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How I Failed as a Rescuer: Lessons from a Sanctuary

July 22, 2012 Leave a comment

How I Failed as a Rescuer: Lessons from a Sanctuary.

Check out this blog post for a very poignant commentary on what it means to “save” an animal.

Categories: Pets

Life with Winnie

July 6, 2012 1 comment

Winnie is my foster kitten. She’s quickly growing into my foster cat. She’s been with us for two months. My dog is intrigued by her. My cats disdain her. My boyfriend and I are probably getting a little too attached to her. She’s taking us all in like a giant gulp of water in a desert oasis.

I met Winnie when she was a nameless 3-month old kitten in a parking lot of a rundown apartment complex. A sweet soul in a scrawny body, she was malnourished, covered in grease from living under cars, and had a broken pelvis. The origin of the pelvis injury remains a mystery to this day.

Winnie’s prognosis in a shelter was guarded, at best. For an owned animal in a private vet clinic, it’s no big deal to order many months of convalescence without the promise of a good outcome. Owners are willing to give their pets the best chance possible, especially when the treatment consists of simply giving them time for their bodies to heal on their own.

But time is a luxury that shelters don’t have. Especially during the busy summer months. It’s hard enough to find a foster parent willing to take on medical cases. It’s even harder for a shelter to take up one of these rare foster homes for several months on one case. Why commit a home to one animal for the summer when multiple easier cases could come and go through that home in the same time frame? It’s the sacrifice one to save many theory, and it’s a concept that shelters unfortunately have to fall back on regularly.

Because of these factors, Winnie would not normally have had much of a chance. But something in her caught my heart, and I volunteered to foster this unlikely foster candidate. I knew the risk: after months of foster care, her pelvis still wouldn’t heal properly and we’d have to euthanize her. But she deserved a chance. And I didn’t like the thought of what denying her that chance would say about me.

Two months have gone by. Winnie has turned into a sleek, active, playful cat who capers around the house causing joyful havoc at every turn. Her severe limp has become a slight limp. She’s put on muscle in her back legs to even out the incredible hulk muscles in her chest that she used to support her weight when her back end couldn’t. Her meow still sounds a little froggy, a little abrasive. It’s a meow that says, “I came from the streets.” And when she looks out the window and watches the birds fly by, I wonder if she remembers her street life. But as she turns to look into my eyes before skittering off in pursuit of a toy in the next room, I’m convinced that she doesn’t miss the street life.

So many pets like Winnie exist—loving creatures who just need a little extra help. Giving that help doesn’t take a giant effort. But it’s easy enough to turn away and not offer, then quickly forget. My life would have gone on as usual had I not brought Winnie home. But hers wouldn’t have.

Life without Winnie would have been fine. But life with Winnie is better.

Categories: Pets Tags: , , ,

Curiosity and Construction

A row of nails point fiercely at my eye as I peer down a darkened wall to a narrow space below. I’m wedged between a dusty shelf full of rusty hedge clippers and random pieces of plywood. If it were nearer to Halloween I’d suspect I was in a makeshift haunted house. If I were in Hollywood I’d suspect I was on the scene of the next Hostel movie. But neither of those is true. It’s springtime, and I’m in someone’s plain old shed in plain old Phoenix. And at the bottom of the crack into which I stare are two young kittens, trapped after falling down a few days ago. As long as I remember to stay on my tip toes, I manage to keep my eye just above the nails thrusting through the wall and threatening tetanus. And so, handicapped by space issues created by unthinking humans, I begin the task of rescuing animals from another human mess.

I am not an architect, engineer, professional organizer, or landscaper. But I have learned a little about those professions over the years of rescuing animals.

I have learned that attics are not segregated rooms above our ceilings. Rather they’re a continuation of the spaces between walls. And they’re not often sealed from the outside. To an outdoor cat, attics look like an ideal place to give birth to a litter of kittens. They’re quiet. They’re protected. They’re filled with fluffy insulation that makes a fantastic bed. But cats aren’t blessed with the concept of forethought. Attics make great nurseries until the kittens are old enough to start toddering around on unsteady legs. With heads equal in weight to the rest of their bodies and a line of site that doesn’t extend over the top of the insulation, newly walking kittens walk themselves right off the support beams and plunge down inside the walls of the house, unable to climb back out.

Chimneys, storm drains, irrigation tunnels. These are all similar versions of the same story. Fantastic hiding places for cats until… One wrong step as a cat excitedly chases a bug/bird/lizard and loses track of the gaping hole beneath them, and voilá, they’re stuck.

Dogs aren’t much better. Though less likely to pick a hiding spot due to safety reasons, dogs often let their curiosity get the better of them. In an attempt to see what’s happening on the other side of the block wall, dogs jam their heads through the tiny openings in the drainage block at the base of the fence, and then can’t get back out. Caught early enough, this is a fairly easy situation to correct, involving the strategic scrunching of skin and ears to slide them back through. But left for long and heads and necks begin to swell, and I have to chisel the dog out of the fence.

Like so many of the problems I face every day, these rescue scenarios are so easily avoidable. Chicken wire. Yep, simple chicken wire will prevent you from wondering if you’re losing your mind when you hear an animal crying from inside your walls or chimney. Chicken wire over the top of your chimney and over the access points to your attic. Chicken wire over your drainage blocks. No airflow is prevented or light diminished. But this simple pattern of honeycombed wire is just the right size and strength to keep animals out of places they’d rather not be.

Any time I move into a new home, I search the property for potential animal traps. And I do everything I can to fix those and prevent causing new ones. The last thing I want to discover is a cat/dog/bird/other in a place it doesn’t belong. Because I’d have no one to call for help but myself.

Categories: Pets Tags: ,

Cat’s Don’t Cry; They Give You the Finger

April 21, 2012 Leave a comment

Photo by Thepriest at nl

A disclaimer: I love cats. I think they’re the coolest species on the planet and I admire their independence. Consider any negatives mentioned here to be the equivalent of someone complaining about their own family: I alone am allowed to complain about my family. Other people are not allowed to complain about my family. And just because I do it, it doesn’t mean that I don’t love them. That said…

My neck is killing me. In the past two days I’ve spent over five hours looking straight up. Why? Because a cat named Indi*has spent the last five days stuck in a tree. Night after night he has kept the neighborhood awake with his pleading meows. And after several hours and all the equipment I could muster (including the local fire department), he is still stuck. Indi is not cooperating.

This is ultimately the nature of the cat. When it’s crunch time, cats have a tendency to look out for number one. Survival instincts kick in, and for a species that is still despised by so many humans, survival means keeping some distance from people.

What that means for Indi is that even though he desperately wants to be out of that tree, he’s not willing to work with me to make that happen. A ladder against the tree spooks him to go higher up. A long pole in the tree spooks him to go higher up. A human climbing the tree spooks him to go higher up. A can of tuna fish being opened at the base of the tree makes him look down and lick his lips. And then he goes higher up.

Indi’s response to climb isn’t as dumb as it sounds. He’s anatomically built to go up and not down. The curvature of his claws makes upwards movement a piece of cake. But it makes the downclimb impossible. (Imagine trying to go face first down a telephone pole with prosthetic hooks for hands.) Could he turn around and go backwards down the tree? Yes. But he doesn’t know that. And any animal used to being prey isn’t about to walk backwards into anything.

Being treed isn’t the only situation in which cats need help but don’t want it. I take a net with me to every cat call I respond to. A threatened cat is a dangerous cat. And if a cat can’t run away, he feels threatened. This therefore, applies to every cat I meet, since my job is to respond to sick, injured, or trapped cats. They are the masters of, “I don’t feel good so leave me alone.” Since I can’t morally leave them alone to wallow in their given woes, I have to scoop them into a net to avoid being shredded like confetti by their teeth and claws.

I don’t begrudge cats their attitudes. In fact, I find it generally endearing. I like their ingrained sense of stranger-danger. I like the fact that I have to practice patience and subtly in order to help them. I like the fact that I have no influence in their timeline. To cats, I surrender. I let go of my notions of time, space, noise, light.

But I try to block off their escape routes first.

As Indi stares down at me from sixty feet above, I try to remember all of this. But it’s tough. As the daily temperatures increase, my patience decreases. Come on, Indi, I think. Help a girl out. In response to my thoughts, he goes higher.

*name changed to protect the innocent

Categories: Pets Tags: , ,

Islands of Misfit Pets

April 15, 2012 2 comments

This smile is anything but mean, but takes some getting used to.

At least three times a week I get asked, “So how many pets do you have?” It’s a common sense question considering what I do for a living, and it usually comes on the tail end of a call at which I’ve fallen in love yet again with something fluffy and four-legged. The short answer to this is, I have two cats and a dog. This is my answer that makes me look sane.

The longer answer is that I would have many more pets, if my current ones allowed it. One of my cats is, well, intolerant of other animals. Another has litter box issues. My dog aggresses other dogs when she’s on a leash and has no concept of personal space, which gets her into more trouble than she really ever plans for. (Think of your little brother holding his hand in front of your face and repeating, “I’m not touching you. I’m not touching you. I’m not touching you.”) She also has crazy whale eyes and growls when she wants attention. It’s enough to give even the most dog-savvy people the creeps until they get used to her.

The truth of the matter is that most people who work in the animal welfare industry have pets with issues. We’re like an archipelago of islands of misfit pets. Dotted throughout the ocean of normal pet owners are our safe havens for the behaviorally or physically imperfect.

It’s no coincidence that we’ve made homes for these special-needs guys. Our immersion in the worlds of animal behavior and animal medicine has made us ideal candidates to deal with the issues that these guys bring. We get so used to recognizing and handling unusual situations that we get pretty good at it. So naturally, we end up taking home the dog that escapes every conceivable fence or the cat that lives underneath the bed, emerging only to deposit a hairball in the hallway. Our tolerance levels for these types of behaviors are higher than Steven Tyler’s for alcohol.

Petsitting for us can be an ordeal. Cat A needs her medication that she will spit out seven times. Dog B needs to go outside but only into yard X with the special fencing. Dog C needs to eat, but not anywhere near Cat D that also needs to eat, but is on a special diet. Emergency phone numbers posted on the refrigerators include three different vets and poison control. So as I petsit my coworker’s pit bull that smiles to reveal pearly white canines, I laugh instead of running in fear. Her lip-curling, teeth-baring face is in stark contrast to her wagging body, and I know she’s not showing me any sign of aggression.We rely on each other to watch the pets when we leave town. Asking the neighbor to take on the job would just be mean.

Anyone who owns a special-needs pet learns to look past all the headaches and inconveniences that these guys bring. We adapt to their shortcomings to make life work, and it doesn’t take long before we don’t see them as problem-children. We see their affection, their love of play, their curious nature. We see them. And they see us–with their one good eye.

Categories: Pets Tags:

The Downside to Declawing

April 9, 2012 Leave a comment

Despite the fact that many private-practice veterinarians will tell owners that declawing their cats will have no ill effects, shelter workers around the world have a different take. In our experience, cats who have been declawed have some pretty significant behavioral and emotional hurdles to jump over, and some of them just can’t make the jump. Those are the ones that we see in the shelters. And here’s why we see them.

They bit someone.

A cat’s usual line of defensive tactics goes something like this:

      1. Hiss.
      2. Swipe with the claws.
      3. Bite.

Take away their option to use step 2 and they’ll use step 3 instead. They bit someone because they were scared, threatened, or angry, and they didn’t have claws to help express those emotions. So they had to resort to using their teeth to get their point across.

They won’t use the litter box.

After having their claws (and first knuckle) removed, their feet were tender. Walking into a litter box filled with regular clay litter hurt. (Would you feel happy if your toes were just amputated and someone made you walk barefoot on a pebbly beach?) So they started associating the litter box with pain. Their solution: don’t walk in the litter box and they won’t be in pain.

In a shelter environment, cats are stressed to the maximum level, so these bad behaviors are likely to increase. Sometimes they even surface for the first time while at a shelter. I’ve seen cats do fantastic in their own homes after being declawed. In a comfortable and safe environment these guys can act just like any other cat. They’re loving and playful and a huge part of their families. But owners need to be aware of potential problems with this surgery, especially in a stressful situation. Often in shelters, these cats act out so much that it’s not safe to put them up for adoption. Which means that they have to be euthanized. It’s a horrible decision to make, but most shelters don’t have an environment within their facilities that allows cats to destress enough to change their aggressive behavior.

Options to declawing

For those owners who are fiercely protective of their furniture, you have options besides the drastic step of declawing your cat.

  • Give your cat something else to scratch on. Most cats love having a designated scratching post or two around the house. Experiment with different textures, angles, and lengths to find your cat’s favorite scratching surface.
  • Trim your cat’s claws. Yes, this involves a bit of labor on your part, but I’m talking very minimal work here. I trim my cats’ claws every one to two weeks, depending on how fast they grow. Now that they’re used to the procedure, it takes less than a minute per foot. Start slowly with a new cat to get them used to having their feet handled and in no time you can prevent those damaging daggers from getting ahead of you.
  • Deter your cat from being on furniture etc that you’ve deemed off-limits. There are motion-sensing devices that emit loud noise or that vibrate. There are sprays that smell bad to cats. There are a whole host of products specifically designed to help protect your furniture investment from being damaged and that won’t damage your cat.
Categories: Pets Tags: , , ,

How to Volunteer in a Crisis

April 1, 2012 Leave a comment

A scared dog finds comfort in the arms of a trained responder.

Last summer, Arizona blew up in a series of wildfires that had the entire state looking like it was covered in the smog normally isolated to the Phoenix area. This summer we’re facing dryer conditions and hotter temperatures. So it’s not if, it’s when we’ll get another round of fires. When we do, homes will be evacuated and bustling towns will turn to ghost towns. In neighboring towns, schools empty of students will become full of refugees. And not far from those shelters designated for humans will be temporary animal shelters as well.

When disasters strike, people rush to help. It’s one of the redeeming qualities of people. So naturally, temporary animal shelters are inundated not only with four-legged evacuees but with people wanting to help. But here’s the rub: We can’t let you help with the animals.

It’s nothing personal. It comes down to safety and responsibility. When we open a shelter and admit animals, we take on a legal and moral responsibility. To those owners who may have already lost too much, we are making a promise that we will take good care of their pet. We’re not only providing safe haven for their pets, we’re providing peace of mind for their hearts and minds.

It’s because of this enormous responsibility that we can’t accept offers from kind strangers to walk dogs or pet cats. Animals in temporary shelters are stressed to their max. With proper training, handling skills, and vigilance, we can manage that stress and eventually reduce it. But in the meantime we have to be prepared for animals that may want to bite, or bolt. And while off-the-street volunteers have the best of intentions, we just don’t have a way to properly assess their skills and strengths in order to trust them to handle the animals in our care. There are few things worse in this situation than having to call an owner and tell them that we’ve lost their beloved pet when it got away from its handler. And the only way we have to prevent that from happening is to restrict the animal handling to our staff members who have already proven their skills.

This isn’t to say that walk-up volunteers aren’t welcome or needed. There are plenty of jobs to do at a temporary shelter. They’re just not as glamorous. They include washing dishes and sweeping floors. Anyone willing to make frequent runs to the laundromat with bags and bags of dirty towels and blankets will win shelter workers’ undying devotion and gratitude.

For those people who really only want to help with the animal handling itself, there’s still a way for you to do it. Volunteer now. Become a familiar face at the regular animal shelter and hone your skills in advance. By showing the shelter management that you are a reliable and valuable asset before disaster strikes, you’re much more likely to be requested as a reliable and valuable asset during a disaster.

We’re so grateful for all of our volunteers. They truly make a difference in our lives and in our animals’ lives. But during disasters, it’s just not possible to devote our resources to training new volunteers. We have to focus on the animals in need and their human families.