The kids and I wanted to do something more meaningful than laze around by the pool all summer, so we volunteered to work two days a week at the local no-kill cat shelter. There are over 500 cats presently in residence, and it's kitten season, so they need all the help they can get.
Volunteering at an animal shelter, btw, is not playing with the kitties for hours. It's scrubbing out the floor-to-ceiling cages where the cats live, and cleaning their litter pans, food dishes, sleeping shelves and stands, etc. In heavy plastic gloves, working with bleach and hot water and plenty of soap. If you've ever cared for one cat, multiply that and the inevitable odor by 500.
My very first job at the shelter was to clean out the isolation cage for the cats with diarrhea. If that wasn't an initiation, I don't know what is.
If we're not too tired after we put in our work hours, then I take the kids out to the big outdoor playhouse that serves as a meet-and-greet area for visitors. About 100 of the healthiest, most promising adult cats are kept there.
You walk in, secure two doors (cats are great escape artists), sit on the floor or one of the chairs, and you instantly have six or seven cats all over you, purring and nudging for attention. Another twenty or more will circle around you, waiting their turn. The rest are lounging, snoozing or sitting aloof, unwilling to compete, but if you walk over to them, most will lift their heads and beg for a scratch around the ears.
There are only four or five volunteers who work at the shelter each day. They don't have time to pet 5 cats, much less 500. So while the cats are clean, well-fed and cared for, they are all starved for attention.
That's the hardest part for me. I can scrub up cat shit for four hours, no problem, but a scrawny, scraggly-furred calico with half an ear and one blue-blind eye climbs on my lap and looks up at me, and I'm destroyed.
I already know some of the more permanent residents by name. Valentino, a light orange marmalade cat who talks to me as I mop his cage. Shena, a mostly-black domestic short hair, likes to jump from the upper sitting shelves onto my shoulders (an acrobat-cat, she never sinks her claws in.) Mama, a silver tabby who watches me as closely as she does her six nursing kittens, and will bite if my glove strays too close.
There are so many kittens. Because people will not have their pets properly spayed or neutered, too many. The Humane Society sent over sixteen little ones this week, which the shelter accepted to save them from being euthanized. They're so tiny, and lovely, and the most likely to be adopted. Some won't be, and then it's almost a given that they will stay at the shelter. About 70% of the cats have lived there for more than nine years now, I'm told, and most of them will never leave.
It's understandable. People want to adopt cute kittens. They don't want to take home a full grown, half-eared, one-eyed stray with chewed-up-looking fur.
The kids were pretty quiet after our first day at work, but this is a lot different than the work we did down south, rescuing strays now and then. Here it's continuous smelly, nasty, sweaty physical effort. It is a big emotional thing for them to absorb, too, because you just can't see that many homeless animals and not have your heart broken. Still, they insist on going back with me every time (and worried mom here has tried to talk them out of it.)
There is nothing so humbling as when you realize how much love and courage your kids have, and how willing they are to act upon it.
Cat shelters of the kill and no-kill variety exist in almost every town in this country. They are almost always in desperate need of volunteers, but they are happy to accept donations of food, litter, supplies, and cash. If you have a spare afternoon this summer, visit yours and see what you can do to help out.