Monday, March 12, 2007

33 cats; how could it NOT be fun?

On Sunday, another glorious day, I met my friend Mary for breakfast. Mary lives right near the cat shelter where I was scheduled to do my first stint from noon-3, so we met a few doors down from the shelter at a diner-y place, and had a nice girlie breakfast. This is in a very trendy, upscale part of town, by the lake, near DePaul University.

Mary shared with me that her only experience with the cat shelter was the time she saw a board on the window and a sign saying that they had been broken into the night before and any help was appreciated.

“So I went in and said, ‘I’m so sorry you were broken into last night; what can I do to help?’ and this…OK, I’ll just say it: Rich Bitch just...looks at me and says, ‘We were broken into THREE DAYS ago.’ Like I was supposed to know that.”

Long story short, Mary left unimpressed.

“Yeah,” I said, “you get a lot of weirdos in animal care. Everyone has all their stuff that they inject into their job, and it can get in the way.”

Hoping that whatever nasty volunteer she’d dealt with was gone, I headed over. And realized within thirty seconds that the woman Mary had mentioned was the woman who ran the shelter. My understanding is that it’s all-volunteer; I’m not sure whether the manager is volunteer or paid.

The other volunteers (invariably young women; men of Chicago, if you want to meet women, GET OFF YOUR ASS AND VOLUNTEER) were very nice and showed me around. The manager, a tiny woman with Eighties makeup, didn’t even say hello. Forget a smile.

The cat shelter is an open facility, which means that the cats free-roam in one large room. This is good, because aside from the cats not being confined, it allows them to be relaxed and show their personalities, which helps them find homes. So there are cats roaming aorund the floor, cats snoozing on climbing trees and cat condos, cats chasing things around just for the hell of it. I love open-plan cat shelters; they are a blast.

The shelter policy is that volunteers not trained as adoption counselors can’t discuss the cats or cat care with the public. I understand the need for this; you want to make sure that nobody gives out wrong information, or information on care that conflicts with the shelter policies. (“Sure, go ahead and declaw! They love that! And best of all, it doesn’t harm them one bit!”)

So I was trying to observe this, but it was killing me, it was absolutely killing me, to overhear the manager talking to people. She was not charismatic, she was not trying to connect and worst of all, she was throwing away opportunities to educate people who had misconceptions about things such as spraying and scratching. So she either didn’t think it was important to educate people, or she didn’t know as much as she should have. I had to force myself not to jump in. It almost hurt me physically to keep out of it; I’m sure I broke several blood vessels.

One big challenge is that everyone wants kittens. They ask, “When do you think you’ll have kittens in?” Not realizing that in an ideal world you’d NEVER get kittens in. Aside from the cute factor, people tend to have this misunderstanding about bonding: they think kittens bond and adults don’t, when in fact, adults tend to bond faster, in my experience. They also don’t drive you nuts the way kittens can. I’ve had good success in getting people to see that adult cats make excellent pets, and are preferable in many ways to kittens. She wasn’t even trying.

There were people who only wanted one cat but wanted a kitten, which they don’t allow. No babies left alone all day. It’s always best to have two or more together, because yes, cats do get lonely. There are exceptions, such as the two cats in large cages in the foyer who don’t get along with other cats and are kept separate. What would I do? I’d show the kitten-manic people who only wanted one cat the two cats in the foyer. I’d say that no, they weren’t kittens, but the people may want to just take a couple of minutes to say hello. The cats were gorgeous and friendly and could sell themselves easily if given the chance, but the manager wasn’t even trying. I started to jump for the door when the bell rang, greeted people, and said, “Make sure to say hi to our two girls here. They don’t like other cats, which is why they’re out here, but they are very friendly and they ADORE people and would love for you to give them some love before you go into the main room, because they’ve been feeling a little neglected.”

Trust me, that gets them attention. Poor, neglected kitties. They even meowed plaintively. Excellent job, girls.

The manager was, however, good at giving me grief for not being “vigilant enough” with the doors. There are two doors, both glass: the outside door, which leads into a foyer, and an inside door into the main cat room. The outside door is kept locked and you need to unlock it to let people in and out, making sure that the inside door stays shut. I had the inside door open a bit to say something to someone from the foyer; the door was open a crack, and I had my leg in it, but she told me to shut it in the way you would if I were, say, six years old.

I took the opportunity to talk to people in the foyer as I escorted them out when they left, and expounded a bit on what they had had concerns over. I feel fortunate that I've had such good teachers in the past; in fact, we had been so education-oriented at the shelter in Vermont that a local cat vet told me that her clients who brought in cats adopted from us were the most informed clients she’d ever had.

One of the shyer cats scratched an elderly woman’s hand. The woman was a little odd, and we talked about cat body language, and when to leave them alone (like, for instance, when they have hidden in a basket and are pressed against the back of it, trying to be as far away from you as possible). She showed me that the scratches (very superficial) had swollen, and her hand was becoming red. After determining that this had happened before and she hadn’t had a near-death experience, I asked the manager whether I needed to fill out an injury report. She got some hand cleaner and acted like I was a nut job for taking it so seriously. (Let’s remember that this is America, people, where everyone sues for no good reason. There are also other good reasons for tracking this kind of thing. But OK.)

So at the end of my shift I left, pretty much deciding that I wasn’t going back. I am scheduled to train with the woman who heads up community outreach, which I suspect will be more up my alley. The manager? No “thank you,” nothing. Great way to keep those volunteers a-comin’.

Oh, but I did get a long, long email from her today, sent to “the volunteers” regarding proper door protocol.

The cats there are well cared for, and I think she truly cares about animals, but it’s just another case of one more misanthrope who should not be the public face for a nonprofit. I’m curious to see what the main shelter is like, and want to put in some duty at the spay/neuter clinic.

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