Spend much time in Meow Town, the main cat room in Anderson Humane’s South Elgin shelter, and you will realize two things: Ken Swanson is a regular fixture here and he’s highly valued by the shelter community. You could call him the Mayor of Meow Town.
Five days a week you can find Ken in his feline kingdom from 8:30 a.m. to 1 p.m., mostly rolling around on a wheeled office chair from cat condo to cat condo, playing with the inhabitants. That’s his favorite volunteer activity, but he also cleans the cat enclosures, helps with daily feedings, organizes the cat supplies closet, trains volunteers, and does “anything else they want,” he says.
Chris Beebe, Senior Community Engagement Director at Anderson Humane, walks through the room on her way to the lobby. When she sees that Ken is being interviewed, she says, “Ken is a gift to Anderson Humane.” He smiles sheepishly.
When Ken retired after working as the vice president of a labor union, he started looking for something to fill his time. “Anderson Humane was the first place that called me back,” he says. A life-long animal lover, Ken jumped at the chance to spend his days with animals. That was six years ago.
Perhaps because he’s at the shelter so often, Ken enjoys tasks that take time, such as warming up frightened cats. He rolls over to Riley’s condo to illustrate. “He’s afraid of everybody,” Ken says, opening Riley’s door. The skittish cat disappears into the side cubby. “I’ll just sit here with the door open. Eventually, I’ll put a hand in. It’s a slow process, but they learn to trust.” He finds it especially satisfying when one of the cats who was afraid of people gets adopted.
Ken has done the same slow process with people too, including a special needs student who was volunteering at the shelter. “She was afraid of cats when she started here,” Ken says. “By the end of her time here, she was holding cats.”
Jamie Braun, the main Animal Care Technician at Meow Town, returns to the room, sees Ken talking about his volunteer work, and says, “Everyone loves Ken!” When she leaves the room again, Ken shares his mutual admiration. “Jamie has a great core of volunteers because she treats us like family,” he says, adding how impressed he is with the staff and other volunteers.
Amazingly, Ken has no pets at home. “I have 30 cats here, I don’t need any at home,” he says in his wry, matter-of-fact way. He rolls over to Zoe’s condo and lets the inquisitive cat out to roam the room a bit. “I find it calming and relaxing here,” Ken says as he picks up a cat toy that resembles a fishing pole and dangles the “lure” in front of Zoe.
Zoe plays with the toy for a few seconds then climbs to the top of a nearby cat tree, where she looks back at Ken in anticipation. Watching Zoe and the other cats interact with Ken, it’s clear they’re big fans of his, too.