Photo credit: Dianne Roland
Today I was leaving the shelter after my dog care shift, when I was stopped in the parking lot by a woman, standing by the open back door of a minivan. “Hi, do you work here?” she asked.
“I’m a volunteer,” I said.
“Do you believe in God?”
This was not a question I was expecting. “Yes,” I replied cautiously.
“I need to surrender my cat,” she said. “Here he is, look.” She lifted the grate of a cat carrier on the back seat to reveal a large white cat. He lay still, not reacting, only looking up at me with vivid blue eyes.
“He’s beautiful,” I said.
“Yes,” she said. “He’s a good cat. He never bites or scratches. He’s very affectionate. I just can’t give him what he needs. I went inside there — ” she motioned toward the Admissions entrance of the building — “and they told me I had to make an appointment for next week.”
I confirmed to her that this was our policy; in order to increase the likelihood that we’ll have space for incoming animals and not be forced to euthanize to alleviate overcrowding, we ask owners to set up appointments to relinquish their pets.
Then I asked, “Why do you need to surrender him?”
She said abruptly, “Come around to this side. I have to sit down.” I followed her to the passenger side of the van; she got into the front seat, reclined the back and put her feet up on the dashboard. I looked over at the driver, an older woman, who gave me a sly smile that seemed to invite me to share a certain skepticism about her companion.
I turned my attention back to the woman. She had a long face, and frizzy brown hair parted in the middle and braided into Raggedy Ann style pigtails incongruous for her age, which I guessed to be about forty. Her eyes darted from side to side, rarely meeting my gaze. “I have a lot of health problems,” she said. “If I stand too long the blood pools in my feet. Sometimes the cat will come sit on my lap – he’s very affectionate – but I have to push him off because his weight hurts me. Taking care of him, all that bending over and lifting, it’s too much for me.” She spoke in a rush, as if accustomed to people using any conversational pause to make an escape from her intense verbal barrage.
The driver spoke for the first time. “She also has two dogs.”
“If you can’t care for a cat, how do you take care of dogs?” I asked her. I’m not a cat expert, but I do know that, independent and self-reliant as they are, they generally require much less energy and attention than dogs.
“I just walk fast with the dogs and then the blood doesn’t pool in my feet,” she said. I didn’t press her for details.
She went on, “I’ve had this cat for eleven years.”
“She had another cat but she had to put him down recently,” the driver said.
I told the owner I was sorry. “He really misses his brother,” she said. “He wanders around the house looking for him. I thought that if I brought him here, the change of scene might be good for him, and he would have lots of companions.”
It was time for me to speak honestly. “You’ve had this cat for eleven years. He will very possibly be traumatized by being put into a shelter. We have about three hundred cats and kittens at present, and, while we take the best care of all of them that we can, he won’t get a lot of personal attention. He’ll most likely be kept alone in a small compartment. He may or may not get adopted. This cat is used to the quiet and comfort of a home. It will be very hard on him. And you say that he misses his brother – how will he feel if he loses you, too?”
Remembering her initial question about God, I said, “I think you should ask God to help release you from your guilt at feeling you’re not being a good enough caretaker. I think you should keep your cat and just do your best.”
The driver chimed in again. “She’s already been through all that,” she said, not clarifying what “all that” meant.
“If I do surrender him, would you keep an eye on him?” the younger woman asked me.
“I’m sorry, I’m not involved with the cats at all,” I said. “I only work with the dogs.”
“Will they put him to sleep?”
“We can’t guarantee that we won’t have to euthanize him, if he fails our behavioral assessment test or health check. Or if he doesn’t stay healthy in the shelter, which is possible. As I said, it would be a very stressful adjustment for him.”
A car pulled into the spot next to us, and a man and little girl got out. “Oh, Daddy, look at the kitty,” the child cried.
“Can we see your cat?” the man asked.
The woman vaulted out of her seat and turned the force of her attention to the newcomers, beginning to regale them with her saga. I chose this moment to bid her good bye and good luck. I heard the man saying, “Well, we’re really not sure we want to take a cat home today, we just came to look.”
I was glad that I spoke to the woman honestly about the realities of an animal shelter – though I’m not sure she had the mental focus to absorb what I said. I regret that it didn’t occur to me until later to suggest that she get another cat, to keep her present one company and relieve herself of the burden of being his sole source of affection. As for the difficulty of “all that bending over and lifting,” it did seem that, if she could walk two dogs at a fast pace, she should be capable of scooping and changing litter and putting down food and water.
I’m always saddened to see senior pets come into the shelter. They often seem depressed and confused by the noise and restriction of their surroundings, after having lived for years in a home. They miss their people, too. Sometimes it’s inevitable; their owner has died, or has had to go into a hospital or nursing home, or has grave life problems that prevent them from being able to care for another living being.
All too often, though, people simply tire of their pet, or don’t want to deal with the difficulties that can accompany advancing age. And so a faithful friend gets cast off.
But if animal shelter work is teaching me anything, it’s to try not to be judgmental. And so I hope that a source of wisdom and kindness greater than my own will guide the woman to make the best decision for herself and her longtime animal companion.