and nurturing over euthanasia, which had been common practice. These two facets of the shelter alone were revolutionary.

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The shelter’s cats lived in a brick building that, upon first approach, looked more like a house. The building featured clean, hay-lined shelves as “bunk beds,” wide windows for sunbathing, and a square opening that allowed cats to explore an outdoor enclosure.

To ensure that the animals had round-the-clock care and attention, a superintendent was hired to live nearby in a Victorian on Commonwealth Avenue. Every morning, he would walk to Brighton Center for fresh milk and fish to serve cats at their outdoor feeding stations.

As time went on, land in Brighton began to be parceled and sold for residences, leaving less space for the free range of farm animals. The Gifford Sheltering Home eventually came to care exclusively for cats during WWII, when the price of dog food and other provisions became too much for the non-profit to finance.

Two cats lounge by the window in Gifford's unique cat building.
Two cats lounge by a sunny window in Gifford’s cat building. —Gifford Cat Shelter

And so the Gifford Sheltering Home became Gifford Cat Shelter, the oldest cageless, life-saving shelter in the U.S.

Despite this distinction, Gifford sometimes struggles to stand out from larger organizations. “Our biggest challenge is getting locals to know we’re here,” said Ann Gurka, Gifford’s shelter operations specialist

Gifford Cat Shelter might not be a household name, but, based on the number of cats they shelter each year, you might think otherwise. “Each year, we take in 300 cats and find homes for 300 more,” said Gurka. More than 60 percent of these cats are rescued from homelessness, hoarders, and abandonment.

To decrease stress and ensure their wellbeing, adult cats are grouped according to personality and allowed to wander from sunny window to sunny window in the original, fully restored cat building, while kittens are kept in an adolescent room nearby for group play. “These groupings allow us to better identify cats for individuals who might prefer a lap cat to an energetic kitten,” said Gurka.

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Gifford’s goal, as it’s been for over 130 years, is to care, rehabilitate, and re-home in order to end the needless euthanasia of community and companion cats. To fulfill this mission, two full-time employees, including a manager that lives on-site, two part-time employees, and a network of over 150 volunteers work together to give these little lives a life.

It takes a village at Gifford, and it’s clear that this village is deeply committed to providing cats with safety, food, veterinary care, and plenty of chin scratches until they find a place to call home.

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