The email went out from the volunteer office of the SPCA Serving Erie County on Feb. 16, a day after the first of its veterinary teams entered the door of the SPCA of Wyoming County: "Volunteers are needed." I responded. This would be my first experience in the field.
I've been an SPCA of Erie County AdvoCAT for four years. Cats in shelters whose only contact with humans is for veterinary and kennel care can become sick or develop behavior problems. The job of the AdvoCATS, all volunteers, is to provide attention, affection and play in order to preserve cat health and sanity. Human affection seems essential to feline well-being.
When I arrive on site that Friday afternoon, I don a haz-mat suit and get to work cleaning and preparing cages for cats processed by the veterinary team, which consists of Dr. Helene Chevalier, a veterinary technician and a handler. Each cat's heart and lungs are checked. Its mouth is examined for dental health and indications that diseases not dental might be present. Blood may be drawn. Vaccinations are given. Three women in haz-mat suits enter data into computers. Approximately eight cats are processed per hour. Kennel staff and volunteers clean and clean. We all look like space aliens from Planet Squalid, but things were worse on Wednesday. There were more than 400 free-roaming cats in a small ranch house and few litter boxes. Some cats were so stressed they had pulled clumps of their fur out.
Today this is a scene of controlled chaos. Working in fairly tight quarters, we bump into each other. Supplies are being carted in. Several cats are still on the loose. A black cat that darts by has two gouges on his left side the size of golf balls. Cat coughs and sneezes punctuate the air from every direction. In a short line, personnel from other animal welfare organizations wait for cats to transport to their own shelters. By the end of the day, 90 cats have left the premises.
When I return on Sunday, I find that several fellow AdvoCATS have arrived bearing toys: washable plastic balls with bells inside. We begin distributing these and assessing temperaments, taping notes to cages. Most cats seem indifferent to the toys, but one pounces the second I roll a ball into his cage. Many don't want to be touched, and some recoil violently from my extended hand as if contact equaled sudden death. If they aren't visibly frightened, they seem listless and disinterested, detached, withdrawn. Many of these animals are unsocialized or undersocialized: contact with humans has been minimal.
In one cage we find a calico whose tail and rear end are covered in feces or dirt, or both. Underneath we see red, raw flesh. It's as if the fur and skin have been burned away. She must be in excruciating pain, and the veterinary staff won't return until the next morning.
I move downstairs to the basement. Cat cages have been placed in kennel runs for dogs. It's cold and dark down here, and the lighting is inadequate to illuminate the space, but there is simply no place else to put them. AdvoCATS begin covering the cages on all sides except one with blankets found on site and laundered in the commercial washer and dryer on the first floor. The coverings will contain the cats' body heat for warmth during the night. My companions have to leave, so I continue by myself. Although the cages have recently been cleaned, none of them has a "bed." I make repeated trips to the laundry room for towels and small blankets.
Something wonderful happens. As soon as I put soft fabric into a cage, the cat goes to it and settles in. Some begin grooming. I keep up a steady stream of reassuring talk and pet the ones that will allow me to, continuing the socialization process begun today. I'm touched that something so simple, a soft spot to lie on, has created contentment, even here.
That night I have difficulty getting to sleep. Those cats are on my mind. Once asleep I'm jolted awake three times, my own cat snuggled against me, thinking about the calico. In the morning I shake off the remains of something akin to post-traumatic stress syndrome. When I describe this reaction to a seasoned investigator, she says, "So now you know "
Besides the emotional toll on humans and animals, there are other costs. Thirty-four cats were assessed as untreatable and euthanized, among them the black cat and the calico. The monetary costs have not yet been calculated.
The recent events at the SPCAs of Niagara and Wyoming counties raise several issues. First, both organizations seemed overwhelmed beyond their resources, and this state of affairs is influenced, in part, by the unchecked reproduction of domestic animals, specifically, cats. People simply must spay and neuter their animals. People can also support their local animal welfare organizations through donations, by volunteering and by adopting a pet through them. Second, municipalities should consider a licensing program for cats similar to the licensing of dogs. Third, rescue organizations can be monitored. Fourth, laws regarding domestic animals can be changed. At present these animals are regarded as property, not much different from a sofa or a child's teddy bear. Laws should take into consideration that pets aren't stuffed animals. They have nervous systems and can feel pain and suffer.
Last, mental health professionals and communities must continue to confront hoarding. Hoarding has a 100 percent recidivism rate. In other words, even if animals are taken away, hoarders will begin to collect them again unless there is some intervention and treatment, and like addicts, they probably are never "cured" but will always be in recovery.
The entire Attica project, from the time the SPCA of Erie County arrived on site to the relocation of about 500 cats, took 10 days. It was a remarkable rescue. More information about the Attica rescue, updates and other SPCA projects and news may be found at YourSPCA.org.
Nancy Barnes, of Williamsville, is retired from the English Department at Erie Community College City Campus. She has been a volunteer at the SPCA Serving Erie County for the past four years.