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From My Window

Issue Date: April 1, 2020

A Story of Hope

By Jane Thibodeau Martin,

I had a different column written and then, over the weekend, I paused. What I enjoy, and actually crave, is a little good news, a break from the crisis which rightly consumes most of our headspace and heartspace. So I put the column I had written aside and I am going to share something that gave me hope and joy this week.

I volunteer at a small animal shelter. We are not an "essential business" so we are closed, but the animals we had taken in still need food, medicine, cleaning and walks. So one, or at the most two of us at a time, are popping in and out to take care of essential needs. Quite a few of our regular volunteers, concerned for their health, are taking a "pause on paws" for now. So I am going more frequently, although staying a shorter time each visit since we aren't open to the public. I'm no hero, the animals are a much-needed stress reliever for me. Sanitizing kennels, litter boxes, food and water dishes and washing bedding and towels is pretty low risk. There are no social distancing restrictions on cats and dogs, so I can pet, hug and scratch to my heart's desire. Walking dogs in the isolated area of the shelter location is safe and relaxing.

We had miracles the last two weeks before we closed to the public. Two of our long-time "challenging" residents, and another who had been here about three months with the "senior on medication" strike against him, were lifted from our care into loving homes.

"Blackie"* the cat was 15 when he came to us. He was surrendered with his younger female housemate when their frail owner could no longer live at home. Blackie was friendly and reasonably healthy for such an aged cat. Maybe he was a little thin, his coat was a little rough looking, but he would cry for attention and head-butt us for pets. He did require a twice a day medication, and these factors meant it was going to be nearly impossible to interest adopters in him among the younger, healthier cats.

Just before we closed to the public a young woman came in and told me "I'm here to visit Blackie. I saw him on the website." I was astonished. "Sure, I'll go get him," I said. "We all just love him. You know he's 15?" I said that because I hate returning a pet to its kennel quickly when the "shopper" realizes the pet is "special" and immediately loses interest. I swear the animals know they've been rejected, and I just wanted to make sure she realized how old he was.

She said, "I know. I just lost my own cat at about the same age, and he looks exactly like my cat. I want him to be in a home. The minute I saw his description I knew I had to take him." I simply couldn't believe what I was hearing, but she was as good as her word. She took the necessary paperwork to adopt and two days later Blackie was in a home with a person who is a saint and a nurse, with experience in nurturing senior cats. Nothing less than an angel, turning her painful loss into a lottery win for volunteer favorite Blackie.

"Anna"* was a rabbit, but not just any rabbit. She was by far the biggest rabbit I've ever seen. She dwarfed many of our little dogs, and shared a cat exercise room with one of our long-term feline residents daily while their kennels were cleaned. There was no concern about the cat harming Anna. She was more than able to defend herself, in fact most dogs would probably avoid her, and quite a few volunteers asked someone else to do her routine care. Did you know rabbits can growl? They can. They can also kick like mules. We have had Rottweilers; German shepherds and a mastiff that weighed in at 140 pounds. More volunteers were afraid of Anna than they were of those big dogs " that remarkable fact tells you all you need to know about Anna.

Anna was with us for well over a year when a young woman came in planning to adopt a different one of our three rabbits, which she had met at the local PetsMart adoption event. She loved rabbits, and planned to adopt "Gus"* as her celebration of finishing a difficult course of college study. While she was visiting, she noticed Anna. And Anna seemed to sense, somehow, that this "rabbit woman" truly understood her and was on her best behavior. An experienced volunteer put Gus and Anna in a room to see if they would get along in a home together and we volunteers were shocked to hear it was all peace and no war. So Anna and Gus went home, and some of the volunteers were very sad to see Anna leave. (This is a lovingly sarcastic comment.)

Finally, Helen* the cat found her forever home. Helen was notoriously difficult. She did not like being touched if she didn't know and trust you; and it took many months of getting acquainted before she accepted about one in five of the cat volunteers, all of whom are gifted cat wranglers. Only one of our volunteers, our very best cat lady, could carry her around. Helen was not only prickly, she was also a senior cat. Helen was at the shelter well before I started volunteering there, so at least a year and a half, probably much longer.

I consider myself a skilled cat person. After a year of concerted and patient efforts, I could brush Helen, but I could not pet or even touch her without the brush. She would allow me to reach in to her cat condo to feed her and clean; but many other volunteers who tried to do so were greeted with a hiss and a swat. I thought Helen would be one of those few animals for whom there is no future home, but instead will live out their lives cared for with love in our no-kill shelter. Few people will give a cat a chance when merely looking at her through her condo glass elicits a hiss.

In walks a couple of ladies who live halfway across the state. They were looking specifically for a rescue cat who had been declawed, and we had three of them to choose from. They decided to give Helen a shot. We always ask new adopters to stay in touch with us, and the first night at their home did not go well. We volunteers were pessimistic. We cleaned out Helen's cat condo, but no new resident was put in the prime housing with morning sunshine and a bird feeder view for ten days. "Bad karma," to make that permanent change, because we expected Helen would be returned.

Then came the pictures. In them, she's lying on her new person's lap. She's playing in her water dish. She's adjusting. They're all family. As one volunteer put it, "I am so happy for her, and I am glad she gave me that sweet last goodbye swat the day before she left." This comment was NOT sarcastic, it was loving. After that, "Ms. Cat"* the younger cat who came in with Blackie, got Helen's vacated prime cat condo.

There are two lessons here. If you consider adopting from a shelter (please do!) understand some sensitive animals can't adjust to the shelter environment with the constant caregiver changes, other animal's smells and sounds, and institutional atmosphere. They may be frightened, defensive or shut down. That doesn't mean that moved to a stable home with consistent love and care, they could not be wonderful pets. People have proved it is possible. The other lesson is we are surrounded by kind, accepting and patient people willing to take the bruised, elderly and broken and salvage them. That applies to our shelter animals, and also to those who do the same to for the harder-to-love fellow humans. God bless them.

*All of the animal names were changed to protect the privacy of the people who surrendered the animals.

Every day that passes brings us closer to a return to something more normal. Patience. Your willingness to stay home may save a life " someone I love, maybe; a person you will never know who stays home may be saving someone you love.

You can reach me for commentary, alternative viewpoints or ideas at this e-mail address: JanieTMartin@gmail.com.


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