by Jill Ragar Esfeld
Special to The Leaven
LANSING — Murphy was close to death last Thanksgiving when he spotted a pile of rugs on Dr. Lynn Ann Vaughn’s back porch. He crawled inside, curled up and passed out.
It was the smartest move he ever made in his life.
Vaughn, a parishioner of St. Francis de Sales Parish in Lansing, is not sure why she decided to stay home and clean last Thanksgiving, instead of visiting her family in Omaha, Neb. But when she went out to shake the rugs, she wasn’t at all surprised to find a sick, starving feline inside.
“He weighed six pounds, but should have been double that,” she said. “Of all the houses he could have chosen to visit, he ended up at mine. Chance? Fate? I choose to believe [it was] by design.”
It seems God is always tossing animals Vaughn’s way.
Never one to do things halfway, Vaughn initially got her degree in nursing, practiced for a few years and then decided to become a doctor. So it’s no surprise when she volunteered at a local animal shelter, that she’d eventually end up running a shelter of her own.
“Sometimes I say I practice medicine to support my other calling,” she said. “And that is cat rescue.”
From canine to feline
Though she grew up without pets, as an adult, Vaughn developed a fondness for dogs and volunteered her time working with them at local shelters wherever she lived. And she’s lived in many places.
Originally from Green Bay, Wis., her family transferred to Minneapolis and then to Omaha, where her parents live today. She did her undergraduate work at the University of Kansas, studied medicine in Nebraska and Oklahoma, and then dermatology in Minnesota.
Vaughn was happy to move back to this area when a job opportunity presented itself. She practices dermatology in the Leavenworth/Lansing area and in Omaha, where she commutes each week. She also teaches at Creighton University in Omaha.
Once settled here, Vaughn visited the Leavenworth Animal Control shelter, hoping to continue her work with dogs. But God had a different plan.
“They had lots of volunteers working with the dogs,” she said. “I really didn’t consider myself a cat person, but I started doing the work with the cats because that’s where the need was.”
Leavenworth Animal Control is a kill shelter. Often the cats most in need of medical attention are euthanized. Vaughn felt deeply that her skills as a physician could help her make a difference in the lives of these creatures.
She applied to the state for a shelter license and named her rescue program after St. Francis of Assisi, determined to rely on his intercession for her success.
Assisi Safe Haven for Cats is a small organization consisting of a network of foster homes. Assisi treats the rescued cats for intestinal parasites and fleas, and checks them for feline leukemia and feline AIDS. Foster families nurture and socialize the animals until an adoptive family can be found.
With rare exception, Vaughn rescues from the local shelter, focusing primarily on cats in greatest need due to health issues or a high risk for euthanasia.
“They’ll let me know if there’s something at the shelter that needs to get out, needs some medical care or needs more than they can provide,” she said.
In God’s hands
Just a few weeks ago, a mother cat with 10 kittens was turned into Animal Control. She was thin and covered in fleas. The kittens were taking all her strength and nutrition, which was already compromised.
“Abby was most definitely in God’s hands,” said Vaughn.
The kittens were also flea-infested, had intestinal parasites and were on the verge of starving. The local shelter simply did not have the staff to hand feed them several times a day. One kitten died on Friday; another, Monday morning.
By Monday evening, they were in Vaughn’s home.
“I didn’t have room for more, but I firmly believe the good Lord placed them in my path for a reason,” she said. “They have been bathed, treated for fleas and worms, and started on antibiotics for the upper respiratory infection they have.
“Will they all make it?
Vaughn will keep the mother and her kittens until they regain their health. Then she will take them to PetSmart on weekends for its Adoption Days program — a venue she often uses to find homes for her cats. She’ll also post descriptions of some of them on her Internet site (google Assisi Safe Haven).
Vaughn said she is always looking for additional foster homes — people who want to take a cat or a pair of kittens and care for them until they can be adopted.
When she first moved to Leavenworth, she became friends with Sharon Hinki. Since then, Hinki and her daughter have assisted Vaughn whenever she needs an extra hand feeding, cleaning or kitten-sitting.
They call the duty being “knee-deep in fluff,” and they love helping out. Both are impressed with Vaughn’s devotion to her animals.
“My daughter goes over and she has a whole routine where she sanitizes,” said Hinki. “And there’s a whole protocol on keeping [the cats] healthy and getting the sick ones back in shape.”
Though her medical background enables her to give excellent care, Vaughn also has a network of local veterinarians who help.
“[Dr.] Diana Webster is a feline specialist in Parkville, (Mo.), and I cannot tell you the number of cats she’s donated time to,” she said. “I call her all the time and do phone consultations. She is awesome; she’s just brilliant. I can’t say enough good things about her.”
Vaughn also relies on Drs. Richard Smith and Corbin Hodges at Piper Heritage Veterinary Clinic in Kansas City, Kan., for all her cats’ surgeries.
“They’re tremendous,” she said. “And they give rescue animals a discount on surgical work.”
When there’s an overabundance of cats in Leavenworth, Vaughn keeps in contact with other rescue groups to help find homes for them.
“I know a few hundred cats wouldn’t be alive today if she didn’t take an interest in them,” Hinki said.
A perfect match
Although Vaughn’s care of her animals’ physical needs is exceptional, where she really excels is at matching her charges — every one of whom has a name and a story — to their adoptive families. For that reason, she counsels families to consider cats that have had time to develop personalities.
Fellow St. Francis parishioner Patty Hammond has adopted two cats from Assisi Safe Haven, and she knows from experience that that’s good advice.
“I was on petfinder.com and I saw a kitten that I liked,” she recalled. “I went to see the kitten, but [Vaughn] also had an older kitten, 7 months, and I just fell in love with her.
“Her cats are just so well taken care of that when you get one, you’re not going to have any problems with it. Both of the ones I got have just been wonderful.”
Hinki agrees that the mature cats are a better choice.
“When you get a baby kitten, you don’t know what personality it will have,” she explained. “Her cats are trained and friendly to people. She loves to see people with nice pets, and that’s her driving reason for doing this — it definitely is not financial.”
Indeed, rescuing cats is an expensive venture. Though Vaughn accepts donations, most of the organization’s support comes from her own pocketbook.
But she’s not complaining. Vaughn sees herself as a handmaiden of the Lord, meant to serve his creatures in the footsteps of St. Francis.
“I walked into that shelter to take care of dogs and ended up taking care of cats — that’s were I think God played a hand,” she said.
“For me, this is a calling. I firmly believe God places me where I need to be for one of his creatures,” she continued. “The fact that I’m also a human physician means I’m able to take care of the ones that need the medical care.”
Vaughn’s life philosophy is equally simple.
“I fulfill a purpose here,” she said. “I’m serving God’s needs.”