By Sandy Murphey
I first started volunteering at my local city shelter as a “cat cuddler” at the suggestion of a therapist that I was seeing for depression. I’d been isolating myself, and this was one of the suggestions she made.
There were about 25 of us at the training session, where the director went over the routines, then took us around the facility. Some of the volunteers shared their experiences. We were taught how to take a cat from the cage, how to decide if several cats could get along well enough to be given play time together, what to feed the obese cats, how to note problems on the cage card, or if serious to put on the vet assistant’s door, the daily cage cleaning and feeding, daily bedding change, room cleaning and laundry.
There were rooms for different CATegories. Four to five adoption rooms with about 40 cages, a room with 20 cages for new intakes, isolation room with 20 cages for sick cats, kitten room with 40 cages, owned cat room for those who had homes, and a couple of extra rooms with cages for birds, rabbits, rats, etc. The rabbits were given free time outside their cages every day. Large areas were fenced in for this.
There were 2 small rooms for cat cuddling, and the lunch room was also used to bring about 5 cats together for cuddling and play. Each room was swept or “dust busted” and spot cleaned after each cat, to prevent health issues. If a contagious virus was present, like the calici, affected cats were isolated and treated until symptoms were gone.
Forgotten Felines (for ferals) also had a room with about 40 cages. They were a separate organization, and I didn’t know that much about them. They helped with TNR, and tried to place cats in rural homes as barn cats. People called them when they became overwhelmed with feeding a feral group, and FF trapped and tried to place those cats in other areas where they could be cared for, after they were neutered.
One time I had to call on them, and they were very helpful. I was looking for boxes behind a store, and saw 2 young cats (maybe 6 months old) living in a wire storage area. I saw some dishes nearby, so they were getting fed. I inquired with the store, and learned that these two were left from a litter that had been taken to the shelter. No one was able to catch these two. The manager said she wanted them “gone”, and wasn’t going to allow feeding anymore.
At that point I decided I would bring food and water for these cats. Although they may have been handled a little as kittens, they acted like ferals, and ran from me. As I began to come every day, they came out when they heard my car. I put out the food and water, and sat nearby with a few treats. Little by little, they came closer, and I was able to touch one’s head. They were really beautiful cats, and not scruffy as you might imagine. One looked very Abyssinian and the other Siamese/Himalayan. I took their pictures, but it would be time consuming to locate them. (If I do, I’ll upload them.)
Winter was approaching, and I knew I couldn’t continue to feed them in light of the fact that the manager wanted them gone. I called FF, and they sent a volunteer feral feeder to trap them, and bring them in. It took awhile, and I was instructed to stop feeding so the cats would go in the cage to get food. After 2 weeks, they were with FF. I talked with the director, and she had found homes for both of them! One she took in herself. So that story had a happy ending, in my opinion.
Many kittens got adopted, but some, especially the black ones, grew up in the shelter. Some of those cats were the sweetest of all, and it seemed sad that they had to be in a cage for so long. A couple of times a year, the shelter would have a special on black cats, but never near Halloween, since that’s a time when black cats can be abused. Cats who had been in the shelter a year or so were exchanged for a cat from another shelter who’d also been in that shelter over a year. Not sure about the success of this, but I do know that it helped some cats get adopted who had languished in cells.
Some cats developed behavior problems, and if they were aggressively biting or scratching, they were euthanized. All kittens who were brought in before their eyes were open were euthanized since there was not enough time to devote to these babies. Other surrendered kittens were bottle fed by volunteers who fostered and socialized them before returning them to the shelter.
The kittens involved the most work, as any babies require a lot of attention. They ran and jumped and scratched us with their little sharp claws. I made it a point to clip their nails when they were out of the cages for cuddling time. Mostly we used the bathrooms as their “rooms” out of the cages. I knew that ingesting clumping litter caused death for kittens, and even though we had signs not to put that litter in their boxes, many people ignored the signs, and kittens died.
We had many teen volunteers, and most were not skilled at following instructions and many didn’t know how to sweep or mop. I don’t think they realized the amount of work involved in a shelter, so they took shortcuts. Some would mop the floor after not sweeping well, which resulted in stray litter “clumping” on the floor. Many would place the food and water near the litter box, so litter got into the food and water. I continued to tell them, but most didn’t seem to care.
A major problem was the laundry area, which was about the size of a bathroom. We had to wash bedding every day, so it piled up and spilled out of the room. We were supposed to shake it out to get rid of litter, fur, vomit, etc. but it mostly wasn’t done. The 2 machines weren’t industrial, but just like my machine at home. So, we had frequent break downs, with volunteers taking laundry home. With the money the shelter made, they should have invested in commercial machines. Those machines ran every day, all day.
The cat section of the building was on one side; the dog section on the other. There was a nice size yard for the dogs to play in, and some dog trainers volunteered. Each dog was walked every day, and given play time. Cages were hosed daily.
My major complaint was that not enough was done to re-unite pets with owners. People would fill out a “lost” report, and it would be filed in a binder. I think people assumed that if their animal was found, they would be notified. Mostly, this wasn’t a priority for the shelter, considering all that had to be done, just to keep it running. Ideally, pictures would be taken of each animal brought in, and they could be viewed online, but again, taking pictures wasn’t part of the routine. Some animals were listed on the website, but not all…again, the time factor.
What people didn’t realize is that they need to “visit” the shelter every few days to see if their pet had been brought in, or at the very least to call. Many people didn’t even have pictures to put on the lost form, so you can imagine the difficulty with this. Some people made very nice flyers with large pictures of their animals, and these were put on the bulletin board.
Two situations stand out that I remember about pets being re-united. One was through my direct effort from home. A volunteer arrived for work while I was on duty, and I noticed a conure on her shoulder. She said that the bird had landed there just as she got out of her car, and was giving her “kisses”. I immediately went to the binder with “lost” reports. There was none for a bird. They put the bird in a cage.
I went home and immediately began searching on CraigsList under Lost and Found. I saw a post for a lost conure in my neighborhood. I called, and described the bird that had come to the shelter. The owner was excited since she said it sounded just like hers, who was very fond of giving “kisses”, but she would caution her little girl not to get her hopes up. I wasn’t there when they came to the shelter, and discovered that this indeed was their bird. I felt so happy that I had taken a few minutes to search online, and the difference it made for this family.
Another unbelievable situation happened there, but I only heard about it the next day. A woman who lived in another town 10 miles away had lost a young cat (under a year) 15 years before, and was in the shelter front office. (not sure why). Someone brought a cat in for surrender (not sure why) at the very same time. The woman who’d lost the cat recognized this cat as hers, and the cat seemed to respond as if she knew the woman. Quite a remarkable story with another happy ending.
I always thought that more could be done to re-unite pets, especially online. I was continually thinking of how this could be done, and even how the paper reports could be improved so that the real priority items would be first. But I realized that even if I was to devise a better system, this would need to be implemented by volunteer staff, and there aren’t enough of them. This is also not a designated duty, like others.
I had some confrontations with the director, since I can be outspoken when I see things that could be improved. She didn’t appreciate my comments, and may have felt that I was blaming her although I really wasn’t. Most volunteers are like “worker bees”, moving quickly, getting the job done. I do that also, but I see things that many others don’t. I believe that small improvements can make a big difference in results. I’m a natural problem solver, and it’s hard for me to look the other way.
After two years of working 4 hours twice a week, I decided it was time to move on. Many long time volunteers didn’t want me to quit because I was dependable and willing to go the extra mile when necessary. It was a hard decision, but I knew the limits of my value to the shelter. I was tired of seeing some things done so ineffectively, even though this is a pretty good shelter, compared to most.