Halfway Home Pet Rescue volunteer and board member Christina Kane-Gibson holds June, a domestic short-haired kitten. Credit: Melissa Lizotte / Aroostook Republican

CARIBOU, Maine — As president of the Caribou-based Halfway Home Pet Rescue, Norma Milton has heard too many stories about Aroostook County cat owners driving to Brewer to access emergency services.

In Maine’s northernmost county, veterinarians have waiting lists so long that they can no longer take more patients. Many also do not have enough veterinary staff to reliably take on all emergency calls. Stories of animals dying before making it to downstate clinics are too common, with pet owners heartbroken over a loss that usually is preventable.

Though it will take time, Milton and her team of 34 volunteers at Halfway Home, which specializes in cat rescues and sterilizations, plan to ensure that few pet owners have to endure those tragedies.

The future location of a cat rescue business.
In the coming years, Halfway Home Pet Rescue will be moving into a larger space at the former home of Broadway Electric, located on 40 Broadway St. in Caribou. Credit: Melissa Lizotte / Aroostook Republican

Halfway Home has begun planning for a new cat wellness center that will help the nonprofit move from its current building on 489 Main St., which they share with a diesel repair shop.

Halfway Home serves as a rescue space for stray, feral and injured cats. Once cats receive medical treatment from volunteer veterinarians and other local volunteers, they are transported to other Aroostook shelters that can seek permanent homes. In their future center, Halfway Home will continue to focus on serving cats only.

The wellness center will exist in the former location of Broadway Electric, at 40 Broadway St., which Halfway Home already owns and utilizes for storage space. The renovated building will include a clinic, food pantry, rooms for both feral cats and those up for adoption, offices, a public waiting room and reception area.

Since Halfway Home must raise funds to pay for renovations, the board of directors expects to complete the project within five years. The board’s biggest long-term goal is to hire a part- or full-time veterinarian to offer low-cost wellness clinics for routine medical exams and emergency procedures.

Halfway Home will offer those and other services to all Aroostook cat owners and animal shelters in hopes of preventing people from having to travel to downstate clinics.

Recently, Halfway Home was fortunate enough to find a local veterinarian to perform emergency surgery for a cat in need. But that is not always the case.

“Pet owners have cried to us on the phone because no one is able to take their cat,” Milton said.

Affordability has also become an issue for many cat owners, Milton said.

Though Maine has spay and neuter vouchers as part of the statewide Help Fix ME program, only one veterinary practice in Aroostook still accepts them, and just for male cats. Low state reimbursement rates from that program have left clinic owners unable to recoup enough costs to continue accepting the vouchers.

With no place left to turn, some cat owners have given up their animals to Halfway Home. Recently, the rescue has also taken in cats after their owners have been arrested, become homeless, died or moved into nursing homes.

A cat walks over a woman's shoulder.
Norma Milton, president of Halfway Home Pet Rescue, visits with a part Maine coon cat named Cissy at the nonprofit’s Caribou location. Credit: Melissa Lizotte / Aroostook Republican

“Those are the saddest situations,” Milton said. “We’ve seen people give up their pets for being unable to take care of them.”

The new space will also allow Halfway Home to expand the free spay and neuter clinics that have kept feral cat populations in Caribou and surrounding communities under control.

Halfway Home typically holds four or five clinics per year at the Caribou Wellness & Recreation Center, which often sees from 150 to 175 cats over a three-day period.

Since starting the clinics four years ago and promoting a trap, neuter and release program, they have greatly reduced the number of feral cats and kittens on site and increased those cats’ chances of becoming domesticated and adopted pets.

“Before the clinics, we took in 300 to 450 cats per year [at Halfway Home], but now it’s more like 100 or less per year,” Milton said. “We used to find 60 to 80 cats in a feral colony but now it’s more like four or five cats.”