Growing up, my siblings and I were animal lovers but never had many pets. We had to relocate often due to my dad’s Coast Guard career, and my parents were understandably wary of adding animals to our very mobile family. Early on it was decided that once my dad retired and we were living somewhere permanently, we could start adding pets to the mix.
So naturally one of my favorite memories as a kid was going to our local animal shelter to adopt not one, but TWO cats! We were blown away by how many were available for adoption, and we took the decision very seriously. After much deliberation my siblings and I settled on a black kitten (Link) and tortoiseshell kitten (Lily) who joined us in our first home out of the military. I remember feeling super happy with the decision, but sort of sad that we left so many other cats behind in the shelter. I wondered if they would find homes as well.
Fast forward a little over 10 years and I landed a job at the Humane Society for Southwest Washington. I gained a much deeper understanding of the pet overpopulation problem, and the cat situation was particularly overwhelming. I spent much of my first summer there working in our stray feline ward, which consisted of three rooms with about 60 kennels in each one. There was rarely an empty kennel in the summer so there were days where I literally never left those rooms due to the volume of cats and kittens that needed to be cared for. My coworkers were amazing but we were also understaffed at the time, so it was hard to pull someone away from their wards to help me get everything done. That summer, it was basically just me and the cats.
Needless to say, this gave me an up close and personal look at exactly how many cats rotate through an animal shelter. Best case scenario, a cat is admitted and quickly adopted (a two or three day turnaround time), but it’s not always that easy. Sticking a cat in a kennel in an unfamiliar and strange place is so scary for them. It can make even normally easy going cats act out aggressively. Some cats would need extra time to cool down but that extra time increases their risk of contracting a URI, which is extremely hard for them to recover from in a shelter environment. I made the common mistake of getting really attached to certain cats, and as a result spent many occasions hiding and crying because another one of my favorites had fallen ill and wasn’t getting better. It got to a point where I needed to walk away from the cat wards entirely. A dog ward was still stressful but they didn’t get sick the way that cats did, which was what usually sent me over the edge.
Luckily we had a foster program in place and a pretty decent save rate, so many of the dogs and cats did find homes. When I finally emerged from the stray cat wards (reeking of cat pee but otherwise okay), I found a lot of joy in helping families meet with potential companions. There are few things that can make me happier than seeing a family walk out of an animal shelter with a new kitty in tow, taking them to their forever home.
In the couple years since I left things have only gotten better. The shelter’s cat team has made great strides in improving quality of life in the feline wards (larger kennels, more socialization and enrichment, etc). Their save rate for cats in 2014 was 82.6% and continues to improve. On a larger note, we are so lucky to have a local organization like the Animal Shelter Alliance of Portland for guidance. This coalition consists of several shelters and rescues in the Portland metro area working toward reducing the homeless pet population through low-cost spay/neuter programs, as well as making Portland a safer place for homeless animals overall. Add some cat specific rescue groups to the mix, and that makes Portland one of the safer places to be a homeless kitty. I really hope and believe that one day shelters everywhere can have the same resources that we do and feel less pressure from pet overpopulation.