Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Summer Job

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.


  1. (cats are great escape artists)

    Cats? Escape artists? Never...

    At least, that's what they try to convince you with those big wide innocent eyes ... and without fail, five minutes later, they'll be hooking claws at the doorknob and letting themselves free. Or wait till you're not looking and sidle around your feet. Or find a window. Or, hell, find a hole in the frickin' wall.

    Can you tell I've had cats? :P

    I've been thinking about volunteering at one of the shelters here once we've got finances sorted out and the car on the road. (My pregnant cat had to have emergency surgery about two weeks ago from a uterine infection... lost the entire litter. Thank all the gods, she's doing fine and is recovering very well.) It's something I've wanted to do for a long time, actually, even knowing the reality of the work; just never had the opportunity due to transportation.

    BTW, I think it's great you and the kids are doing this... too many people think of and allow their children to think of animals as some form of "convenience," something to be owned, rather than living creatures that have their own lives and feelings. *sighs* (I won't get into the rant. Promise. Otherwise I'd never shut up.)

  2. Anonymous7:43 AM

    You have great kids. Two of my trio came from no-kill shelters, and the amount of work and heartbreak that goes on is unbelievable. I found it hard to be there as a potential adopter, and I admire anyone who devotes their time to these organizations.

    (I've sort of been banned from helping due to fears that I will bring half the shelter home with me, but I try to donate litter or food whenever possible - as well as spreading the word on where to go to adopt a beautiful cat)

  3. My male cat came from a no kill cat rescue, my female was starving outside my apartment building 14 years ago. I used some of my school loan to have her spayed. My dog (a sweet rottweiler) came from a shelter. She was so skinny when I got her you could see every rib, her spine, her hip bones jutting out. It breaks my heart. I can't volunteer because I want to take them all home. But I can donate. I keep meaning to and never seem to remember to drive up there. Thanks for reminding me. I'll drive up this weekend.

  4. Holy crow. I just realized you have a link to my blog. Thanks!

  5. Anonymous10:09 AM

    The Kitten Farm management team thanks you, purring loudly as they wrap themselves around your legs.

    Our cats came from a local rescue organization that fosters their cats with willing families. I can't say enough good things about the foster families: all three of ours were in excellent health and the two kittens were wonderfully socialized. (Emily, our older cat, is a little crochety, but we think she was that way before the rescuers got her.) Thanks for reminding me to help them out.

  6. Anonymous11:42 AM

    I have the same problem as a few other people--I couldn't stand to leave them there and I have no transportation during their hours, but I can donate supplies. So, I'll be calling them to see what they need. Thanks for the reminder of a small organization that needs my money more than the rich church or huge charity organization. :)

  7. Anonymous12:28 PM

    All I can say is--thank you.
    As an animal lover who's rescued eight cats and six dogs in my time (yes, the wee cottage is very crowded), so GLAD to hear about people who care.

    And for those who DON'T have much free time, the rescue organizations need contributions of every kind--money, food, carriers, veterinarian services, toys, everything.

    A little caring goes a long way.

  8. 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.

    Actually, it's a function of ignorance of animal behavior. I love animals, but kittens and puppies are a pain in the bleep. In fact many of those cute kittens and puppies (puppies, especially), even when adopted, end up back in a shelter when the new owner discovers the "joys" of animal adolescence.

    Adult animals are surprisingly adaptable and adoptable.

    Anyway, bless you and your children for your efforts.

  9. Wow, what a great way to teach your kids responsibility and to understand consequences while making a very real difference. I'd love to do something like this with mine.

    I used to work in a vet hospital and though it certainly wasn't that overwhelmed, the vet did keep some dogs for adoption and I so wanted to take them home. We also had some permanent residents either because of medical needs or one dog who'd been so abused (and possibly trained to attack) that if startled he bit. A lovely, nice dog otherwise, but if he bit one more time, legally he'd have to be put down.

    That said, I have one argument on the kitten side (coming from a household with a 17-year old who was adopted at 6 months from the shelter, a 3-year old who was adopted as a feral at 6 mths and a 5 or 6 yr old adopted at 2-3 yrs). Cats are like children. They learn what drives you nuts and choose other outlets. Picking up a mature cat (especially the 2-3 yr old) is difficult because they already have bad habits because the person responsible for them as kittens failed to instill good ones.

    I'm determined to get a kitten next time for this reason...of course I was the last two times too :D.

  10. Here in the UK, the kittens and puppies usually get adopted first too, but, after that, you can more or less guarantee that anything missing a limb or other body part will fly off the shelves, as it were, compared with ordinary-looking adults. It seems that people feel so sorry for the amputees that they fall over themselves to rehome them. I'm surprised if that's not the case in the US. I should add that I'm a vet, so I've seen my fair share of rescue centres too : )
    Alison S


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