Alicia Cuccia picks up the ringing phone. The woman on the other end has a problem. She's relocating to Europe and wants Cuccia to find a new home for her four-year-old cat. Cuccia patiently explains that France does not require a long quarantine for pets--she should take the cat along. The woman hangs up on her.
When Cuccia opened Paws for Thought five years ago, she had no idea that her pet-supply store would one day double as a licensed, cageless animal shelter and referral service. At the time she had only four cats. Since then she's had about 2,000 cats adopted by customers; on any given day you'll see some 30 felines lounging on the counters, perched on cat trees, and nesting on the purple shelves between the cat toys and birdseed. "It can be a markfest around here sometimes," Cuccia says. "Sometimes they all choose the same day for puking and hair balling."
The shelter started when Cuccia's husband volunteered to take a litter of kittens from a friend, and the number of residents grew through word of mouth. Cuccia estimates that at least half of the animals were abandoned when their owners moved. "These days people don't care for their kids," she says. "So they certainly don't care about their animals." She receives an average of five "dumped cat calls" a day. "I try to get the caller to keep the cat, even if it's one they just found outside. I'll try to find out what the situation is. A lot of time people think it's hopeless, and I can easily remedy the situation over the phone."
To decide who gets to adopt, Cuccia uses her intuition plus a series of questions designed to trip up potentially bad owners. "When people want them to match the furniture or the other cat, we definitely won't adopt to them," she says. "I turn 75 percent of people away, because I don't want the cats to be thrown out again." Good owners can tolerate mischievous behavior: Despite a wall of seemingly impenetrable floor-to-ceiling purple doors, the store's residents occasionally manage to break into the storage area and help themselves to extra food. "Our customers are kind of special," says Cuccia. "They'll take a ripped-open, puked-on bag of food for a buck off."
Cuccia doesn't deal in such pet store mainstays as lizards, puppies, and hamsters or the expensive accessories that go with them. "We could sell them and make a buck, but we don't." Recently she stopped selling fish. "People don't know how to take care of them--they don't know the proper filtration. They would come in and say, 'All my fish died. I need new fish.'" When she worked for another pet store, the worst part of her job was "when customers would ask to go into the alley to beat the feeder mice and rats we sold them to death, so they could bring them home to their snake."
A year and a half ago, Cuccia says, problems with her landlord caused her to move the store to its current location from the Southport Avenue strip. She estimates that only about 25 percent of her customers have followed. Recently her husband took out a loan to keep the business afloat. Though she charges $100 to adopt an adult cat (kittens are $50 to $75)--not including food and a $25 spay/neuter deposit--she loses money on the adoptions. "If a kitten is here five days, I make no money," she says. Kittens average a month at Paws, and cats live there about a year before being adopted.
The phone rings again. The caller wants to know if the store carries purebred puppies. Cuccia pulls out a packet of information on purebreed rescue societies. "Does it have to be a puppy?" she asks, and then begins to explain the alternatives.
Paws for Thought is located at 1821 W. Irving Park. Call 773-528-7297 for more.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Alicia Cucia and cats photos by Randy Tunnell.