I remember someone asking the question “What is the hardest part about volunteering?” when I went to the info session at the San Francisco SPCA in January. The mentor smiled and frowned at the same time: “The most difficult part is having your heartstrings tucked.”
At the time I rolled my eyes and thought “Yeesh, what is this? A cheesy romantic comedy?” (Which I love, BTW) But after 6 months of volunteering at the animal shelter almost every weekend, I now know what it meant.
Cats obviously can’t talk but they communicate plenty. The look of sheer sadness in a shelter cat’s eyes when I have to leave its condo after petting and playing with it for 15 minutes says “I don’t understand why you have to go. Please stay. ” Understand that this pet most likely has been through a lot- whether its owner passed away, or it was abandoned or lost, and it is suddenly in an unfamiliar environment. The staff at SPCA are the most wonderful people but they can’t spend all of their time with the dogs and cats because there are other important tasks to do for the well-being of these animals. The animals at the shelter may sometimes only get one chance of proper human affection and playtime per day. When I went to visit the hospital shelter cats, many of them get so excited about the opportunity of human contact that they start climbing the cages or crying loudly.
I remember vividly a few months ago, I went in a room to visit a cat that I had not seen around before. It was a white adult cat but it was so small and thin that I thought it was a kitten at first. I sat down and held out my hand. When it got up and came to, I saw its hind legs- the fur was shaven for stitches from surgery. I immediately started crying and I couldn’t stop for a long time.* The thought of the cat being hurt somewhere on the street because its owner wasn’t responsible enough to take care of it properly really, really upset me. I told the cat that it was not his fault at all and that he will get adopted soon by someone much better, and hoped that I was able to deliver that message with the tone of my voice and the warmth of my palm.
The funny thing is that as much as the shelter cats need the volunteers, the reverse is also true. I learned through chatting that some volunteers come because they are mourning their own pets who recent passed away, or they were recently laid off and having a hard time. For me, it was quite therapeutic sometimes.
I remember for 3 consecutive weekends, I saw the same cat at the shelter. Morena was a short haired so mixed that its breed is just called “American Shorthair.” Basically, he was not particularly special in terms of looks but he was one of the sweetest cat I’ve ever met. We shared common interests in cuddling and hugging often, and there was a lot of looking deeply into each other’s eyes and being cute together (Did I mention that I like cheesy romantic comedies?). There was complete mutual trust, which sadly not does not occur all that often among human beings. Needlessly to say, I really liked Morena.
The following week I was having a particularly crappy day due to one reason or another. And I thought “I know what would make me feel better! I’m going to visit Morena!” The SF SPCA closes at 7 pm on weekdays. I rushed home after work for my badge around 6 pm then power-walked over there. The front desk volunteer greeted me curiously “You know that we’re closing in 45 minutes, right?” I made up a white lie and said “Oh I was just in the area and thought I could drop by for a bit!” Selfishly, I was so happy and relieved to find Morena still there. I told him my problems while he curled up in my lap and felt SO MUCH better. Pets really are great listeners because they can’t interrupt you and try to offer you solutions that are not always plausible, but instead they offer you unconditional devotion. Morena was adopted a few days later when I checked in, and what I felt was textbook bittersweetness.
This has been a bit of a ramble, so I’m going to wrap this up: I have fulfilled the minimum of 3 hours per week for 6 months requirement volunteering at the SF SPCA and it was a really great experience. I learned a lot about how to take care of cats, and I would say that this Happiness Project was very successful. I am still going to go whenever I can, but I will be lying if I don’t tell you that there weren’t unusually sunny weekends where I wish I could spend time outdoors instead of at the shelter, or that during particularly busy weekends, I had jam-packed schedule with all the errands and exercising and social commitments that I end up feeling like I didn’t really have a weekend when I finally lie down in my bed on Sunday night.
As a bit of a Public Service Announcement, if you are looking for cats to adopt or know someone who is, right now is high season for kittens and the SF SPCA is waiving the adoption fees for kittens every Saturday until Labor Day. There are SO MANY cute kittens of all kinds at the shelter, and if I could, I really would take all of them home, but that will be bad news for all parties involved.
PSA #2: On a related note, if you have pets already, please spay or neuter them. And if you notice a lot of stray cats in your area, please contact your local animal shelter- Strays need spaying and neutering, too.
Not scared to be called a “Cat Lady,”
*Chill out, I cry easily. My tear ducts function really well. I should probably blog about it later.