No Kill: Widening the Circle

shelterA few weeks ago, I attended the DFW No Kill Workshop in Addison, Texas. Among the many inspirational speakers was vegan No Kill advocate, Nathan Winograd. Because I had heard so much negativity about the No Kill movement, I was eager to attend and learn about the movement firsthand. Was it true that this plan meant warehousing animals for months, even years? That it would mean leaving stray animals on the streets, with no place to house them? That it was irresponsible, requires large sums of money and enlarged shelters? The answers: no, no, and no, no, no. What No Kill advocates is much of what vegan activists advocate: a change in thinking. Once we change our belief system, everything else becomes possible. While few public shelters become 100% no kill, many make astounding strides in saving thousands of animal lives simply by changing their attitudes about possibilities.  Since only about 20% of animals are procured from our shelters, changing that statistic alone is bound to help.

Here are some interesting points:

  • Most of the large animal advocacy groups oppose No Kill often misstating what it means
  • Local shelters which have moved towards No Kill have reduced kill rates significantly
  • Many shelters kill even when they have ample open cages
  • The biggest single change required is a change in attitude: all animal lives matter!

Can No Kill Mean Vegan?

While most No Kill advocates are not yet vegan, some are vegan. It would be my hope that the No Kill movement would eventually widen to include all animals, not just companion animals. As an ethical vegan, there is concern for the animals in the tins, the ones that are fed to all the rescued shelter animals; we have to be concerned for their lives, too. Ending all pet breeding would be a start in the right direction, but when large wealthy groups like HSUS support pet breeding, it is doubtful that will happen anytime soon. Educating adopters about feeding their newly adopted dogs plant-based foods would be a good idea, too, but if they are still eating animals themselves, there is much education that needs to take place before that can happen.

Seagoville in our North Texas area saved 97% of the animals in their care in 2011, saving all but 15 of the 568 animals in their shelter. Other neighboring shelters which have not adopted the No Kill ethic had save rates as low as 33%. Our local animal shelter has a supportive group of volunteers that are bringing the kill ratios down significantly by a determination to value each and every life that enters the shelter. They know these animals by names they have given them; they promote them on social media sites. They attend mobile pet adoption events and help to get the word out to their friends. They fundraise and work hard to increase fosters so that more animals can get out of the shelters with their lives. And it is working.

Valuing the Invisible Animals, Too

The kill rates for slaughterhouses are close to 100%. We currently have no way to get those animals out of the treacherous lines marching them to their death. However, the same change in thinking which has caused such dramatic drops in killing for domesticated companion animals, must be changed for animals commodified for food, clothing, and entertainment. We must not tolerate the abuse and torment of animals for product testing or scientific research. If animal lives matter, and they do, we must widen the idea of No Kill to be all inclusive. It is appalling to me that Nathan Winograd has been attacked by other animal activists, by large animal advocacy groups that themselves kill thousands of animals, and by the ignorant who do not understand what the No Kill ethic is and how it works. But I still have one question that I was unable to get answered the day of the No Kill Workshop: as an ethical vegan, how can we increase the ethic of No Kill to include all animals, regardless of species?

Opening the Door

A few month ago, an acquaintance asked for a foster home for two male kitties on Facebook, and I hesitatingly posted a reply to her query. I already have an older cat for whom I care, a female with claws; these were two young males who had been neutered and declawed. I knew my home was unsuitable, but said I could possibly offer sanctuary for a brief time if it was truly a desperate need. I opened the door to what was to become a few months of stress, guilt, education, heartbreak, expenses, and absolute joy.

Two Precious Spirits

IMG_2922-250x300The energy and loving spirits of those two beings touched us all. Soon my adult son was coming over to see the boys every chance he got. He declared they were “perfect cats,” despite the fact that they were athletic and rambunctious–and occasionally destructive. They chewed a hole in my photo backdrops. They knocked over vases and lamps, and even managed to get a painting from the wall to the floor. They knocked my clothes off the hangers, threw most everything off the shelves in the closet, and esconced themselves forever in my heart. I would listen to my grandson giggling happily at their antics – there was nothing he loved better. I warned him from the beginning that they were only here for a short while, but as the weeks dragged on, he fell in total love with them. We all did.

On the downside, my own senior cat was none too happy. I kept the boys in my bedroom, where there are windows out into the greenbelt, an adjoining bath with cool tile, and a walk in closet filled with things to explore, to minimize any potential conflict between clawed and declawed. Still, I felt like a prison warden, keeping them locked away for most of the day in order to allow my own feline roommate as much normalcy as possible. She seemed to go downhill, too – she was losing weight and despite my best efforts, she was paying the price for my desire to help the boys find a home. The boys would cry to join me and I would look at those winsome eyes feeling helpless to explain the situation. They purred the minute I went into their rooms and I spent a lot of time giving them temporary freedom and attention while our resident cat napped. Then I would hear our senior cat cry and know the boys would have to go back into their room until the next time I could let them out.

Receiving More Than Giving

IMG_2821-264x300The fostering experience was more than I could have anticipated. I tried sending out color flyers and asked everyone I knew to help. Finally I was connected online with a couple of rescue people who offered assistance – both were involved in rehoming animals through adoption events in pet stores. I went with the first one who contacted me and followed all instructions. First was a long trip to the rescue group’s vet for FIV/FLV testing – the boys were negative but it was to become one more expense for me. I would be reimbursed once they were placed, but a long, hot, miserable drive to the adoption event proved futile – we were dismissed, the boys were labeled ‘unadoptable” and we were sent home. Their frightened hissing did not bode well for such an event. The group did, however, list us as an independent adoption on Petfinder, and I continued to list them on Pawsitively Texas, a Facebook site for rehoming animals, as I had for months.

Suddenly, one particular photo seemed to garner attention, and within four days I had six people contact me. Two wanted only one cat, two gave up after innitial queries, and two wanted both of the boys. Since I hated the thought of separating these littermates and best buddies, I was grateful to find two potential homes. When the first one decided to only accept one cat, the option fell to the second visitor. This young father was so taken with the cats, and they with him, that it relieved my mind. He even put up with all my questions about the suitability of his home. I loaded his truck up with all their belongings: dishes, litter boxes, toys, treats, food bin – even a laser they loved to chase. This young man had grown up with cats, had them sleeping on his chest as a child. His own sons loved the cat at their grandmothers and now that they were getting older, he decided it was time for them to have kitties in their own home. I put the boys in their carrier and said a quick goodbye.  I was elated they had a good home and delighted I could once again focus on Skitter, my own feline roommate.

Opening the Door, Part Two

Two days later, as I finally opened the door to my room after removing all signs of the boys, after washing down every surface and putting order back in the room, I thought of those two beautiful faces. I missed their constant purring, their playful nature, those inquisitive looks, the soft little paws on my legs, their total love of life itself. I remembered one of them trying to jump up and hit the icemaker after watching me use it and how they would leap to the top shelf of the closet to nap!  I know they are two of the more fortunate ones, with 70% of cats being killed in shelters, never having a chance for life. Still, I am concerned for their future but have to let go and let their future happen. I told the adopter that I would take them back if it didn’t work out for any reason to give them a little bit more security. He seemed a lot like my own son, who has seen many animals through to the end, and I hope they will all have a wonderful, long, loving life together.

It is great to have peace and order back in my life. Our own itty bitty Skitty seems so tiny compared to those thirteen-pounders, and she barely weighed a thing by the time they left. A week later, she has put on weight and her coat looks so much healthier! She has her domain back and she will not lose it again. (Skits was herself a foster, originally a temporary sheltering that has lasted nine years so far.) I am so grateful that the boys could be placed together with a young family, just as I had hoped. And I am ever so grateful that Skits will have time to enjoy the peace of her own place in the world to the very end.

Each opened door also means a closed door, and it is with both joy and grief that I wish those Manx brothers, whom I dearly love, the very, very best life has to offer. They delighted us, adored us, exasperated us, and touched us. They reminded us of the precious gift of life and its many manifestations. Goodbye boys; you will be missed!

A House Divided

gate-300x294As a rookie foster provider for two feline brothers, I plunged in with all the best intentions and little knowledge of what to expect. I had agreed to take these two displaced persons into my home on a very temporary basis, as they are both declawed and young, while our resident feline is getting up in years and is fully armed with claws. I knew it was not an ideal situation, but since the only other option appeared to be dropping them off at the local animal shelter with a high kill rate, I opened my front door to two very anxious and terrified little guys.

Lesson Number One: Allow Time for Transitioning

The first few days were a nightmare; they had been dropped off without collars or tags, without medical records, and without carriers.  One hid under the couch, one hid behind the bed. They hissed constantly and appeared positively terrified. Litter boxes, along with food and water, were place within easy distance so they could come out at night when the house was quiet. I hoped they would join with one another for comfort, but they never left their spots for days.  I had to confine our cat, Skitter, in a room until they could be retrieved from their hiding places. Finally, I used food to seduce the beneath-the-couch resident into the lair of his brother in the bedroom.  Once they were contained and reunited, things began looking up considerably.

They continued to hiss at one another, to the point I grew concerned. My grandson, age 5, assured me it was normal. “I am often quite terrible to my brother but I still love him. I think it is normal.” Of course, he was exactly right – they were just scared and being declawed kitties, had to sound as scary as they could to protect themselves. Litter boxes and other equipment were arranged in the bedroom and they were set to adjust to their foster home. There are two large windows with low wide tables under them, in their bedroom, perfect perching places for inquisitive felines, and they soon spent hours peering out at the greenbelt behind our home.

Lesson Two: Make Sure There Is A Game Plan

Meanwhile, resident she-cat was none too happy about these rambunctious male visitors. There was hissing at the door to their room, and four strategically placed (but gentle) bites on my arm to voice her displeasure. At one point, my grandson accidentally let them out and our gentle feline became the She-Devil of Texas, with two frightened boys heading for their safe spot under the couch.  Skitter let out some incredible warning growls and I was forced to grab her and suffer any consequences, but she calmed right down. She just needed to let them know who was boss and whose house they were in – hers! It was looking like our house would be divided for quite some time.

Complicating matters, those who asked me to foster had no game plan. No one else was planning to take responsibility for finding these boys a home. I think like me, they were motivated by the best of intentions but without any real knowledge of what rehoming animals requires. I was soon to learn. For example, it is illegal to rehome cats that have not been spayed or neutered in Texas. I needed to get their medical records, something I had requested before assuming responsibility for them. A quarter million animals are killed each year in north Texas due to irresponsible animal guardians and homeless beings procreating with one another. This number is increased greatly by the number of puppy mills, individual breeders and kitten litters that seem to perpetually appear in the want ads of local newspapers. With the recession, things have become much worse, with job loss, home foreclosures, and an increase in the divorce rate. It was this final sadness, the dissolution of a family, that cost these two their happy home.

Lesson Three: Benevolent Despotism is Better Than ….. The Alternative

During the months of fostering, I have often felt like a despot, forcing these two loving and bright spirits to remain locked away from everyone for most of the day, when all they want is to investigate and cuddle. Meanwhile, there is a corresponding guilt for our resident feline, who was not eating as much as normal and sticking by my side during the day. I never fostered before out of respect for Skitter, who was originally a foster cat herself. She deserves to have a peaceful place during her golden years. When she naps, I do let the boys out to romp for awhile, but it is never for long. Somehow, they are adapting to this life, but it is far below my own minimum standards for animal care. I want them to have the home I could provide for them if I were available.

But of course on the other side of things, there are two beautiful, lively, loving feline boys who are alive and well and will most likely find a permanent home. They are exceptionally beautiful, clean, playful and loving. They are devilishly rambunctious and adore humans. Their athleticism amazes me, as they can leap up to the top shelf in my closet or above the refrigerator in the kitchen. My adult son nows comes to visit regularly and heads right to the “boys room” in the back of the house. He likes their playfulness, the way they grab his arm and give gentle bites, and the way they purr loudly when he visits. My grandson loves that they cannot claw him, with their oh-so-soft little paws feeling very safe. He also loves being the Authority Figure, clapping his hands to remind them to get down from a table or counter. He has even started volunteering to clean out their litter boxes and they run to see him when is here. And, he has told me never wants them to leave.

Lesson Four: Find a Legitimate Rescue Group

I am now getting assistance from some legitimate rescue groups who rehome animals. I have advertised them on Facebook, Twitter, and in the local grocery store giveaway magazines. They have been posted on every local rescue I could find.  Experienced rehomers have assured me it just takes time, but these boys will find a home. It may require volunteering at a local pet store ( or even at one some distance away) weekly so they can gain admittance to being seen there. Flyers have been given out at every opportunity. They will also be posted on Petfinder.com and have been shown on Examiner.com, too. I had hoped to find them a home together, since they are so loving with one another, but was told there are no guarantees. Right now, finding a suitable home is no easy task. With everything we do wrong when it comes to animals, it seemed like keeping this family pair together was essential when everything else was taken from them. I know each will do well with a loving person in their life, but still hold out hope that their wonderful union can continue. I look forward with simultaneous hope and grief towards their adoption. I know it will break my heart the day I get the bedroom back, but I will also be glad to give Skitter back her domain.

The work that our local animal rescue groups do is truly lifesaving. They fight for decent conditions in local animal shelters, they work tirelessly to get the animals in their care before the public eye, and they remind us of the significance of each and every animal life. They attend protests when shelter conditions are lacking and shelter staff are unwilling to negotiate. And, they help the forlorn fostering homes like mine find a way to the salvation of a bright new future for a few lucky animals. Without them, there may well be even higher numbers of animals dying in this part of the world. Special thanks to Teresa at Furever Friends and Lynn at Feral Felines for all their support and encouragement.

Lesson Five: Look Before You Leap

Taking responsibility for the lives of others is a daunting task. It has increased my stress and decreased my free time and my finances. I have no future plans to foster again; I want Skitter to have peace and quiet. I want to live in a house that is not divided between clawed and declawed, between resident and foster.

But I did acquire a doghouse recently. Who knows? Maybe someday….

Toes, Tails, and Testicles

tttI admit it; I failed the first test of any foster parent – I fell in love with my foster felines. They are such innocent, loving, inquisitive young beings, so consistently delighted with everything they encounter. While their affection may not be as sycophantic as a puppy, they have their ways. From loud purring every time they greet someone to playful antics over things as mundane as a cardboard box or a piece of string, these two are endearing. I finally surrendered to them and their tomcat ways. I have become putty in their paws.

Declawed and De-tailed

Because they have been declawed, their ability to function in the world has been seriously truncated. Fortunately, they seem to have healed quite well and leap with all the enthusiasm they can muster to spring on top shelves and cabinets, on refrigerators and tables. Without claws, though, they have no room for second chances and no way to defend themselves should a challenger surface. They say being declawed is the human equivalent to having each finger amputated at the first joint. Imagine doing that to a human child, just so they won’t leave marks on the furniture. Declawing a cat is an invasive procedure to make life easier for humans, but it doesn’t do much to enhance the lives of cats.

As if that wasn’t insult enough, they also have no tails.  Manx cats have a spinal deformity that prevents the development of a tail. One of the fosters is completely tailless and the other has a half tail, commonly called a stubtail.  A relative who has worked at a veterinary clinic mentioned that the former guardians may have had their tails cut; some people do that. Our resident female feline uses her tail quite effectively – I can tell pretty instantaneously when she is perturbed, for that amazing appendage will begin making a hard-to-miss statement as it swishes. Not happy. Definitely. Not happy.

Invasive Intervention for Animal Control

It is essential that animals be shorn of their ability to procreate, with millions of animals losing their fight for life each year due to our human inability or unwillingness to care for and feed them all. When only a few months old, these boys were forever separated from their testicles, too. Snip, snip, snip – we humans do what we will – then abandon them to their fate. Our local Texas SPCA works mostly with saving animals relinquished by their owners. They do an admirable job of advertising them online and on television, and find homes for nearly all of them. I used to help advertise their animals and was always shocked at the reasons for their abandonment: lost jobs, ended marriages, but also excuses like: too busy, too many animals, moving to a new location, can’t be bothered.

Loving and Letting Go

The one last thing these brothers now have is each other and their shared experiences in life. Even that, though, may be taken from them. Once they enter the rescue group’s program, they must accept whatever homing options find them. With so many animals dying, these beggars may not be choosers. Humans make the rules, and we do not play fair. As much as I have tried to protect these two, I know I have to let go and hope they find a loving forever home. I hope they will be two of the lucky ones that won’t re-enter the system at a later date. Just by being accepted into the rescue group, they at least have that – if the new guardians ever need to relinquish them, they will go back into the rescue group’s program and not enter a kill shelter. I know that they are, therefore, much more fortunate than the average feline these days, with over 60% of shelter felines losing their chance at life. Loving and letting go is part of being a foster guardian. The loving part is easy; the letting go—not so much. These two young beings are a constant reminder, though, of the importance of focusing on what we have, not what we have lost; it is what allows them to love again and appreciate every little scrap life has to offer.  It is a good reminder for the rest of us, too.