I reached out to a friend the other day who had recently adopted a paralyzed kitten and I wanted to see how things were going. How was the kitten integrating? I sensed immediately by the pause and then the crack in her voice when she broke the silence that it wasn’t good news. After being assessed by the veterinarians at the clinic my friend trusts, it was determined that the kitten was in far worse condition than anyone involved in her rescue truly realized and would very likely have a short life full of pain and suffering. The difficult decision was made that euthanasia was the most merciful option.
My friend, who works full-time from home, was already mentally prepared to care for a cat with inoperable paralysis and in diapers due to her inability to control her bowels, and she was devastated that the sweet kitten she’d had for just a day was in pain with no hope of relief. On the phone, my friend was questioning if anything could have been done, if she could have rearranged her home and her life so the outcome could have been different for the kitten. She has multiple special needs and senior animals and was not apprehensive of the emotional, time and financial resources that this disabled kitten would require. On the contrary, my friend was ready. Knowing that the kitten was suffering and there was no likelihood of reducing it was a different matter, though. She understood that euthanasia was the most humane and compassionate outcome for this kitten but my friend did not make the decision lightly. In fact, she was wracked with grief and self-doubt.
I tell this anecdote because it is absolutely consistent with what I have observed in the rescue community: People who will move heaven and earth to help animals in crisis. My friend is one of them. I have been blessed in life to know some truly wonderful people.
. . .
After college, I started working at a large animal shelter in humane education and that was where I was introduced to the concept of “animal people”. Yes, I was a vegetarian when I started there and then vegan when I left but I cannot say I was ever in the league of these incredible rescuers I came to know. There were the ones who would bring in feral cats they’d trapped every week to get spayed or neutered and pay for their surgeries out of pocket so more kittens wouldn’t be born without homes or care before TNR was a common practice. There were the ones who would spend their winter nights trying to catch loose dogs running in the streets. There were the ones who bottle-fed newborn kittens who were orphaned or abandoned. There were the ones who always adopted the hard to place animals, the seniors, the dogs who were missing limbs, the cats who were skittish. There were the ones who volunteered after work or on their weekends to socialize the cats and walk the dogs, to clean the cages and help tackle the truly endless piles of laundry.
And then there were their opposites, the ones who make working at an animal shelter so soul-crushing, the ones who provide ample fodder for a shelter worker’s nightmares. All these years later, they still haunt me. These are the people who would bring in middle-aged or healthy senior animals because they simply no longer want them, knowing that they could die. They would surrender animals because their new love interest didn’t want them. They would move but not look for a place that accepted animals. They would say the dog “smells funny,” the cat is “too affectionate” or, and this is truly one I saw, the companion animal did not match their new couch.
There was far worse that I saw at the shelter, of course. I saw dogs brought to us with severe frostbite, kept outside in Chicago all year without adequate shelter. I saw a cat who’d been set on fire, rubbing his raw skin against the wires, purring with contentment at seeing a random person outside his cage, he was still so friendly. I saw survivors of dog-fighting rings and I won’t describe that. I saw skeletal, barely alive animals regularly where you could count every rib. I saw things that I had to immediately block out.
The shelter I worked at, like all decent shelters, was a refuge where survivors of human irresponsibility and cruelty had a chance at adoption, but if not – if they were too sick, too old, too unsocialized, too injured – at least they were off the streets, we told ourselves and each other, at least they weren’t suffering anymore, at least they had some moments of human kindness. We held tight to the happy outcomes but were tormented by the others.
. . .
One of the things I realized early into my five-year stint at the shelter was that ample evidence of the best and the worst of humanity could be found there. It was such an unbelievably wide and stark spectrum. The kindest end and the most heartless end of the spectrum are the people who made the most long-lasting impression on me; same with the animals. The ones who had a perfect outcome and the many who could have only been offered mercy stick stubbornly in my mind 25 years later.
The experience of working at the shelter left me with an understanding that was new to me, that our species is capable of extremes of unfathomable cruelty and deep, selfless altruism and love. An animal shelter is where you see those polarities represented in great abundance every day, as well as materialism (“This is a purebred! You should pay me for giving him to you!”), empathy (“There’s a dog tied up in our neighbor’s yard and I wonder if we can do anything,”), entitlement (“I don’t want this cat anymore. Come pick it up.”) and appreciation (“Thank you for the work you’re doing. You are superheros.”) There were people, lots of them, who called with threats, telling us that if someone from the shelter didn’t pick up their animals immediately, they were going to kill them, and there were people, also lots of them, who so loved their adoption experience that they became the best volunteers. So many ways of behaving, so many perspectives, so many different kinds of people.
There is something about companion animals, how we think of them and treat them, that brings out the best and the worst of humanity. As opposed to the animals people eat, where even compassionate people generally put on blinders to avoid thinking about it, homeless companion animals are where we see the best and the worst of humanity collide. So much kindness, so much cruelty.
I guess my point is, thank goodness for the compassionate ones, the ones who are so far on the side of kindness, the ones like my friend, who was more than willing to turn her life upside-down to give a kitten she had barely met a chance at a good life. This alone gives me hope. I am going to ignore her polarity now so I can just enjoy knowing that she is in the world for a moment.
Rest in peace, kitten. You were loved, that much I know.
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