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Kitties howl for your attention, frantically gripping their tiny paws on iron rails, while neighboring cats attempt to ambush them. As paws swipe air or fur, a woman’s voice prevails over the chorus of meowing and wailing -- the woman standing nearby calls to the raucous felines, then turns to whisper soothingly to a kitten whimpering under her needle. Though not every cat is under such distress, all -- even the ones sleeping or cleaning themselves in peace -- have one thing in common: Living in rows of narrow cages, they resemble prisoners behind bars.
Many shelters house dozens of cats under crowded conditions, and it’s usually just a few volunteers that help manage the entire operation. These volunteers provide the only care and affection rescued homeless kitties receive at the shelters. I am one of these volunteers. My weekly visits to the cat shelter allow me to understand the cats’ needs, win their affection and treasure precious memories -- and, of course, gain enough firsthand wisdom to pass along to potential volunteers.
In the United States, the stray cat problem is severe. According to Alley Cat Advocates online, in Kentucky’s Jefferson County, each resident would have to own 45 cats in order to resolve the homeless feline crisis there. Unfortunately, overwhelming stray cat statistics like this one haunt almost every region of the United States. But a two-owner New York venture has been doing its part, and more, since its inception in the mid-‘80s. According to kennel supervisor Jose Pagan, Brooklyn Animal Resource Coalition (BARC) rescues over 1000 cats per year.
“Owners give up their pets because of allergies or lack of space at home,” says Pagan. “Others abandon them in front of the shelter. But the cats get tested by our veterinarian and are given proper care once they come in.” A valued resource for the area, BARC houses cats and enables about 40 adoptions each month -- always remaining a no-kill shelter.
A Decision to Volunteer
I didn’t know any of these facts when I decided to volunteer at an animal shelter. It wasn’t BARC’s contributions or even my animaltarian heart that made me wake up early on Saturdays for the long commute to Brooklyn. My reasons were less than holy: I had just signed up with New York Cares, an organization that mobilizes volunteers to meet community needs. As my first project, I was looking for something easy -- something a lot less scary than feeding possibly rambunctious homeless men or pacifying the unpredictable moods of children. Since I loved animals, I longed for laid-back Saturdays filled with the playful affection of spirited cats and adorable kittens.
It was only when I found myself on a side street of Brooklyn in front of the shabby building, the BARC sign inconspicuously hanging in the front, that I started wondering whether I had idealized this project. Inside, I climbed a narrow staircase that led to the room with the cats, and when I opened the door, instead of affection, I was greeted with the unwelcoming stench of day-old wet food and dirty cat litter. Cramped with rows of fretful felines encased in metal cages, the room had no windows and seemed too small for even the few people that were already there. Before I could change my mind about volunteering, a woman came forth and introduced herself as my team leader. With a friendly smile and a sense of urgency, she instructed me and a few other volunteers on how to clean each cat’s small home. This, as it turned out, involved dusting the kennel floor, replacing the newspaper covering it and replenishing supplies, such as litter, food and water. Once hygiene was taken care of, playtime would follow.
Although the distant promise of playtime combined with our team leader’s useful guidance pacified my disillusionment considerably, I was still surprised that not all cats welcomed us with open paws. Suffering from depression, feline AIDS and pre-shelter abuse, many of them attempted to relieve their anxiety on our defenseless arms as we reached in to grab a bowl or spread a fresh sheet of paper. Still, they were so desperate for a home that upon our slightest sign of friendliness, they embraced our love just as they wanted to be embraced themselves.
As for me, I was attached to the cats before playtime even started. Poignant cat “biographies” pinned on kennel doors won my heart, and as I worked, I started planning my return for an adoption. The following were my favorite kitty candidates:
Comforting Campbell Like the soup he is named after, Campbell was heartwarming from the start. Friendly and fluffy, he never stopped meowing and rubbing against my arms as I worked in his kennel. Once playtime started, Campbell was my first choice. He purred endlessly, eagerly pushing his way from the kennel into my lap.
Little 7Up A chunk of fur was missing from this tiny kitty’s forehead, which was spotted with dried blood. His history only revealed that he was five months old, to which I first attributed his walking off-balance and blinking from one eye. Later, I learned a more heartbreaking truth to his quirks: A fierce attack by a stray dog had left poor, defenseless 7Up a little brain damaged. The effects of the accident had neither decreased his need for attention nor affected his lopsided attempts to play.
Scaredy Sabrina Even as she huddled in the corner of her kennel, Sabrina was the most beautiful of all. Summoning courage after my experiences with Campbell and 7Up, I reached in to stroke her fur. But a stranger’s kind touch can’t overturn years of fright on the street, and I was greeted with Sabrina’s razor-edged claw. Blood drew on my palm, so for the rest of the time, I worshipped Sabrina from afar.
Back for More
Were I not living with two feline bundles of joy already, I would have loved to give some of these cats a home. So I did the next best thing: A week later, I returned to volunteer. To my surprise and initial tinge of sadness, only Campbell was still there. Thankfully, my other favorites had already found homes.
Nothing is more rewarding than knowing the cats you love are in safe hands. Despite kitty marks on my own hands after sessions at BARC, I never stopped volunteering.
It wasn’t just the gratifying feeling of helping out that brought me back, but also the cats themselves. To see a cat’s nature blossoming through its wounds is worth bearing a scratch or two -- as well as realizing that estranged animals deserve no less of our love than do homeless people.
Lessons of Feline Friendship
My love affair with the cats did not stop at the absence of 7Up and Sabrina. Each week, I fell in love with a new cat, and even now, the more I volunteer, the better I get at adapting to various cat personalities. It isn’t hard to befriend these cats, but sometimes, it takes a little extra patience to convince them that you mean no harm. It was only after a few unsuccessful attempts at pulling newspapers under stubborn cats that I learned to avoid brash movements. But it only took one beautiful yet ferocious feline’s swipe at me to learn that if a cat is too hard to handle, you shouldn’t handle it. “Start off with easier ones, like kittens, and someone more experienced will take over,” suggests Pagan.
Early on, I also discovered the importance of dressing comfortably and bringing allergy medicine. This, too, I found out the hard way, when on my first time volunteering, I spent a miserable last hour with red, puffy eyes and only the thought of the bottle of Benadryl that was still sitting on my kitchen counter for comfort. But all of it is common sense: A healthy and happy volunteer is always handier than a tense one. And a happy volunteer is a more giving volunteer. The most important thing is to return often, and if your budget allows it, to contribute to the shelter. Or even better, to take a cat -- or two -- home.
Although I asked around how to go about volunteering when I first got the idea, no one turned out to be better suited to help me than my own Internet search engine. If you, too, want to become a volunteer, do a quick search on the Web for local shelter listings, and then call a shelter near you to find out how to start. The overworked staff will value your time tremendously, and the lonely animals will treasure your attention and make you feel like their hero. After all, what’s more heroic than saving the world one cat at a time?
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