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.


Pets are a Privilege

March 25, 2012 Leave a comment

Juvenile hounds scramble for rare attention from their small pen.

Chile the pit bull is a year old this month. She has spent the last eight months of her life tied up in a backyard. Her life exists within a four-foot radius of dirt, excrement, and flies. She has a piece of plywood leaned up against a wall that serves as her only protection from sun, wind, and rain. A shallow plastic dish used to contain water but now just contains caked layers of dried mud. Chile gets excited when people come to visit her, which isn’t often, and tries to jump on them, craving contact and attention.

Chile’s owner is an overworked, underpaid single mother. When asked why her dog is living in such deplorable conditions, she sighs. The kids wanted a dog so she gave in. But they won’t take care of the dog now and she doesn’t have time. She can’t afford food for the dog, so it eats random table scraps that the kids toss out to it. But the family really loves the dog, so they don’t want to give it up. Kids ranging from thirteen to three years old cry at the thought of giving up beloved Chile.


For all those parents who assign their kids the job of caring for the family pet, wake up. Legally, morally, and financially, any pet in your household is your responsibility. Law enforcement will not cart your child off to jail for not feeding the dog. They will take you instead.

Pets can teach kids a lot. Responsibility, compassion, patience…the list goes on and on. Growing up with pets can build lifelong bonds with animals and family members and help mold kids into valuable members of society. But kids usually don’t learn these lessons on their own. It’s up to parents to remind them, guide them, and enforce the rules. Sometimes the lessons are tough to learn, traumatic even.

Surrounded by Chile’s family of crying kids and an exhausted parent, I remind them that sometimes, doing the right thing for a pet means giving her up. Living things can’t survive on love alone; they require food, water, and medical attention too. When families aren’t in a position to take care of the tangible aspects of life, then they need to make the tough decisions, for the sake of the pet. Forcing an animal to remain in miserable conditions for the sake of love isn’t fair, and it isn’t legal.

Humans seem to have a habit of missing things that are right in front of them. So pet owners, I ask you to see your situation with fresh eyes. If you find yourself in a position where you have to choose between food for the kids, or food for the pet, consider your options and find an outlet for your pet. If friends or family are unable to take on another mouth to feed, then seek out your local animal shelter.

No, Chile’s family won’t be able to keep track of her once they surrender her. No, the new adopter will not send them updates and holiday cards with pictures of Chile. But the family will be able to rest knowing that the shelter will do everything in its power to find an appropriate home for Chile. In her new home, Chile will receive proper nutrition, exercise, and medical attention. And of course, she will receive love.

The Ones We Don’t Forget

March 15, 2012 1 comment

You see me referring to “Fluffy” or “Fido” a lot here. That’s because we hardly ever get to learn the actual names of our patients. For the nameless thousands who haunt our dreams, their stories never leave our memories or our hearts.

1a.m. is a bad time to be hit by a car. I picked up a female white and tan pit bull with a severe femur fracture. The driver who hit her was long gone. She had soft, kind eyes. Despite her pain, she tried to wag her tail when she saw me. Her leg swelled and bruised at the fracture site as I watched, giving a hint of severe internal bleeding. I knew there was no doctor on duty to administer pain medication or treatment. My options were crushing: put her in a kennel to suffer with pain and possibly bleed to death until a doctor arrived in the morning; or euthanize this sweet dog to prevent her from having to suffer more. I sobbed at the thought of either.

Her condition continued to deteriorate en route and by the time I reached my shelter, she was very pale and depressed. I sat on the floor facing her, her front paw resting in my lap and her head on my knee. I knew she wouldn’t make it through the night. I injected euthanasia solution into her vein. Neither one of us moved after it was done. Her suffering was over. But my heart still ached for not being able to save her.

We may not be able to save them all. But we don’t forget them.

Arizona, the Land of Cats. Part 2: The Bystander

March 11, 2012 Leave a comment

You’re awakened every night for a week by yowling cats performing acts in your front yard from which you have to cover your toddler’s eyes. Despite the fact that you don’t own a cat, your yard has become a litter box. There are streaks of tomcat urine on your front door. And your car has little footprints and claw scratches on the hood. Is the neighborhood going to hell? Well, no. But your neighbor is feeding a colony of feral cats.

If you don’t like the cats around…

You’re not alone. Most of the neighborhood feels the way you do. And there are a few things you can do. But be aware that as long as someone in the neighborhood feeds the cats, you’ll never be completely rid of them.

Manage your property. Keep your property free of clutter. If the cats don’t find any place to hide on your property, they’re less likely to hang out there. To prevent the cats from using your yard as a litter box, experiment with different products. There are lots of cat-repellant products out there. Sprays are designed to smell bad to cats, discouraging them to come around. Garden spikes are small clear plastic spikes that you can cover your garden with to prevent cats from walking there. There are other tricks out there, so do your research and be prepared to put in some time. Some work for some cats but not others. You may have to try a few to find the right combination.

You’re allowed to humanely trap cats on your own property and remove them. But here’s the rub. No shelter will accept feral cats for free. Just as they’re a burden to your neighborhood, they’re a burden to the shelters, so shelters have started asking for funds to help with that burden. So call your local shelter before you start trapping to find out what the fees are. They may be too high for you to decide to trap all the cats and you may just decide to focus on a particularly troublesome kitty. You cannot take the cats out into the desert to release them. If you plan to release them anywhere other than to a shelter, you must release them into an environment to which they’re familiar. Basically, this means taking them to someone else’s neighborhood. While it solves your problem, it creates one for that neighborhood, which isn’t fair to them.

You cannot poison, shoot, or otherwise cause any harm to the cats. Squirting them with a hose on a warm summer day is okay. Drowning them is not.

Contact your city councilman. Or your congressman. Or the mayor’s office. The people who make the laws need to know that feral cats are a problem. Use your voice to make them aware of the problem. Ask for laws regulating the movement of cats. Maybe we need laws requiring that cats be licensed and neutered. Maybe we need laws that require cats to be indoor only, or contained to the owner’s property, like dogs. Government agencies are not likely to devote any funding to cats if they don’t have to. The only way to get them to respond to the cat problem is to pass laws that require them to respond.

No matter which side of the argument you find yourself on, remember that the other side exists. The cats are stuck in the middle of the human debate. So keep an open dialog going with your neighbors. Come together to develop a solution that works for everyone.

Arizona, the Land of Cats. Part 1: The Player

March 11, 2012 Leave a comment

In a state where cats are unregulated (meaning cats don’t have to be licensed, altered, or contained by their owners) cats have taken over many neighborhoods, leaving residents frustrated and angry. At least once every day, we respond to an ambulance call for a sick cat.

When we arrive, we find a feral cat suffering from severe upper respiratory symptoms. These include thick eye and nose discharge to the point where the cat can’t see or smell. This lack of sight and smell has led to a loss of appetite so the cat has lost weight and is severely dehydrated. Upper respiratory infections (URI) are extremely contagious to other cats, so there’s usually a significant portion of a colony that’s all sick at the same time. URI are like head colds in an elementary school. With a high concentration of bodies sharing a small space, disease spreads. And while URI is easily treatable when caught early in cats that can be handled, in feral populations it can be devastating.

The person who has called us to get the sick cat is on one or the other side of the argument. He is either the person in the neighborhood feeding the cats, thus encouraging them to stay around and new cats to arrive, or he is the grumpy neighbor of the person feeding the cats, and does not want any of the cats to stay around. Either way, as we pick up the sick cat (with a net, because even though these cats are sick, they still try to bolt and then bite) we explain the person’s options to him, which are limited.

If you feel the need to feed your neighborhood cats…

Realize the enormity of the task you’re about to take on. Like adopting any other animal, you’re making a commitment for that animal’s lifetime. There’s no such thing as feeding a single cat outside for a couple weeks and then stopping. That single cat will realize the good fortune he’s found, and he won’t leave. He’ll also call his friends, and they’ll come over for food like a pack of teenage boys. Other cats will sniff out the easy meal and they’ll arrive too. Before you know it, you’ve got a frat party of cats in your backyard, complete with fighting, sex, and poop on the patio.

Take early steps to prevent pregnancy. If you want to take care of the cats, get them fixed. Trap, Neuter, Return (TNR) is a popular and common program available to trap feral cats, have them spayed or neutered, and return them to your property with a promise from you that you’ll care for the colony. There are a couple benefits of this. Obviously, keeping your numbers down is one. Another benefit is that the decreased levels of testosterone in male cats mean less fighting and territorial spraying on their part.

If you see illness or injury among your colony, address it. Trap the sick cats and either treat them or have them euthanized. Allowing diseases to spread amongst your colony is dangerous and unfair to those cats. It encourages predators to come in, because slow cats are easy targets for a snack. It also adds danger to your neighbor’s cats that go outside once in a while. And you don’t want to anger your neighbors.

Recognize that you’re neighbors may not love cats as much as you do. Take steps to minimize the impact that the cats make on their property. Put litter boxes on your own property to help keep cats from using your neighbor’s yard. Keep food and water dishes clean to prevent insects from invading. And be open to hearing your neighbors’ complaints. Courtesy begets courtesy. They’ll be much more likely to work with you if they know you’re sympathetic to their issues.

See Arizona: the Land of Cats Part 2, the Bystander

Categories: Pets Tags: , , ,

Desert Hiking for Dogs

March 9, 2012 Leave a comment

While the rest of the country is still in the grips of winter, southern Arizona is quickly rushing through spring in a hurry to get to summer. This is the perfect time of year to be out hiking our many trails. In fact, our county’s mountain rescue team has been running nonstop for a week, rescuing people who, in their haste to enjoy the outdoors, end up victims of the outdoors, with injuries and illnesses born of too much enthusiasm and too little planning. So in the spirit of keeping all hikers safe, here are a few tips to keep your dog safe on the trails this spring.

Tip 1. Leash

You need to keep your dog on a leash at all times when on the trail. This not only protects your dog, but it protects other hikers, cyclists, and horsemen on the trail. Do not count on your dog being friendly and therefore being fine to greet every other creature on the trail. Many dogs are not friendly (which is why their owners have them on a leash). Many snakes are not friendly. And no cactus is friendly. Keeping your dog on a leash ensures that you’re aware of everything your dog may encounter.

Tip 2. Identification

Microchips are fantastic and I can’t sing their praises enough. But a good old fashioned ID tag will get your dog home much faster in case you happen to lose him. (This is much less likely to happen if you follow Tip 1.) People can see and read a tag and therefore call you immediately. Bonus: multiple tags rattle together and make noise. While this is super annoying at three o’clock in the morning at home, that noise may help you track down Fido in the desert, and may make wildlife nervous enough to stay away from Fido.

Tip 3. Water

In the desert, this is a life and death matter, for people and pets. Make sure you bring enough water for all of you. The recommended rate of water consumption for people in the desert is 8 ounces for every 15 minutes of activity. Plan on the same rate for your dog. Dogs may not actually consume that rate, but you need to take into account how much they’ll spill in the drinking process. Keep in mind too, that dogs don’t sweat, so it’s not difficult for them to overheat. Keeping their heads, ears, and bellies wet can help bring their temperatures down if they get too hot.

Tip 4. First aid

This can be region specific, so check with your local experts for the nuances of the area. Southern Arizona is a land of cactus and sharp rocks.

  • Make sure your first aid kit includes tweezers or hemostats to pluck out large cactus spines if your dog gets stuck. Duct tape or medical tape works well to remove the pesky tiny spines that no one can see but that are nevertheless painful.

    My dog's feet protected by booties, held in place with duct tape.

  • Duct tape is also convenient for making temporary booties for your dog. A nonstick bandage placed against your dog’s pad, rolled bandage material covering that and wrapping from the toes up the leg, and duct tape to finish tracing the rolled bandage can make a torn, burnt, or bruised pad comfortable long enough to get off the trail and to the vet. (Make sure that the duct tape has minimal contact with the fur to minimize the pain of removing the tape later. Only the top ¼ inch of the duct tape should actually stick to your dog’s leg.) Make sure to remove any temporary bandage booties as soon as you’re back at the trail head.

Tip 5. Common Sense

Use your head. Your dog’s is in overload so he won’t tell you when he’s had enough.

  • If you’re on the first hike of the season, remember that your dog has been laying around the house all winter. He’s not in shape yet. Pick a trail that’s appropriate for your fitness level and his. Gradually work up to longer or more difficult hikes as you both progress.
  • Know where you are. Take note of the trail name or number on which you’re hiking, and know approximately how far you’ve traveled or for how long you’ve been traveling.

Tip 6. Call 911

If you find yourself or your dog in an emergency situation that you can’t resolve, call 911. Emergencies include severe injuries or heat- or cold-related illnesses. They do not include you being tired and not wanting to hike anymore. If you can tell the 911 dispatchers where you are, then they can get the appropriate resources to you to help.

For more tips on staying safe in the great outdoors, see the Twelve Essentials at

Categories: Pets Tags: ,

Fools in Love

March 8, 2012 Leave a comment

I recently had the chance to view an animal welfare worker from the outside. A woman kneeling on the sidewalk, hand outstretched, making kissy faces that I assume were accompanied by baby talk at a small terrier. The terrier appeared to regard her in a friendly manner, sitting up, facing her attentively, and wagging its tail. Someone who hasn’t spent their career chasing animals might wonder why the woman just didn’t walk up to the dog and scoop it up. Why on earth was she wasting time creeping ever so slowly in its direction?

I have been bested by many a “friendly” dog, cat, pigeon, sheep, and chicken.  And I have learned a few things.

One. If a person says the animal can’t run, that animal is guaranteed to bolt over the fence as soon as I approach. Broken leg, two broken legs, broken pelvis…it doesn’t matter. Adrenaline is the friend of mobility and even with a broken leg, a cat still has more working legs than I do. Until I get bitten by the magic spider that got Peter Parker and gave him super powers, I will not catch these guys.

Two. An animal can evade a person for over an hour within the relatively small space of a backyard. Take away the fencing and put that animal on the open sidewalk and you’ve got a marathon ahead of you. (I have chased a pigeon that couldn’t fly for twenty minutes. From above, it looked like a game of Frogger as I waddled behind him.)

Three. A cat can evade a person indefinitely by simply sitting under a car. Especially a car with low ground clearance. The ultimate chess move on her part, she only has to take a few calm steps in any direction to remain permanently out of reach.

Four. The reflexes of a cat are also shared by birds, rodents, and small dogs. Just when you think you’ve got them cornered, they pull a ninja move, pull your shirt over your head as they fly over and make their way back down the sidewalk. (See point Two.)

Five. We may never know why the chicken crossed the road, but I wish the dog would follow. Dogs that trot through busy traffic will not, for all the biscuits in the land, get out of traffic. Nor will they ever be caught. I can stop traffic, recruit helpers, and narrowly miss being hit by cars myself, and that happy dog will still trot down between the lanes, weaving in and out and never making it safely into a quiet neighborhood where I know he’ll be safer.

Six. Small dogs love to tease you. They’ll approach you, sniff you, accept treats from you. But as soon as you lift a finger to put a leash on them, they skitter off and you’re back to square one.

So as I passed the woman sucking up to the terrier, I smiled. Every day our jobs are different. Every day we save the lives of the animals we love so much. And every day we look like fools at least once while we’re doing it.