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An Uninvited Guest

Maybe you haven’t heard of kitten season, but it is well into its early stages at this point. Early Spring and Summer see a sharp rise in the birth of puppies; they see an even sharper rise in the birth of kittens. June is the peak of kitten season.

Now you would think that something called ‘kitten season’ would be a very good thing. It must be the fluffiest, cutest, and most playful season of the year, right? And for most of us, it well could be. But if you work in a conventional Humane Association, kitten season can be hell. It must be bad enough for the average no-kill as they have to turn folks away, but for those who work in a will-kill animal shelter, this can be damned miserable.

First the marginal cases go. Animals with minor health or aggression issues (the kind that might have been overlooked with less competition for space) will go down as the kitten-count rises. Then come the clear-cut cases of healthy perfectly adoptable cats. Even the most beautiful adult cat just can’t compete next to a 6 week old bundle of ultra-cuteness. And if enough kittens come into a shelter, well then a portion of them to go down too, perfectly healthy kittens.

I worked in a conventional animal shelter for about a year and a half. We were lucky in that we put few healthy animals down in comparison to other open-intake facilities. As a PR guy, my role in handling the animals was rather limited. Still, I have quite a few vivid memories of the experience.

Today, I shall restrict myself to those stories dealing with cats.

OH SHIT! When I first took the job, I hadn’t even thought about the prospect of facing all those animals. I just needed the work. But then someone suggested that I go back and see the animals in person, and I strode off to check them out for myself. That’s when I realized I was in grave danger of becoming a pet-hoarding bearded cat-lady. I had a hard enough time walking by all the dogs. By the time I got to the cats, I knew I was in real trouble. Working at this shelter posed a hazard that I hadn’t even thought about when I first filled out that application.

There was no special emergency the first time I took a cat home. (I did it twice.) The little tabby just seduced me. She had the softest purr and a gentle voice to match it. I kept going back to pet that cat until I realized I would be pissed if someone else ended up with her. So, she went home with me one day.

Burp lives with my nephew and his wife now, and people still ask about her name. I tell them it was actually my Siamese that named her. I already had two cats and they were none-too pleased about the new edition to the family. The little tabby was still new in the house and trying her best to make friends with the older cats, but they were having none of it. I remember watching the tabby sit across a table from the two Siamese, giving off all the submissive signals she could, not the least of which being a very soft trilling meow which I thought to be among the cutest sounds in the known universe. Fido and Junkmail just glared at her. The whole scene reminded me of parents scolding a child who had burped loudly at the table. That’s when I realized, it wasn’t that she had burped. It was more like she was the burp, and she herself did not belong at the table, at least as far as Fido and Junkmail were concerned.

That’s how Burp got her name.

THE WORST MOMENT: It wasn’t often that I was asked to help put animals down, but it did happen. I remember a lady who brought in a very fat and rather old cat. It hadn’t been getting along with the other felines in her home, and apparently it wasn’t holding its own in the fights either. This big guy had huge bite marks on its back where some other kitty had gotten the best of him.

Whatever the cause of the conflict in its home, getting rid of this poor guy was the solution its human had decided upon. I had to help put him down. I remember the way he looked at me as I pulled him out of the cage and held him up. And I remember the tear that rolled down his face. I know I’m projecting a range of human emotions onto this, but I’ve never been able to escape the feeling that he knew exactly what was happening.

The Pride at its Peak

THE ALLERGIC VOLUNTEER: One of my favorite volunteers was a young woman who was terribly allergic to cats, but that didn’t stop her. She wasn’t all that interested in helping with the dogs; she just loved cats. So, this young lady would take allergy medication before coming to an adoption event. Then she would spend as much of her time as possible holding a cat in her lap. Oh she was happy to help out in every way needed, but what brought her to the events was the chance to hold a cat. She would do this until the medication began to wear off and her eyes started to get puffy. Then she would go home often feeling miserable because she had held the cat for too long.

At some point this volunteer fell in love with a pair of grey tabbies. They were well past 6 months and really a little too big for the same cage, but this particular pair were inseparable. Cats don’t always seem to care about sticking with a sibling, but these two did. We were actively trying to adopt them out as a pair, which is a little tricky, but it really seemed the right thing to do.

So, our allergic volunteer took to loving on these cats every chance she got. We were having a little trouble moving them out (at least as a pair), so she got to hold them a couple times as I recall. She wanted desperately to take them home, but of course that would have been a disaster. Luckily her boyfriend lived in a separate residence.

As far as I know, he still has them.


DAMMIT! DAMMIT! DAMMIT! We had a lady who brought kittens to us several times a year. She had been doing it for some time before I got there, and she was still doing it when I left. These were scrawny kittens, often suffering a range of minor illnesses, which was a huge problem because our shelter did not employ a vet. The woman never checked on her kittens after dropping them off; but she always left with a smile on her face, as though she was doing a good deed of some kind.

Various employees had tried suggesting that she spay and neuter her adult cats, but this woman said she didn’t have the money. We even called her attention to a program offering the service at a discount. When that didn’t work, a savvy volunteer offered to pay for the surgeries, as many as were needed, no questions asked. The woman still declined, albeit without much in the way of an explanation at this point. All excuses aside, she clearly wanted the litters.

The shelter workers weren’t allowed to discuss the fate of any particular animal brought in to the shelter. Our staff was of course quite clear about the range of possibilities, but no-one discussed what would happen to any particular critter, even if it was obvious to us where it was going. Everyone did what they were supposed to do with this woman, which is to say that we accepted her sick kittens without comment. When she asked if we would take care of them, we always said ‘yes’ and smiled back at her.

What we should have said is; “Lady, they’ll be dead before you reach the end of our driveway.”

Maybe THAT would have got her attention.


PEACE AND LOVE! A lady came in once asking for a good barn cat. She said she would take care of it, but she really needed one to handle the mice in her barn. We directed her to the biggest, toughest-looking cat in the shelter. She brought him back a few days later, explaining that she caught him sleeping in his bed beside a perfectly healthy mouse. Not to worry; we found a new home for ‘Hippy cat’, one that didn’t expect him to engage in acts of violence.


VERY SAD: A couple brought their daughter in for her birthday. She was probably around 7 or 8 and cute as a button. Her parents had been promising this little girl a kitten for weeks if not months, and today was the day she got to pick one out. They had even taken her to the pet store before coming out to the shelter. She had already purchased some toys along with all the necessities. They were all set!

She could not have come at a better time. Our cat room was full at this point, and most of its contents were kittens. So, she had plenty of cute little critters to choose from.

Of course the little girl wouldn’t be able to take her new kitten home directly. Her family could pick it up from the vet the next day. That’s how our shelter worked. This was an unpleasant surprise, but the girl took the news well. She and her parents were all smiles as they proceeded into the cat room to pick out their new family member.

It was close to an hour later that I went back to check on the family, and found the parents standing in the middle of the room. Both looked as if they wanted to crawl out of their own flesh. Sitting on the bench in front of them, I could see their little girl in tears as she held onto one of the little kittens. “I’m fine,” she cried repeatedly. Her puffy face, runny nose, and terribly bloodshot eyes told a different story.


OF ASSHOLES AND ANGELS: It was a couple days before a big adoption event, and the shelter staff were pleased with the selection of dogs and cats we would have for this one. The shelter was nearly full, but not overfull. In fact, it was just about perfect.

…which is to say that we were ripe for a disaster.

Without warning, animal control officers for the county brought us 12 feral cats they had trapped in a remote lot somewhere. By contract, we had to take these cats, and by contract we had to hold them in quarantine for 3 days after which they would certainly be put down. With a full shelter, this had a very ironic effect, and by ‘ironic’ I mean ‘fucking perverse’. It meant that we would have to put healthy adoptable cats down to make room for the new feral cats.

Asked if the county could give us a little more warning in the future, the officer suggested we were trying to get out of our responsibilities. So, there we were, suddenly overflowing with cats, and facing a series of ugly decisions.

I took one cat home that day and a foster-care facility took 2 more off our hands. Lacking any other resources, I called the manager of a local pet store. We had an arrangement with this store, which included (among other things) housing up to 6 of our cats overnight. We could have as many as we wanted over there during the day, but only 6 could be left overnight. All these cats could be adopted directly out of the store, and it was at least possible they had moved one out that day, at least that’s what we were hoping at the shelter. So, I called to see if there were any openings.

The conversation went something like this:

Me: “Are you full?”

Pet Store Manager: “What happens if I say ‘yes’?”

Awkward silence.

Me: “I officially cannot tell you what happens if you say ‘yes’.”

More awkward silence.

Pet Store Manager: “Bring over as many as you need to.”

I could have kissed her right through the phone.


SADDER STILL: One Friday, we found a black&white tux in terrible shape. It would take a vet to establish the full extent of his injuries, but anyone with eyes could see that its jaw was broken, …actually shattered was more like it. Watching this poor creature trying to drink from the bowl of water we gave it was a truly heartbreaking experience.

Earlier that week, we had received a call from someone about a cat matching this one’s description. There had even been some suggestion it might have fallen off a second floor balcony. So, the staff made several calls to the probable owner. As the close of business approached, someone finally got through. Lacking a car and living across town, the owner asked if she could come in the following Monday. I drove out to get her instead.

I really wasn’t sure what to tell her about the situation. A couple of us had been on the verge of tears over the matter ourselves, and I couldn’t imagine what it would have been like to see your own pet that way, but of course none of us were entirely sure if this was her cat.

It was.


A FERAL KITTEN: While cleaning the cat cages one morning, I saw a beautiful little tortoise-shell kitten in our quarantine room. She was huddled behind her litter box, growling at me. The card on the front of her cage read; ‘caution’. Of course a tiny kitten may not seem like much of a threat, but they can draw blood at an early age.

Eyes Just Turning
(and still prone to run-away)

Which is part of what makes the process of turning a feral kitten so wonderful. That first time you reach out to grab it, you just don’t know how much of a mistake you could be making. A feral kitten will hiss at you. It will puff itself up to sizes you couldn’t imagine from its happy state. It will spit; it will growl; and it will do its damnedest to convince you to leave it alone. But if it lets you grab it, just once, well then you have it. All you have to do at that point is pet the little bundle of anger and keep on doing that until it learns to like it. Repeat as necessary.

(I distinctly recall a feral kitten growling at me furiously as it rolled over on its back so I could scratch its belly.)

This particular kitten didn’t bite me, and I worked on her a lot for the next three days. It turns out, she had been found in the engine block of a rather modern vehicle. Some couple driving through town had heard her cries just before turning the ignition. One of our kennel-techs and an animal control officer had spent an hour trying to get the little kitten to come out far enough that they could reach her. Instead, she ran out and got into yet another vehicle. This time they managed to nab her and brought her in for the obligatory 3-days of quarantine.

So, I had 3 days to tame the little girl. She had to learn to like being handled or she would go straight down on day 3. Others may have helped too; I really don’t know.

By the time the little kitten’s quarantine ran out someone had crossed out the word ‘caution’ on the her information card, and someone else had written ‘friendly kitty’ in its place. (Okay, it might have been me that crossed out the word ‘caution’, but I’m pretty sure someone else wrote the part about her being friendly.) This meant she could go in the regular cat room and take her chances with folks looking to adopt a cat. The trouble was we were awfully full that day, healthy cats were in danger, and I was just a little worried that my favorite kitten might be cranky enough to scratch someone. Bad for the customer and the shelter; worse for the kitten.


So, I took the little bugger home just to be sure. When she was big enough to go to the vet, I brought her back in and filled out the adoption paperwork. Asked what her name was, I hesitated. That’s when my colleague told me the story of the vehicle and pointed out the name on her original card; it read ‘Auto’.

Auto-Kitty is still with me today.