Gretchen Byrne was taking a coffee break while patrolling on the midnight shift for the Coral Springs Police Department two years ago, when a hungry and pregnant female cat approached her in the shopping center parking lot.
Byrne knew that the feline wouldn’t last long on the streets, especially with a heavily-traveled thoroughfare nearby. So she took the cat to the police station, then to her house once her shift had ended, and put out a notice with a photo about the stray on Instagram.
From there, things started to happen.
“People started contacting me about stray cats they’d found,” says Byrne, 42, “and I started noticing a lot of stray cats when I’d patrol the alleys behind businesses. I’d leave out food for them and then take those that I could with me and put them up for adoption via Instagram.”
For every cat she helped, “there were another five or six that needed homes,” she tells PEOPLE. “Many of them had just been dumped on the street because their owners didn’t want to spay or neuter them or just no longer wanted to bother with them. I felt terrible for these cats — the problem was overwhelming. But I decided, ‘OK. I’ll do what I can’. “
Since that first adoption, Coral Springs’ “cat cop” has successfully found homes for about 65 felines and now has more than 20,000 followers on Instagram who track the adventures of the cats and kittens she finds on her patrol route.
Now working the day shift, Byrne puts her rescue cats in carriers and keeps them in a corner of the women’s locker room at the police station until she can take them home at the end of the day. From there, she snaps a few photos and puts the felines up for adoption, making sure they are spayed or neutered before they head to their new home.
“Instead of taking lunch breaks with my colleagues, I use that time to feed the cats,” she says, “and sometimes, I’ll take them up to the dispatchers, who have very stressful jobs and could use some kitten therapy.”
Single with no children, Byrne already has five cats at home, along with one four-month-old foster kitten named Frank that she admits might become a “foster fail.”
“He was born on a construction trailer and he had a rough start,” she tells PEOPLE. “But everybody is now rooting for me to keep him and it looks like that’s the direction I’m heading. It’s hard to say ‘no’ when you have a soft heart.”