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From Cat Lover to Loving Volunteer

By Natalia Macrynikola

From Cat Lover to Loving Volunteer

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.

Cat Homelessness
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?

Natalia Macrynikola is a Group Editor at Studio One Networks, which publishes The Daily Cat.

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Posted on September 9, 2008

Dimitri says: Thank you for such a sensitive view of human-feline relations. Your story was interesting from six different aspects: 1. It contained a vivid description of your way to the shelter and encounter with the cats. 2. It offered your experience and handling tips. 3. It created interest for volunteering. 4. It gave specific information on how to volunteer using the Web. 5. It pointed out that scratches on hands can be tokens of a brave attitude and a heroic heart. 6. It implied that saving the world one cat at a time is in fact saving the world one soul at a time... through cats. Thank you.

Posted on September 6, 2008

Chris says: I would like to see more people go down to the low income areas in the cities to feed and rescue the cats and dogs on the streets. also it would be wonderful to see an outreach program done there for free Spaying and Neutering for their pets. I know that would be difficult to raise funds for , but it can be done. They are sometimes high crime areas, but this is where the need is the most. The animals wander around , ( especially around dumpsters and trash cans) looking for food and they are outside without any shelter. Only a few hours a week can make such a big difference to a hungry and frightened animal.

Posted on July 30, 2008

kelsey says: Wow , i reay liked your writing and everything you wrotee. im trying to find to volenterring with pets, for my 40 hours for highschool, but i dont know where to look. and i was wondering can you help me ? , i hpe you get back to me , because i know proably after, i would love it there, because iluv pets al together.

Posted on August 15, 2008

Judy says: Natalia Volunteering is rewarding in so many ways .... Yes all 9 lives sit up and take notice when you arrive at a Cat shelter .... The Purrs get louder with each visit...... I've been a cat shelter volunteer for 9 years and recently applied at a smaller shelter (these cats are found in the woods left to starve .... Its always amazing that these little souls have so much history to share (Young or Old) there someones cast off's .. People seem to think if they open a door or leave them behind they will take care of themselfs..... Sadly that isn't the case a trusting young cat walked up to some teenagers in a park .... These Teens decided to have some fun with the young cat doused it with a cleaning solution and tossed it at a Pit Bull ... Luckly a Lady and her son where walking by and saved this little one from certain death...... theres got to be a way of spreading this message around to let people know that it this isn't acceptable behaviour ...... Much to my astonshment People can still be consumed with hate and try to hurt another person or animal...... It sader still that people don't realize that animals are living breathing souls with love to offer any of us who take the time to share and care/love them.. I applaud you for writing this wonderful article ..... Please find a local shelter in your area drop off old towels, canned food, anything your budget will allow .... it's goes to supporting caring for these precious souls that will reward any of us with love and affection for many years to come. ..... Judy

Posted on July 14, 2008

Atif I. says: I loved the way you described the personalities of the cats! Your vivid imagery, playful take on words (e.g. "animaltarian") and personal style not only reinforce your passion for cats and volunteer work, but also demonstrate your writing and storytelling skills. As a cat lover, I really look forward to reading more from you!

Posted on July 16, 2008

Claire says: great tips. Adopting a cat can bring such joy into one's life. One of our current cats, Sniffles, showed up on our doorstep, literally! He suffers from allergies and asthma but he has gotten our older cats playing and is VERY loving to. I don't mind having to reteach 'easy' or 'stop' because of this little miracle.

Posted on July 20, 2008

Christie and her owner, Allie the Bengal Cat says: Natalia, It's all in the name. I have known three Natalia's in my life, all of them avid ailurophiliacs! As soon as I saw that you, too, were a Natalia, I knew I was going to love your story. I have never worked/volunteered in a shelter, because I have terminal cancer and can't walk or do a lot of the things that such "work" would require. However, when my husband and I lived in Japan from 2002 to 2005, I almost immediately began bringing cats and kittens home with me. My two Bengals were the best welcome committee in the world, and I never brought in a feline that wasn't immediately bathed, groomed, shown where food, litter, and bed could be found, and most of all, loved, by Allie and Ikaika. I rescued about 40 cats in three years, with the youngest being around 6 days and the oldest being an 8-year-old, FIV+, 40 pound tomcat named, by my American neighbor and I, Mr. Bigballs, due to the number of his progeny that appeared in the neighborhood every spring. Mr. Bigballs decided to make his home on my front porch, and after months of earning his trust and setting the cat trap (from which he could get a can of tuna that I had twistie-tied to the bars on the floor without losing a hair), i was finally able to take him to the vet for shots and, more importantly, to be neutered. I couldn't afford the meds for his disease, and he rarely allowed me to touch him anyway, but I prevented him from spreading it any further, and I like to think that he felt and appreciated my unconditional love. Hubby and I returned to the States with my cancer diagnosis, our original two Bengal cats, plus four more we couldn't imagine leaving behind. Today, due to my physical limitations, as well as my allergy to cats, which has grown worse over the past three years, we are back down to two. The original, Allie McBeal Beretta, and a tiny Bengal kitten, Eleyond Tithdearon Beretta (who is a replacement son for Allie and me since Ikaika went missing last year) are truly my children. The other four live with family, and I visit them frequently. I think we love cats because they never intentionally hurt us. They may scratch when we try to clip their nails or nip at our ankles if we finish playing before they're ready, but overall they are so good-natured and, at the same time, completely regal. They deign to live with us. From them we learn the meaning of unconditional love, and the importance of occasional tummy-rubbing. Please keep writing. I am writing a book right now about cats and cancer, and I'd love to get some tips from your articles. I think I speak for all of us when I say that I want to learn more about your own cat babies.

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