I smiled quietly to myself and left it at that.
I walked into work today, about an hour late, due to an errand at the county recorders office, and was literally delighted with what I saw. Being 'delighted', as anyone who knows me knows is a rare state. But today, I was really delighted.
There they were...three volunteers carefully cleaning our cat cages and feeding our cats. On a Monday morning, on this lovely day (before it started raining), these amazing people decided to come spend a couple hours scrubbing cages, changing litter, rolling up soiled newspapers, and hanging out with the cats.
I wanted to run up and hug each one of them. But I, as a policy, don't hug, so I smiled quietly to myself and left it at that.
Is that too much to ask?
In all the time I have worked here, I have yet to get my hands fully around the concept of returns. "Returns" are animals that we have adopted out thinking that their new home would be their forever home, but come back one hour, one day, one week, on month, one year or 10 years later. I don't think animal shelters or rescues should strive for a 0% return rate. In order to truly eliminate any possibility of having the animal brought back, you would most likely miss out on some really good adoptions. Some clients might be excellent pet owners, but be unable to meet one criteria or fail to jump through one hoop. These clients would walk away empty handed, but then go somewhere else where the requirements weren't so strict and get their animal any way.
despite numerous efforts to reduce the number of returns, it has only dropped slightly in the last few years. The average return rate is about 11%. This means that out of every 100 animals adopted, about 11 will be returned at some point. Sounds bad doesn't it?
Well...on one hand, any adoption that ends in the animal coming back to an animal shelter isn't good. On the other hand, we would prefer they come back to us and get counted as a return then end up in another animal shelter's drop box to be counted as a stray and perhaps not make it to it's true forever home.
Also, if the pet's living situation is less than ideal (ie no attention, no exercise, being abused or neglected) wouldn't it be better to get the animal back then not to?
We tell clients that if they can't keep the animal for any reason they need (not "can"), to bring the animal back to us. Does this give the clients an out? An excuse to not keep the pet? Or does it provide a safe place to bring the cat or dog if they really need it? I don't know, but I hope the latter.
Many rescue groups pride themselves on a having no returns. Their long applications, strict requirements about the kind of house, number of children, work schedule, long question and answer sessions, home checks and other hoops that have to be jumped through are all there to ensure this is a forever home. They can guarantee the animal is in a good place almost all of the time after all that, but how many animals can be saved doing it that way? Can you do that in a public or non profit walk in animal shelter for 2000 animals a year? I am hesitant, but maybe I am wrong and it is possible and I just haven't figured out how to do it yet.
I've also thought about having the clients read more detailed information about returns. About how often it happens. About the reasons people give for returns. About why these issues should be considered now rather than later. About how they WILL most likely move, or have kids, or get a new job, or do remodeling on their house, or have their mom come to live with them. These things happen. It is called "life". The new pet is now a part of this life.
This discussion is all very true and good and although it is a reasonable approach to take when thinking about returns, it all gets thrown out the window when a dog that was adopted 3 years ago to the "perfect home" after being in the shelter a year, gets returned because the client is moving. This just kills you. It takes your heart and rips it in half. It makes you hate the people that adopted him. It makes you hate your self for approving the adoption 3 years ago. It makes you cry alone in your car on your the way home.
I still don't have all the answers and it isn't for lack of trying. If anyone knows the answer, please tell me. I'll try anything. I just want the animals to have forever homes. Is that too much to ask?
It might take 7 years.
Many people come to the shelter to get a second cat. They have one, but think he or she is loney or bored or needs a friend. We try to tell them that 9 times out of 10, their cat is actually pretty happy to be the only cat. Cats aren't like dogs and don't need buddies. (The exception is kittens or cats that are siblings or brought up together. They truly are buddies. This is why we always recommend getting two kittens together if the client is considering having two in the future.)
Some cats do like others and if properly introduced, slowly, over a long period of time, it could be nice for all. But most cats, especially older females really don't want another cat in their life. These "queens" are just that and they don't want to share the palace.
I tell clients this, but they rarely hear me. I explain it, but they don't understand. I use my cats as examples. Before I worked at an animal shelter, I was just like them and thought my 7 year old female need a pal. I brought home what I thought was a good match...an already neutered, young male. (I did a lot of research to see what was most likely to work.) But....it didn't work. My cats hate each other. The male stalks the female and the female hisses and swats at the male. All the time. Day and night.
So, I tell clients "your cats will work it out...even if that means they might ignore each other for the rest of their lives. The image of two cute felines, snuggling together in bed, may never be a reality." That seems to hit home. And I feel good that I saved an owner from a lifetime of cat management.
And then today, when I got home, there were my two cats. Both on bed, less than a foot away from eachother, dreaming the day away. Darn cats. Just when I thought I knew everything, they go and mess it all up.
I guess I just need to tell clients, "they will work out one day, but it might take 7 years."
Several weeks ago, a family came in during open hours to surrender their dog. They were frustrated, the mother explained, because they were in a transition, staying in a small apartment while they were in the process of moving into a new home. The dog was living outdoors because he was destructive in the house, and he had been jumping the fence and upsetting the neighbors.
I took a look down at the canine in question. He was a large and lumbering dog of white and brindle. The family called him a mastiff mix, which was very likely true. But, what any potential adopter would see was an overgrown pit bull. He was smack in the middle of his adolescence and his big grin and squirmy body suggested a very sweet, if somewhat out of control, dog. Unfortunately his looks and his age were the perfect recipe for a dog who would sit in the kennels for months.
"We wish we could keep him," the mother said, "but we just have no idea what to do." She went on to explain that they had taken in this dog as a young pup, had helped him though several medical issues and spent a large amount of money to make him well again. All to end up in the lobby of our Oakland facility because they weren't sure how to handle the healthy and boisterous adolescent that puppy had become.
"Would you really like to keep him?" I asked. It's a phrase I hear almost every time a dog is surrendered.
"We wish we could keep him but...
...we just don't have enough time anymore."
...he really needs more space."
...he's eaten my curtains and he's starting on the walls."
When most people say "we wish we could keep him," what they really mean is "we've decided we can't keep him, but please don't think we're mean people."
It's an obligatory phrase, but not often a sincere one.
When the mother expressed genuine interest in hearing alternatives to surrender, I began speaking to the family about crating and other management tools. We discussed ways to successfully bring the dog back inside. We came up with exercise options that could work for a busy family. I loaned them a crate and arranged with ND to give the family a free series of training classes. They headed back home with adoption packet, crate, and dog in tow.
A few days ago, I phoned to hear how things were going. I was actually a little nervous about the call, and I was prepared to hear that things were going poorly, and could they schedule another surrender appointment?
"He's doing wonderful," the mother said over the phone. "He's settled right down into his crate and goes in there on his own. The kids help wear him out and when they've gone to bed, we've been making a point to take him out for a nice walk at night. As soon as he came into the house his behavior got better. I think he knew he was getting a second chance."
I felt like I had gotten a gift as well.
It just took them a year to figure it out.
All my friends know I work at the EBSPCA. Some of them ask me dog or cat advice. Some have even asked for my help with their 18 year old dog got too sick to move. And I'm always called when there is a stray someone needs help with. But last Friday I got a call that really surprised me. My dear old friend Shari called me and said she wanted to adopt a cat. I've known Shari for over 10 years and she is literally the sweetest person I have ever met. She said she wanted Sweet Pea, who she had been watching on www.virtualpetadoptions.com
for months. (I had to make a little bit of fun at her for regularly surfing our adoption sites.) She felt bad for her and wanted to come adopt her. Shari is a born caretaker. She took care of her grandfather when he was ill, she has thrown countless parties for me, and she will drop everything to help a friend. Having a pet to take care would be just perfect for her. Doesn't this sound ideal? One small hitch... Shari is allergic to cats. I remind her of this fact and she blew me off in her nice Shari way. So I gave up and told her about our Paws to Consider program where she could "test drive" the cat for up to a week before adopting her. This sounded perfect for her. So we arranged to meet the next day at the shelter.
The next day, she and her hubby Sam came in. They've been together for like 100 years. Sam, the true cat lover in the family, is also skeptical of this plan to adopt a cat, but we both roll our eyes and smile at eachother. We know that Shari will take a cat home, realize how bad her allergies are and that will be the end of that little adoption idea.
She meets Sweet Pea, but she is a little too feisty for them. I show them Frida, an 8 year old long-haired cat who was about to celebrate her one year anniversary at the shelter. Yes, one year. How sad is that? They hang out with Frida and at first, she is a little stand-offish. I coax her out of her cat condo and she actually walks over to Shari and climbs up on her lap. Shari almost melted. They hemmed and hawed for a bit and then said "let's take her home." I gathered the supplies we send home with a Paws to Consider client, told Shari to call me with any questions or problems or to bring her back.
Before I got home, she had called with a question. I had told her to confine Frida to a room and Shari wanted to know if she could let her out at all the first day. I explained it all again and she got it. (Cats don't like change, but it all depends on the cat really. Some can handle wandering about and most are freaked out and need to be confined to reduce stress.)
She emailed for the next three day telling me all the goings on with Reese (named after the peanut butter cup). How she was doing great. How Sam came home early from work (a rare event) to hang out with Reese. How neighbors and friends came over to meet the new family member. How Shari fell asleep on the couch and woke up with Reese on her chest. How Reese is quite a talker!
There are some challenges too. Reese likes to knead and Shari has really nice furniture. Shari expressed some concerns and before I had to give her the speech on why declawing was bad, she asked about Soft Paws. Did I mention I just love her? She also said that the allergies were acting up, but Reese was part of the family now and she would just have to figure out her allergies. She also said the midnight chatter sessions Reese has are a bit much, but Reese can just sleep in her own room if if she doesn't settle down soon. Her. Own. Room. Needless to say, Shari completed the adoption last night and Reese is hers forever.
We sometimes wonder why animals stay at the shelter so long. What are they waiting for? Well... in Frida's (aka Reese's) case, she was waiting for Shari. Shari needed to take care of her and Reese needed to take care of Shari. It just took them both a year to figure it out.
I am so honored to work with them.
Sometimes it is hard to remember how good you have it. Specifically, when you have five open positions, candidates not showing up for interviews, and others who do show up, not wanting to work the schedule that is needed (despite being asked directly before the interview if they can work that schedule), it is difficult to remember how great your staff is.
LC, a fellow blogger, has recently stepped up to the plate to fill the role of Interim Canine Manager while our CM is on leave. She is doing a fantastic job with basically no training and no warning.
CM is going to step in for ND when she goes on leave in a few weeks to celebrate her recent addition to her family. CM is also finishing up the last touches on the new cat cage design, which she selected on her own.
FC, a former Canine Associate, and now our Volunteer Manager, is just fabulous. She has taken that department to new heights, done an outstanding job making needed changes and polishing existing programs.
BMS, our Foster Coordinator, is now tackling feral cats (not literally...ouch!) since foster season is pretty slow right now. She is creating protocols, writing manuals and training materials, and is studying up on her feral cat knowledge so we can have the best feral cat program.
JD, a new Customer Care Associate, was put on the Safety Committee recently and had really insightful comments on her first meeting. I'm so glad she was there.
CS, a Customer Care Associate, recently became a blog contributor on his own and routinely takes great pictures for our websites.
AB, a Canine Associate, not only does extra tech duties at the shelter, but she takes home animals that need a break to her home on her weekend.
CW, another Canine Associate, helps clients in a way that is above and beyond our hopes. She shows off her dogs with pride and really gets to know her clients and dogs to be able to facilitate a great match.
SC, our amazing employee long term (20 plus years!) in Tri Valley, cleans the cat areas so well, you could eat off them. Not because someone tells her to, but because she wants to.
VT, who first came to us as a temporary employee and who has been promoted twice, not only works long hours with us, but then volunteers at her City animal care facility on her days off. Incredible.
TF, who was our maintenance technician before being promoted, fostered a dog that had a urinary problem and 'went' everywhere. Tom's patience and calm manner was just what this dog needed.
So, when I get depressed about turnover or being short staffed, I try to remember just how truly lucky we are to have such an outstanding team of dedicated professionals. They care deeply about our animals and our clients and I am so honored to work with them.
The Short Tail of a Good Cat
As a Customer Care Associate for the East Bay SPCA in Tri-Valley it's primarily my responsibility to deal with customers and visitors to our facility in Dublin. Beyond cleaning duties in the morning before we open, it isn't my primary responsibility to deal with the welfare of the animals here.
That doesn't mean I can't spend my free time with them.
Meet Vinnie: an older cat, his eyes a bit cloudy -- he was returned to us after not using the litter box for at least a year. During this time, he never received a vet checkup. (It should be noted that if a cat stops using his litter box, he should always
be taken to a vet to rule out any medical issues.)
According to one of our vets, his urinary tract infection was one of the worst she had seen. A blood panel was performed to check his over-all health, especially since he was an older cat. We approximated his age as being close to ten years.
If you've heard about urinary tract infections in humans, they can be pretty darn painful! The same is true in dogs and cats. Poor little Vinnie was in a lot of pain. What's strange is that this whole time -- being moved around to different cages, getting poked by the vet -- Vinnie would make just about the loudest purr I have ever heard, coming to the front of the cage to get pets or chin-scratches. Even if you didn't pet him, he would wait there, purring in anticipation.
We treated the sweet, old man with a special diet and medication. His urinary tract infection was improving. He seemed to be happy as always, good old lovable Vinnie, and in good health.
He came up from the back to our adoption "habitats," to meet his new kitty roommate, Lola. They got along perfectly. Up here he stayed, for nearly a month, quickly becoming a staff and volunteer favorite. His sweet disposition is legendary among us. Obviously he knew he was loved, and we knew he loved us.
One morning, we noticed Vinnie had vomited several times. I alerted LG, and we decided to take him out of Adoptions to visit the. He was happy as ever to be around people, but he had lost a significant amount of weight and his tests showed a problem with his kidneys.
LG fostered Vinnie for a week to see how he did in a home environment--we like to rule out anything in the shelter environment. She kept him only for a day or two. He was missing the litter box again, very lethargic and no appetite. A revisit to the scale revealed he had lost another pound. He was still a purr machine, though.
An emergency vet visit determined that his kidneys were failing, and his quality of life was deteriorating. He was humanely euthanized that day to ensure his life did not end in misery -- and I think we succeeded, even if this was not the outcome I had wanted. He purred the whole way, knowing the attention he got was all love.
I've barely been at this job ten months, and in addition to all the wonderful adoptions, I feel like I've lost some good friends. There have been several dogs and cats I really miss, because I felt it was not yet their time. I often wonder, shouldn't I feel guilty missing these few
animals? There are so many out there getting euthanized in shelters because there is just no room. If you follow our progress with Goal 2007
, you'll know that we're doing very well in helping to reduce the euthanasia rates of adoptable dogs in Alameda and Contra Costa Counties. We've done well with cats, but there's still a long way to go. There are still many feral and un-fixed cats giving birth to unwanted kittens, and they populate our local shelters.
I can't wait for the day where I don't have to worry about animals getting euthanized because there is no space. Then I can know that when things go wrong, like with Vinnie, there will be somebody there to care for them, love them and remember them -- not to be lost amongst a sea of forgotten souls.(posted for Charles)
Photography is my hobby, and on my days off I often go to the San Leandro Marina to see what birds and wildlife might provide a photo opportunity. There wasn't much of interest there today, just the usual ducks, various shore birds, and always present gulls.
I was heading back to my car since it was getting late, and chilly, when I spotted an old friend across the parking lot. As I quickly walked toward him, he spotted me. I could see the questioning look on his face, trying to place who this person was that was approaching him.
His face broke into that great, happy Bulldog smile, and he headed toward me, dragging the wonderful woman who had adopted him over a year and a half ago, with him. He wasn't going to be held back, not until he had reached me, put his big front paws on my chest and covered my face with the kind of kisses only Buddy can give.
Buddy looks great, is so very happy and loves his people as much as they love him. He's so well behaved and devoted. I can remember when it was questionable as to whether he might be too much dog, too energetic and too bouncy to be adopted. He had been adopted once and sadly returned because his adopters just couldn't handle all that he is.
But now he's loved, happy, and content. I knew Buddy was a great dog. All it took was someone who was willing to let Buddy be Buddy, and give him all the attention and care he needed, and he's returning that devotion ten-fold.
We have plans on setting up a play date with Buddy and one of my dogs. I'm looking forward to seeing him again real soon.
That's a whole lot of surgery. This represents the number of spay and neuter surgeries performed on dogs, cats and rabbits in our two clinics during 2005. 607
of these were pit bulls and pit bull mixes, performed at no-cost, as part of the East Bay Pit Fix. 731
of these were feral cats, owned by no one, but brought in by Good Samaritans anyhow, and fixed at no-cost to help reduce the next bumper crop of kittens. 270
were peformed at a reduced rate for low income individuals. We don't want finances to be a barrier to getting one's pet altered.
We have amazing veterinarians, and even more amazing Donors, who make this possible.
Almost a year ago, CM was assigned a small project. She was tasked with determining whether our cats were receiving the quality of care that we thought they should. At first, she was confused. What should she do? How should she do it? I told her there was no right or wrong, but that she should assess the current set up and recommend changes.
To ensure she got all the feedback she needed, she invited volunteers and staff to join her on the Cat Comfort Committee and together under her leadership, they recommended and implemented many changes. TV for the cats, special toys for the cats, cardboard for the cats and most importantly, new cages for the cats. (Our old ones are satistactory, but far from the latest and greatest in cat care. They are steel, small and don't have places for the cat to hang out.)
This last one hasn't been implemented yet, but we hope to do in the first half of this year. Although almost $20k has been raised thus far to fund these new cat cages, they will cost almost $55k in total, so we need more donations. If you think our cats deserve better, if you want to be a significant part of the future history of the East Bay SPCA, and if you like what you see below, please send us a donation (8323 Baldwin St. Oakland, CA 94621) attention: Cat Cages.
Plain Pets Play Second Fiddle
(Paws to Consider is a bi-monthly column we write for the Oakland Tribune, Tri-Valley Herald and Daily Review. Here is this weekend's column:)
APPLE THE cat likes comfortable laps, chin scritches and the company of other kitties. She is friendly and affectionate to visitors at our Tri-Valley facility and always polite.
But Apple isn't fluffy. She doesn't have unusual coloring, or an extra-long tail. She's not a kitten and she has all her limbs. In fact, as a brown tabby, you might not notice her in a room full of exotic orange cats, or fluffy gray ones flecked with peach tones.
Apple turns 3 years old next month. But an even more important milestone happens on Monday. She will have been a resident of our shelter for one year. She is what we call a long-termer, having spent one-third of her life with us.
There is no obvious reason for her long stay: She behaves like a well-behaved cat should and has proper litter box habits. She gets along well with each new roommate, who inevitably proves to be cuter and more easily adopted. She's the ultimate "straight man," making everyone around her look good. But she suffers from an affliction that reveals a painful flaw in the shelter world: Plain pets don't get adopted very quickly.
If the pet doesn't stand out, adopters' eyes scan past them until they hit the pet that looks different. That means the black and brown pets get less attention. Adult pets get overlooked. Extra large dogs draw interest because they are so odd, but regular big dogs get passed by in favor of that scarce, small fluffy dog everyone seems to be looking for.
Take Sugar. (Please!) She is a medium-sized, nondescript shepherd mix almost 4 years old. She came to the shelter eight months ago as a new mother, but her puppies have long since moved on to their own homes. Sugar is brown and black. Nothing really stands out about her, other than the fact that she is nice and very, very plain. (She does bark. But that is not too unusual for a dog.)
Anyone who works in the shelter system realizes that keeping a selection of animals available for adoption can seem a lot like stocking a retail store. Our priority is to take in those pets that need us the most, while trying to keep a selection that ensures everyone looks unique enough to be easily adopted. This ensures that we continually have space for new pets, and help a greater number of animals. But sometimes we find that we have an overabundance of one type or color of dog or cat. Then none of them seems to get adopted as quickly as if we had just one or two.
Stormy is one of the black cats in our Oakland facility. A dominant color in the cat world, black cats are terribly common. They take the longest to be adopted, surely a fact painful to hear for anybody who has a favorite black kitty at home. If we have only one black cat available for adoption, that cat will get snatched right up. But if we have four, they can languish in the shelter for months.
Two-year-old Stormy has been with us for almost half her life. We are hoping her new home is around the corner, but anyone looking for a nice black cat will first have to rule out Minnie, Mamma Mooshface, Angelo, Lorenzo, Snootie and Ed, our other black cats. Some of them are long-term residents, too.
It's nobody's fault. Human nature is what it is, and we don't begrudge anyone looking for a special pet, even one that might be special for its looks. In fact, we hope you look and look until one unique pet reaches out a paw and touches your heart in a way none other has. Everyone deserves a pet like that.
But shelter staff everywhere reserve a special place in their hearts for the thoughtful adopter who looks past a flashy coat or popular pedigree to adopt the plain pet: the long-term resident, the black cat, the brown dog. We've been known to give parties, complete with going-home presents and tears, when one of our long-term pets finally finds a match. The shelter-wide e-mails usually start off with "Woo-hoo!!!" in the subject
line, and we know it's good news.
So we just have to wait, and take excellent care of them while they are here. We remind them daily what it means to be loved and cared for. We promise that someday someone else will take them home to provide them the same love and care we do. They always go home, even if it takes a year or more.
Apple doesn't seem to mind her wait. It is almost like she knows that her perfect person is around the corner. Until then, she is happy to bask in the attention given her by staff, volunteers and visitors. Happy anniversary, Apple. May this be your last one here.
It's only a few minutes between a dog whose home is the shelter and a dog whose home is a home. If you get down to the nitty-gritty, it's really only a few seconds. Those few little words "we'd like to adopt this pet" can be the major turning point of the day.
Sometimes it's a long term pet whose adoption, while hoped for, still felt so unexpected that an SPCA-wide e-mail declaring the news is warranted. Sometimes its a puppy who (hopefully) will become one of the four out of five dogs that manages to live in a single household their entire life.
It goes the other way too. It's only a moment between when we think a cat has successfully settled into her new home and when we see a familiar face with a cardboard cat carrier in tow, ready to return the pet for an unanticipated reason. Between a dog sitting warm and snug in his owner's car and finding himself tied to a pole in an unfamiliar courtyard.
Between "unavailable for adoption" and "available".
Between "has kennel cough" and "ready to move out of isolation".
Between "waiting for foster" and "in foster".
As a shelter worker, you do you best to plan ahead, but you very quickly learn that the meat of your day is moment to moment.
How long will it take?
Sometimes dogs and cats take a long time to get adopted. Finding the perfect home isn't rocket science, but sometimes I wish it was. Here are some of the dogs that have been at the shelter too long. They need a home. A good home. We'll keep them until they get one, but sheesh...how long will it take???
Mrs. ApplefaceGeorge Howard