Unsung Heroes: Cats Get a Chance at 10th Life

Berka and Jim Smock offer a haven for cats no one else wants, operating a shelter out of their home in Central California.

By Arden Moore | Posted: Tue May 1 00:00:00 PDT 2001

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Jim, 80, and Berka, 73, wake up each morning by 5 and rarely retreat to sleep before midnight.

"There's too much work to do around here," Berka says, with a nonchalant shrug. "These cats need us."

She opens the gate leading into the main cat room in what used to be their backyard patio. A few felines approach and shimmy against her shins. As if on cue, Hazel leaps onto Berka's shoulder, demanding attention and purring full throttle.

"OK, Hazel, give someone else a chance. Charlie! Charlie! Where's my Charlie?" she implores.

A long-legged cat stretches from a late morning snooze. Born without eyes and abandoned by his owners as a kitten, the now-10-year-old Charlie tips his nose in the air, perks his ears and trots toward her voice.

"There's my Charlie. What a good boy you are," she says, rewarding him with a lovable hug and head scratch. "He may be blind, but he can find a litterbox, food and water and loves to climb all over this place."

"OK, now, where's Madella?" She asks as she makes her way to the back where most of the feral cats tend to gather. A short-haired calico with full dark pupils hisses when Berka gets within hand's reach."You know, she's been here 12 years and still hisses at me. But that's all right because she's had a rough life. A homeless man had her and two other cats. The cats were starving, so I gave him $50 for all three and took them home with me."

Berka knows what it is like to go hungry. Born in Yugoslavia and orphaned at age 13, she spent most of her teenage years inside a German concentration camp during World War II. She was a foreigner living in Heidelberg when Adolph Hitler began rounding up non-Germans into the camps.

"We worked from sunup to sundown in the gardens and factories inside the camp," she says, reluctantly sharing her story. "They shaved our heads, made us wear itchy clothes made from burlap bags and fed us this soup made with shredded raw potatoes and vegetables. I was always hungry."

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