hen Cleo needs some fresh air, she leaves the house through the living room window and walks down the gated hallway, sometimes stopping to take a nap in a square of sunlight, other times strolling along to join her friends. roommates in the shady corner of the garden. The building she’s wandering through is aesthetically pleasing (think cedar beams and sleek, shiny grilles) and it has a practical purpose: it keeps her from hunting songbirds and getting hit by cars.
Cleo, a beautiful Abyssian, lives with her feline friends and human Dawna Bell, who is one of a growing number of Portlanders who design beautiful and highly functional spaces by their non-human companions. Catios in particular are so popular that Portland Audubon and Feral The Cat Coalition of Oregon co-hosts 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 protecting wildlife from cat predation.”
However, these elaborate homes aren’t just for cats. Fourteen rare birds in Northeast Portland found a similar fortune thanks to an ornithophile couple, who moved to Portland in 2020 into a home specifically chosen with its aviary potential in mind. The homeowners asked Krisanna Sanders of interior design firm Recast Homes to remodel her new home and added birdhouse design to her brief.
“Bringing together a group of creative people who are willing to step out of their comfort zone to build something that’s a little dark was really fun,” he says. “I learned a lot about birds and their needs.”
A special glass that can be detected by birds so they don’t collide with clear glass was shipped from Germany to space, home to cockatoos, parakeets, Bourke’s parrots and a graceful parrot. The result is a glass-enclosed space just off the dining room and kitchen where birds perch on tree-like structures built from fallen branches collected from Mount Hood. They can fly in and out of the window to enjoy even more space and sunlight in an enclosed outdoor aviary built into the side of the house. It is a space, say the owners, that “benefits the birds and integrates into the house.”
Meanwhile, on the other side of town, Sheryl Hirschbein kicked off her own pet project in January 2021. “I’d been going on 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 top floor of his Southeast Portland home that crosses the yard to connect with a Japanese-style catio containing several cat perches, a small bridge and a cat climber built from an apple tree, as well as a kennel for the canine members of the family. Everything is integrated into the aesthetic of the garden, with Japanese arches and bamboo features reflected in the cat structure, throughout the garden and even inside the Hirschbein house.
This zen space is now the domain of Mango and Goober, two kitties whose likenesses flank the doors as two painted cat sculptures.
Not only can the likes of Mango and Goober, Cleo and her companions, and those 14 rescued birds explore indoor and outdoor spaces without the dangers that the latter can bring, but it sounds like other members of the non-human realm want to get in on the action.
“They have a squirrel friend coming over,” Bell says of her three cats. “The other day, out of the blue, I looked out the kitchen window and there was a squirrel. I was in the catio on the screen [where the cat door is]on their hind legs, like, ‘Come and play.’”
Top image by Christopher Dibble