Sunday, February 7, 2016

Being the one who remembers: humane housing in shelters

A cat who is clearly not in a shelter.

Last night I wrote the first draft of a document on appropriate housing for shelter animals for IAABC’s new shelter division. Before getting into the nitty gritty details, I wrote as part of the general overview:
Housing for any shelter animal should be clean and safe: easy to sanitize; no sharp edges that could injure the animal; no gaps or broken latches that could allow the animal to escape. Animals should not be housed in temporary enclosures like airplane crates for more than a few hours while longer term housing is located.
I wondered: Is this too basic to even cover? Will readers stop reading the document at this point, thinking it’s worthless?

But then I remembered the story of a cat I encountered at a shelter during my internship. I was working in the kitten house, a small house dedicated to raising kittens during The Season. The cages were mostly roomy enough for moms with their litters; smaller cages were reserved for litters of orphan kittens. But one small cage had an elderly adult cat in it.

This cage was just too small for this cat. Now, some shelters keep all their cats in cages like this. But the thing was, this was a really excellent shelter. They did a great job of providing their cats with roomy housing. And their vet knew the importance of good housing and advocated for it, and moreover had enough authority to make it happen (sadly, a bit of a rarity in many shelters). So what was going on here?

I asked. Turns out, the cat had been adopted by a staff member but had proven to have behavoral issues that made it difficult for her to live in a home. So she had come back to the shelter. She also had a disease or two which made her expensive to keep and difficult to adopt. But the shelter wasn’t willing to euthanize her, so they put her in a spare cage in the kitten house and planned to figure out the situation later. And hadn’t figured it out yet, because in a shelter, there’s always some more pressing problem that has to be figured out today.

What it took for this cat to get good housing was for someone to notice and make her a priority. We moved her into the bathroom for a few days so she could have more legroom, and she hung out with me in the guest bedroom at night. I found a roomy wire crate intended for litters of kittens and we set that up for her for her evenings long term, and during the days she got to hang out on the desk of the kitten house manager.

And that is often the job of the person at a shelter who works on animal behavior and welfare. Not training. Not making plans for Kong programs. Not fighting to change whole banks of cat cages out for something better. But noticing one single animal who got forgotten in an airline crate in a corner. Being the advocate for the little things. Being the one who remembers.