hen Cleo needs some fresh air, she leaves the house via the living room window and walks along the trellised passageway, sometimes pausing to nap in a square of sunlight and sometimes ambling onward to join her roommates in the shady garden nook. The construction she’s meandering through is both aesthetically pleasing (think cedar beams and shiny, sleek gridding) and serves a practical purpose: it keeps her from hunting songbirds and being hit by cars.
Cleo, a handsome Abyssian, lives with her feline friends and human Dawna Bell, who is one of a growing number of Portlanders designing beautiful and highly functional spaces for their nonhuman companions. “Catios” in particular are so popular that Portland Audubon and the Feral Cat Coalition of Oregon jointly host an annual tour of the structures around the city, in part to encourage cat owners to build backyard enclosures to “keep cats safe from outdoor hazards while also protecting wildlife from cat predation.”
Such elaborate homes are not just for cats, however. Fourteen exotic birds in Northeast Portland have found similar fortune thanks to one ornithophile couple, who moved to Portland in 2020 into a house expressly chosen with its aviary potential in mind. The homeowners asked Krisanna Sanders of interior design firm Recast Homes to remodel their new domicile, and added birdspace design to her brief.
“To put a bunch of creative people together that are willing to step outside their comfort zone to build something that’s kind of a little obscure was really fun,” she says. “I learned so much about birds and their needs.”
A special glass that can be detected by birds so they don’t collide with the clear panes was flown in from Germany for the space, home to cockatiels, budgies, Bourke’s parrots, and an elegant parrot. The result is a glassed-in space just off the dining room and kitchen where the birds perch on tree-like structures built from fallen branches collected on Mount Hood. They can fly in and out of the window to enjoy even more space and sunlight in an enclosed outdoor aviary built onto the side of the house. It’s a space, say the homeowners, that “benefits the birds and integrates with the house.”
Meanwhile, on the other side of the city Sheryl Hirschbein broke ground on her own pet project in January 2021. “I had gone on the catio tours for years,” she says. “I always wanted to do this.”
In Hirschbein’s case, “this” meant an elaborate 80-foot walkway from the upper story of her Southeast Portland home that crosses the landscaped yard to connect with a Japanese-style catio containing various cat perches, a tiny bridge, and a cat climber constructed from an apple tree, as well as a dog kennel for the canine household members. Everything is integrated into the garden aesthetic, with Japanese arches and bamboo features mirrored in the cat structure, through the garden, and even inside Hirschbein’s home.
This Zen space is now the domain of Mango and Goober, two kittens whose likenesses flank the doors as two painted cat sculptures.
Not only do the likes of Mango and Goober, Cleo and her companions, and those 14 rescue birds get to explore indoor and outdoor spaces without the dangers that can come with the latter, but it seems other members of the nonhuman kingdom want in on the action.
“They’ve got a squirrel friend that comes,” says Bell of her three cats. “The other day out of nowhere, I looked out the kitchen window and there was a squirrel. It was in the catio at the screen [where the cat door is], up on its hind legs, like, ‘Come and play.’”
Top image by Christopher Dibble