Best Feline Friend

Carmichael octogenarian marks her second decade of helping animals

By Cathryn Rakich
March 2020

After the death of her husband in 1998, Carol Stirnaman needed something to occupy her time.

Always a pet lover, the Sacramento-born resident considered volunteering at a local animal shelter. “I was looking for some type of volunteer work and I wanted it to be with animals,” she says. “I had cats and dogs all my life. I’m one of those people who just falls in love with animals.”

Stirnaman heard about Happy Tails Pet Sanctuary, a nonprofit animal-rescue group with an adoption center in East Sacramento, via a story on the local news. Her attention was piqued when she learned Happy Tails is “no kill”—pets taken into Happy Tails are not euthanized for space or behavior issues, only for medical reasons that affect quality of life.

“So, I went down to check it out. That’s how I got started.”

This year marks Stirnaman’s 20th anniversary as a Happy Tails volunteer, first as an adoption counselor matching people with cats in need of a loving home. Then, a year later, she added foster parent to her volunteer title.

Now, at 86, Stirnaman reports she has fostered 438 kittens and cats for Happy Tails.

“I counted up how many fosters I’ve had—I keep all the paperwork,” she says, remembering the first feline was a tiny grey one. “Then two beautiful little calicos.”

Stirnaman retired in 1993 as a mechanical technician at the Sacramento Army Depot on Florin-Perkins Road. “I repaired radios for the Army. I started with the government when I first got out of school.”


She and her husband Edward wed in 1955 and were married for 43 years. She has lived in the same home in Carmichael for 65 years, where she and Ed raised their two daughters.

That same house is now foster cat central. Living alone has allowed Stirnaman to convert an extra bedroom into a “foster kitten room” with scratching posts, cat trees, pet beds, a couple of litter boxes, an abundance of toys and a bay window with two shelves on which felines can lounge in the sunshine.

Also in the corner of the room is a two-story wire cage. “If I bring a new one in, I’ll put her in the big cage and let her observe the others for a couple of days. Then pretty soon, they are all mingling. Once I know they are all friendly, then they get to roam the rest of the house.”

But Stirnaman has a hard and fast rule—at bedtime, the young felines go back into the kitty room, “because I already have three on my bed at night.”
Those three are what people in the animal-rescue world call “foster failures.”

Amber is a 10-year-old calico/tortie mix and one of the few adult cats Stirnaman has fostered. “I don’t know why I adopted her,” she says. “I guess I didn’t think she would get adopted because of her personality. She was very aloof. But she’s really turned out to be a sweet cat.”

Gidget is 9 years old—a gorgeous Persian mix with long black hair who was adopted twice through Happy Tails, but returned both times for urinating in inappropriate places. “I thought, ‘No one is going to adopt her,’” Stirnaman says. “Now she’s OK—she doesn’t do that anymore. She’s the perfect senior cat.” In fact, Gidget is the ambassador to the foster kittens. “They love her. She takes care of them, grooms them. So she’s worth it.”

Cece, a black and white cat who is now 6 years old, is the only feline over the years that Stirnaman adopted as a kitten. “I’ve never had a cat so devoted to me. She lets the others know she belongs to me.”

The Happy Tails adoption center on Folsom Boulevard houses adult cats. Kittens and dogs go into foster homes, which is why Stirnaman fosters mostly felines under the age of 1. Kitten adoptions are held every weekend at the PetSmart at Watt Avenue and Arden Way. During the week, PetSmart cages are filled with adult cats from the adoption center.

In addition to fostering felines and volunteering as an adoption counselor, Stirnaman runs the Happy Tails adoption area at PetSmart, making sure supplies are stocked and volunteer cleaners show up for their shifts, among many other duties.

You will find Stirnaman at PetSmart every Saturday helping people and kitties make connections. She returns on Sunday, when weekend adoptions wrap up, to help clean the cages and pick up adoption paperwork. She also stops in during the week to collect food and other donations left by PetSmart shoppers, check on supplies, ensure clean cages and perform an occasional midweek adoption.

Stirnaman never goes long without a foster kitten or three running around her home. Today, she has an orange tabby named Daisy Cakes who Happy Tails took in when she was found running loose in PetSmart. “They were not sure if she was dumped or came in through the backdoor when it was open.”

Wavy Gravy is a grey tabby with a crooked tail, and Tina is a shy tortie. “Whoever adopts Tina will have to be patient with her,” Stirnaman says. They all go in the next day for spaying, vaccinating and microchipping (mandatory for all Happy Tails pets prior to adoption).

Is it hard to let fosters go? “I’ve been able to handle that. It can be scary because you want so much to make sure the cat gets into the right home. Especially if you’ve fostered it—and given it all this love.”

For Stirnaman, the past two decades of volunteering have been like a full-time job. “When I lost my husband, I knew I had to do something besides sitting around the house. I look back and think, ‘If I didn’t have this, what would I do?’

“I advise any widow—after the grieving part—to get involved in something they are really interested in. Happy Tails has been a good fit for me.”

Cathryn Rakich can be reached at Previous columns can be found and shared at the all-new Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram: @insidesacramento.

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