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17 January 2011

Finding Balance Volunteering at the Shelter

What  a crazy month it's been. First, the good news. The Home for the Holidays adoption promotion was a fantastic success, with hundreds of animals finding their forever home. The shelter was always busy, with lots of visitors needing help and lots of feeding & cleaning to keep up with. I spent almost 50 hours at the shelter last month, mostly on the weekends, and started feeling a bit guilty for spending so much time away from my pets. But it was very rewarding to see so many pets getting adopted.

This year has begun with a frustrating outbreak of upper respiratory infections among the cats in the shelter. Cats harbor the virus and it breaks out during periods of stress, which is the definition of shelter life for a cat. So, URI is almost unavoidable for cats in the shelter. For the most part it is treatable, but it puts a lot of strain on the staff to try to keep the sick cats housed separately from the healthy cats and treat them twice daily with anitbiotics. The volunteers are also affected because it's difficult to see so many cats getting sick and trying your best to observe all the other cats for any signs of sneezing/runny eyes and being extra cautious about hand-washing between handling cats and trying to keep toys and any shared spaces as clean as possible. There are also times when cats must be euthanized because there are not enough resources to treat so many sick cats, or because they have a type of virus that is more contagious and causes more severe health problems.

I was tempted two times to take in foster cats from the shelter. One is an adult female black cat who is very shy and needs extra love and attention to come out of her shell. But my cat would not take kindly to losing her bedroom, and it would not be a low-stress experience for the foster kitty to have another cat hissing at it from under the door. So instead of fostering her I decided I will make a point of spending extra time with her each time I go to the shelter - sitting with her, brushing her, making her comfortable and happy.  The second temptation was an emaciated kitten who grabbed my heart. The vet did not know why the kitten was so thin - whether it was lack of food or a disease, and it was just too much risk to my cats to bring this kitten into the house because I cannot completely prevent germs from moving around the house even if I keep the kitten in one room. So, I had to remember that my volunteering at the shelter is the best way I can help other cats without putting my cats in any stressful situations or putting their health at risk. Another volunteer fostered the kitten.

I was very frustrated this weekend when a couple came in to adopt a cat. Normally that would be a wonderful thing, but as I spoke with this couple it turned out that they brought in the cat as a "stray" a week earlier. The cat had been living in their yard for some time and they had been taking care of her.  They thought if they brought her to the shelter, waited for the mandatory holding period to pass, then adopted her, the cat would not think of them as "the bad guys" for taking her to be spayed. I also got the impression they thought this was a way to save money on spaying (the $80 adoption fee includes the spay surgery). They even commented that the cat had lost weight and her meow was hoarse and they were frustrated that they couldn't pick up their cat for 4 more days because the spay/neuter surgery schedule was backed up. I tried to explain the shelter is a very stressful place for cats. They often don't eat for a few days and will become sick. It didn't seem to sink in with them, and I don't think they ever considered the risk they took bringing the cat to the shelter.  Despite my frustrations at how they went about handling the situation, I think the story will end well.  The cat was obviously happy that they came to visit her and she will be back home with them this week after she is spayed.

Something I just finished reading seems perfectly fitting to this experience.  Even if you're not religious, the meaning of the message is important. "How do you deal with the ignorant and the wayward in your family, parish, country? Jesus wanted to know weakness so he could be compassionate, understand from the inside out what is like to be ignorant, desperate.  The will of God is not suffering but shalom. That includes compassion, com (with) passion (suffering).  Pray for the gift of compassion, for yourself,  for parents, priests, all those with authority-- that we too may deal gently."

I understand why this couple took the approach they did. I believe they had very good intentions but simply did not understand the risk they were taking. Luckily everything worked out for them and the cat. In the end I was grateful that they adopted the cat and cared enough about her to be sure she was spayed. I hope kitty has a long, healthy life with them.

To end on a brighter note, I got a thrill out of helping an older lady who came in with her grandson looking for a cat. She had recently lost her cat of 18 years and her house was too quiet and lonely.  She found a great companion in a young adult cat who is jet black, has a Manx tail, and polydactyl front feet (extra toes).  She's naming him Midnight Cowboy.  I hope they have a great life together and bring each other many years of happiness.

After 6 months of being a volunteer, this was a time of remembering to stay balanced.  There will always be challenges to having enough time for everyone, and many frustrating experiences will be balanced by knowing many cats are being adopted and will live wonderful lives with their new family.