We spent more than two hours, Saturday, in the cat rooms at the new Georgian Bay Animal Rescue shelter, on the Tenth Line in Collingwood. GBAR has an unusual concept - open rooms, not individual cages. That way cats can socialize, play, move about, interact with each other and with visitors.
We had a friend up from Guelph over the weekend - another cat lover - and I'm not sure what moved us to take him to the shelter, but it became the highlight of his visit. Well, actually adopting the little cat you see at the left was the highlight. But the visit was entertaining, too.
There are two cat rooms at the shelter: the large or main room, and a smaller 'quiet' room. I've posted a couple of photos of the main room in my gallery here. I didn't count the number of cats in each, but I'd say 50-60 in the main room and perhaps 20 in the small one.
It's a great idea for many reasons. First, it means the cats aren't caged all day long. When you consider that some of these cats may be in custody a year or more, keeping them in a cage for that long seems like cruel punishment. Second it means that prospective adopters can interact with a cat - pick it up and see how it reacts to you. And also see it in company with other cats. Is it a loner or active? Does it play? How does it react to petting?
As soon as you walk into the room, you get greeted by several, sometimes a dozen, looking for attention and affection. Sit down on the floor and pretty soon you're covered in cats snuggling up with you, sitting on your lap. It's very difficult not to respond - you try to pet as many as you can. Here's a tip: leave your jacket outside. Pretty soon you're covered in cat hair! But we love cats, so it was a minor thing we're accustomed to.
Anyone under the impression cats are stand-offish or aloof just has to visit GBAR's cat room and in under a minute that misconception will be rubbed away by the dozen or more cats looking for a head scratch. It was difficult to pull ourselves away - even after two hours we kept discovering a cat we hadn't noticed earlier and wanted to interact with it.
Some of them were insistent and followed us around, demanding attention, climbing onto the furniture to get closer if we ignored them. Others waited patiently, sometimes uttering a soft 'miaow' when we approached, to signal they were there.
Yes, having cats interact that way also presents problems. First the staff and volunteers have to be careful to make sure there are no issues of aggression. Second there is the threat of infection and disease - carefully monitored, with weekly veterinary visits - that can spread quickly within a confined population. But on the other hand, exposure to other cats helps build stronger immune systems. All the cats are neutered or spayed and vaccinated, so the risk is minimized.
GBAR has many cats - thirteen pages of them listed on their website at cdhs.petfinder.com. A lot of these animals were abandoned or dumped; left behind when irresponsible owners moved or by visitors who think it's fine to drop their unwanted animals on a roadside. It's heartbreaking.
I've always felt that our civilization, even our humanity, is measured by our treatment of our companion animals. To me abandoning an animal is cruelty and abuse that is on par with cruelty or sexual abuse to children. Mark Twain wrote that, "Of all God's creatures, there is only one that cannot be made slave of the lash. That one is the cat. If man could be crossed with the cat it would improve the man, but it would deteriorate the cat."
Our dog, Sophie, was abandoned by her owners, who moved from town and simply left her tied to a tree. They also left a cat behind. Animal control picked up the dog a couple of days later, but we never discovered what happened to the cat. Sophie's been a wonderful companion to us for the past two years and I can't imagine how anyone could treat a loving, intelligent and affectionate animal with such disdain and meanness.
Cats are more problematic than dogs for the shelter because they have hundreds. Mostly adult cats, too. People seem to be willing to adopt an older dog more quickly than an older cat. So a lot of these cats now live full-time in the shelter or its satellites. One shown on the GBAR website has been in custody for six years! We actually went there to look at adopting her, but she was at another location, and we ended up with Tizzy (aka Tuxie), instead.
GBAR notes on its website: "Mimay has been in our program since 2004. Time and time again, she has been passed over in favor of prettier, cuter kittens and cats but to GBAR volunteers she is the loveliest of ALL! Mimay is also known as "Lady Love" because all she wants to do is show you how much she loves you! Her "head rubs" are known as her signature trait and she can hear you opening a bag of cat treats from a mile away! This super gal has been patiently waiting an extremely long time for her loving home. She wants nothing more than to please you and her affectionate ways are so endearing... Unfortunately, the longer she stays in our program the less likely it is that she will get adopted."
Unfortunately, people will adopt kittens quickly - and there's no shortage of backyard breeders or irresponsible owners who won't bother to spay and neuter their pets to prevent the population boom in kittens and puppies. So older animals often are consigned to a life of captivity in shelters, usually in cages that make human prisons seem like cozy hotel rooms in comparison. That's why GBAR's open concept is such a nice change. More shelters should try it.
Our friend from Guelph also took home a cat. The hardest thing about that visit wasn't adopting a cat - it was adopting just one. There are so many we would have taken home. But we had three already - one a stray who moved in with us more than a decade ago and two long-term foster cares from the humane society (after this long, they're not likely to ever go back because they're integral to our home now). Tizzy makes four.
To us, a house without a cat is just a building. A cat makes it a home. As Mark Twain wrote in The Tragedy of Pudd'nhead Wilson, "A house without a cat, and a well-fed, well-petted, and properly revered cat, may be a perfect house, perhaps, but how can it prove its title?"
The most stressful, emotionally-draining job I ever had was working in a large animal shelter for a couple of years. I had been a volunteer for about two years before I was asked to join the staff. I thought it would be a great job, but it was tough. In part that was because of the inter-office politics and squabbles between two unions and between them and management. But also because I care deeply about animals and their welfare. Every day we were subjected to some heart-wrenching story of abandonment, abuse, accident. Every day more animals came in, which meant some had to be euthanized to make room. I broke into tears many times watching an animal heading towards the vet's office for its final trip.
Like any other job, I ended up taking my work home with me. That meant a small menagerie of cats, dogs and ferrets we adopted or were fostering. We also did some volunteer work for other animal agencies, including Danes In Distress, trying to help care for or find homes for unwanted pets. We ended up taking in neighbourhood strays and soon had seven cats to care for. Our 900-sq. ft house was full of animals. Every one of them had loving care, veterinary care, the best food, and was neutered or spayed. It cost us a fortune, but we both believed it was our social and human responsibility to care for them.
GBAR has several hundred cats - many loving, affectionate, wonderful cats - that need a home. If you can open your heart to one (or another one), it would help them greatly. Take in an older cat if you can - they are superb companions, and a lot quieter and more affectionate than kittens. There's something immensely comforting about sitting on a couch, reading on a Saturday afternoon, with a cat curled up beside you. The purr of a cat is soothing music.
If you're interested in helping - both as a volunteer or by adopting a cat - call GBAR at (705) 445-5204 or email email@example.com. Better yet, visit the shelter - it's hard to leave there without taking one home!