Safe house: The majority of Hackney’s strays are black cats. Photograph: Stokey Cats and Dogs

“He was badly injured and it took eight months of healing, vet trips and socialising, but now he is happily settled in a new home he can call his own.”

The affection is clear in Elzbieta Gontarska’s voice as she talks about Olly, a long-term stray cat for whom she found a loving family.

“He was very wary of people so it was difficult to help him, but we managed.”

It’s all in a day’s work for Gontarska, who has been running Stokey Cats and Dogs rescue service since 2014.

In those three short years, the group has swelled to over 1,000 members who have helped save over 200 cats – many severely injured or traumatised.

Gontarska’s desire to care for animals stems back to her childhood.

“When I was little, I was bringing home abandoned kittens and stray cats,” she reveals. “I was moving snails to the other side of the street so they wouldn’t be stepped on or run over, and I was donating my pocket money to a local animal shelter.”

She even went without her packed lunch, choosing instead to feed her sandwiches to her pet dog.

“My parents weren’t too happy about that,” she laughs. “But I thought our dog would enjoy them more than me.”

She originally started Stokey Cats and Dogs to reunite pets with their owners, but quickly realised just how many stray moggies needed help.

The group also helps dogs and rabbits, but the sheer number of endangered cats means Gontarska’s limited resources are focused on them – so much so that Hackney Council described her organisation as one of the borough’s “vital cat protection services”.

Wounded: Many cats are found with horrendous injuries. Photograph: Stokey Cats and Dogs

Gontarska is full of stories about the tabbies she has rehomed – the fact that she remembers them all shows how deeply affected she is by their distress.

“Recently we homed three cats whose owner passed away before Christmas,” she says. “They were left alone in a flat for days and their condition was worrying. Two of them needed urgent dental treatment, and one needed eye surgery to stop her going blind. They are now happily settled in their new homes.”

But it all comes at a cost, she explains: “As we are not a charity, it is very important for us to raise funds ourselves to cover vets’ bills for dental work, x-rays, heart ultrasound, or other life-saving surgeries.”

She praised the “amazing help” she receives from Celia Hammond Animal Trust (CHAT), which provides low-cost veterinary treatment and features “overlooked and older cats” on its website.

Gontarska is also “extremely grateful” for her links to the RSPCA and the administrators of the C4 scheme, which allows her to get many of the cats neutered for free.

“Neutering is very important,” she tells me. “It prevents unwanted pregnancies, fights among cats and hence the spreading of the FIV virus, reduces spraying and is the main step towards healthier and happier lives.”

Rehoming all these cats is an ongoing effort, with shelters in the borough “always overcrowded”.

“There are too many strays for the number of places,” Gontarska explains. “That’s why it’s very important for us to find foster carers.

“They prevent cats from being returned to the streets and give us a chance to find them permanent, loving homes.”

Stokey Cats and Dogs provides a starter kit for fosterers, as well as covering any veterinary care, so they can just concentrate on giving their animal “lots of love and cuddles”.

She appealed to people to get involved and described fostering as “one of the most rewarding things you can do”.

“It’s an amazing feeling to watch a scaredy cat becoming a confident, friendly, playful companion,” she says, her eyes lighting up. “Even more so when your cat is not used to people, abused, injured, or even feral.

“So a big thank you to our wonderful fostering team.”

If you are interested in fostering or would like to join Stokey Cats and Dogs, please visit the group’s Facebook page here

You can also find tips on lost pets, as well as more happy ending stories, on the rescue service’s website here

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