by Melissa Oliveira
Often, they come to us without histories. Their packets contain rabies tags, dental exams, and disclosures saying that they had recently been spayed or neutered, but the rest is up to me. I note one or two striking details about each animal, offer a treat and a chin scratch, but in this case my work will largely be invention. There are simply too many to know intimately. I used to try, and I would lose entire days to the shelter only to come home depleted and unable to write anything about the animals I had met.
There are the words that leap to mind and their useful alternatives. A printout from Behavior and Health lists them in two columns so I do not confuse what first comes to my mind with what is useful.
Huckleberry jumps as high as my shoulders, all four paws and 75 pounds of him losing contact with the ground. Fun-loving, I say, energetic. Rupert, at eleven, sports white rings around his eyes and a salt-and-pepper muzzle. Mature, looks forward to retiring to the sweet life of short neighborhood walks and, later, a peanut butter-stuffed Kong toy. A lanky white dog with liver-colored spots named Summer catches a glimpse of a cat through the three-inch-wide space between the printer and the wall and freezes, nose forward, tail stiff, unmoved by milk bones, sliced hot dogs, pig ears, brute force. Focused, patient, a little too excited by cats so would be happiest in a cat-free home.
Cookie the cairn terrier is a go-getter—they all seem to be. Chico likes to keep his nails nice and sharp. Others need a little extra time to warm up, or are reserved, sensitive, bashful, introverted, opinionated. They don’t jump into new relationships paws-first. They leave serious playtime to the kittens in the room. They are happy with a short amble around the neighborhood, a good meal and an afternoon nap. Many are looking to turn over a new leaf with improved diet and exercise. Sometimes, I think, it is not the homeless animal I am describing but the ideal owner.
There are words I am never to use in an animal profile, even if they’re true: scared, obese, shy, under-socialized, jumpy, anxious. I keep a running list of alternatives. I do not suggest that two animals that came in together should go home together. Some of this I have learned on my own, as profiles I’ve submitted haven’t made it onto the shelter website. I am to favor broad, generic language over specific language. I am to forget, for the most part, where an animal has come from except in the cases of transfer animals or strays. These arrive with no intake questionnaires, and I have acquired a habit of describing them as though they are human drifters: Rosie needs a place to hang her hat; Poncho is looking to give up his wandering ways, to rest his paws. If I must mention the previous lives of surrendered animals, I insinuate: Rumor has it that Angela will ask for love by putting her head right into her favorite human’s lap. I am never to mention the array of reasons that someone might have relinquished an animal: imminent homelessness, the new redecorating scheme that the dog no longer matches, the breed-specific laws that mean the family can’t bring the family dog to their new house in a new city, the increasingly high cost of veterinary care.
I never use that old mainstay of shelter and rescue group websites: forever home. Any time away from here is good, even if an animal returns a week later.
I remain positive. I am not to say that this animal has started to experience behavior problems in the shelter environment. I am not to say that this cat has taken to sleeping inside her litter box—a sign of depression in cats—or that this dog now tears out clumps of his own hair in frustration. No matter how well we care for them, no matter the hours we all spend feeding, walking, and playing, only the most resilient don’t fall apart sooner or later.
I am, above all, never to judge. The alternative is this: that no one brings their animals here anymore. I was told they needed someone who will tell stories about the animals, and this is what I try to do.
So it is that I populate the shelter pages with dapper cats in tuxedoes and pinstripes, and dogs in brindle and tweed. They are regal, noble, queenly, kingly, especially when they seem to eye me with mistrust. Miniature panthers, toy tigers, large dogs that think they are lap dogs, Treeing Coonhounds that prefer lounging to walking, Chihuahuas with oversized personalities. I anthropomorphize, hoping that the same impulse that makes people love the Cheshire Cat and rabbits in waistcoats will make them take home a real animal.
There is good writing and there is shelter writing. There are the stories I’m supposed to tell, and there are the ones I wish I could tell: the stories I read in the paperwork. There is Miss Kitty who, by running and hiding, managed to survive a mountain lion attack that killed the family dog. There is the cat whose elderly owner died and the child who couldn’t, or wouldn’t, keep it. There is the older dog who was relinquished because it was becoming leash reactive, but whose owner put a new puppy on hold an hour after surrendering the old dog. There is the spiteful cat that pees everywhere but, upon coming into our care, is treated for a UTI and then uses its box dutifully.
There are allergies, financial issues, breakups or deaths that leave one partner with children and debt, and the animals, those remnants of happy domesticity, are too much to ask. There are the sleek, unfortunate, traumatized purebreds: the Malamutes from Montana that lived on their own waste, and the Akitas from Oregon used as legal evidence against their breeder, or the Bengals that people purchase because they look the part of the wildcat but were unprepared when they also acted the part.
There are, too, the animals that have been the instruments of domestic violence, who are hidden away in our back rooms while their owners try to escape from the ones that abuse them, the ones that wound and maim the animal in order to control the human. The animal dramas weave in and out of the human ones, following closely and looping around the main cords of human heartache. None of these stories make it into my profiles, but for me they are the shadow stories, the ones I tend to remember if someone asks.
There is the adoption center and there is everywhere else. Out there, it’s kitten kindergarten: catwalks, plastic couches, and sconces sprouting wand toys with feathers and bells. Tangerine cubbies climb the walls and, inside of them, cats nap on washable cushions. White powder-coated metal shelves shaped like clouds float underneath the ceiling. A sun with a lemon slice smile dangles over the leaning trunk of a real tree for scratching. Adirondack chairs, ceramic birdbaths, real cat grass growing from small pots, solar tubes to take the edge off the garish fluorescents, bright flowers and butterflies painted along the base of the walls: all of it evokes a sort of fantastical park where happy animals play on branches or come down to greet you. Some of this is for the cats. Much of it is for the people who walk through.
Through a heavy metal door on the right, near the rear of the Cat Adoption Center, is the impounds room. I spend two afternoons a week in this room, feeding feral kittens soft food on a tongue depressor until they stop hissing and let me touch them, or spending time with other cats that are unavailable for adoption: stray wait, bite quarantine, behavior watch, medical watch. Unlike the adoption center, nothing here is optional or merely decorative. Three levels of metal cages inhabited by cats line each of the four walls, and laminated signs hang on the cage doors, and they are free of rhetorical flourish: Dangerous Animal: Do not handle; Possible Ringworm: Do not touch; Parvo Quarantine; FIV+; Undersocialized; Bite Quarantine; Stray Wait; Fearful Animal: Go slow.
A metal exam table stands in the center of the room. A few months ago, before they gained their own adoption room, this was where birds, rabbits, and ferrets waited for potential adopters. The cats paced their cages, and turned their dilated pupils towards the animals in the middle of the room. Now, the table often holds just the tools of the trade for behavior and health: a small tin of soft food for feral kittens, a stack of hand towels sprayed with pheromones, and a disembodied plastic hand.
The hand points with its index finger, like classic clip art in three dimensions. It isn’t always the same hand from week to week: on one, the tip of the pointer finger has been chewed off. The oil of a thousand fur coats darkens the light pink plastic skin. When the behavior staff uses it, I stop what I’m doing and watch; whatever happens next will affect the animal I am with, and I remove my own hands until later. The staff, mostly young women whose workload makes them brisk, abrupt, always hurried, come in pairs to evaluate the animals. They kneel before the cage, and one opens the door just wide enough to insert the plastic hand, extending the outstretched pointer finger to the animal’s nose in the way I would do with my own hand to introduce myself to a cat. From there, anything might happen: snarling, hissing, the quick loud thump of a small body launching itself against the metal back of the cage. Sometimes, nothing happens at all. The women look at each other and a kind of current passes between them. A nod, a shrug, a sigh. They close the cage door and leave the room.
Sometimes they return with a net stretched between two metal poles. Bring the poles together to hold an animal; draw them apart to set the animal free. They drape the netting over the cat, join the two poles together, and extract the animal from the cage. It swings harmlessly, and often quietly. If not—if the animal is still a mess of claws and teeth and snarls—they drape a towel over the cat. It is a small kindness.
I used to notice the smell, a strong combination of warm oily fur, animal waste, bleach, but I don’t anymore. My cats smell it on me when I return home, and sniff me with great interest, reminding me that this isn’t a normal scent to have picked up. But, to quote a woman I know, a square-jawed retiree who used to help out at the services desk, “You get used to it.”
She wasn’t talking about smells, though. At the time, a friend and fellow volunteer was crying because a bonded pair of cats had been broken up. One had been adopted. The other broke free of the arms of a new staff member, a person who was still nervous, still shy about handling fearful animals. The cat ran, yowling and terrified, through the adoption center. She had not gone home that day. She had been the sweeter of the two cats.
“You get used to it,” the older woman said, shrugging. Then her voice softened as she filled the water dishes through the cage doors with a plastic watering can, and added, “I have days like that, too, though. I lose my cool when it’s someone my age who can’t afford to keep their dog anymore, or their house. Then I have to go to the back of the building to cry for awhile.”
I’d wondered why we never said hello, even after years of passing each other in the nonpublic parts of the building, why no one ever really remembers to exchange greetings and niceties in those yellow cinderblock halls that connect the rooms in the back. I had assumed that I had fallen in with a group of people who, like me, were better with animals than they were with other people. You never know where someone has just come from or where someone is headed with the animals they lead or carry.
I never get used to the noise, though, or the desperate looks of the dogs when I pass by them to grab their information. The head shots on the website, like my profiles, are cheerful in tone. The dogs are caught smiling, with their ears perky, their mouths wide open. They wear bandanas draped around their necks, and their fur shines with recent grooming. Inside the kennel, the noise overcomes me, the cadence of a certain tone of bark communicates to me without ambiguity that something is terribly wrong. My heartbeat speeds up. Sometimes I discover that I’ve been sweating.
Last week we received a transfer of chihuahuas. Four, six, eight: I pass their kennels and they wiggle and bark. We received other dogs from Tesuque, New Mexico, from Denver, Cheyenne, Albuquerque, bringing our total count to nearly sixty. The puppies, like the kittens, stay a day or two; the older animals might stay for months.
Four adult hound dogs bay, yet somehow the chihuahuas pierce through all of that. The endless stream of soft classical music piped through the speakers to help calm the animals comes through in bursts, when everything else is silent. Here, a violin concerto; there, a voice that is bred to call the hunter to the fox from miles away. It is an odd sort of symphony.
Many times I have tried instead to concentrate on the voices of people in the kennels. Often I hear someone say, “This is so sad.” I look at the clean kennels, the natural light streaming in through the west-facing windows, the dog walk board that ensures that every single dog has been out three times a day and that lists each animal’s special needs. I look at the animals, too, that might have been euthanized elsewhere: The ones we have the resources to help. I react strongly when I hear this. I want to comment on the work that goes into this, into making this positive, into caring well for the animals. I want to explain how much worse it can get, but then I wonder: Does that other reality, the one of stray packs of dogs, of starvation and rabies and other diseases, make this situation less sad? Is this a failure of feeling? I search myself for sympathy for the person who can’t handle it. I wonder about appropriate responses, the wearing out of feeling. I think, perhaps it’s been a long day.
There are the reactions I experience first, and there are the useful alternatives. It is possible to become so used to the ways of dogs and cats—to become so responsive to the clear and naked need—so as to forget, however temporarily, how to connect with the complexity of people. It is even possible to over-empathize with the animals. During these times, I try to focus on the voices of people who come to visit the shelter. Sometimes I stand near the front desk just to watch them.
“I’m here to adopt Maisy,” one middle-aged man said to the staff at the front desk. “When it’s right, it’s right, you know?”
Later, he will walk Maisy to the retail store to pay her adoption fees. They will walk together past the Weiss Walkies and Thundershirts, the bright Silverfoot collars and RuffWear saddlebags that hang from wall-mounted displays. He might let her pick for herself from the bins of rawhide, jerky, and dried pigs’ ears underneath the east-facing window. Towards the rear of the tiny store are buckets full of plastic and metal clickers, pheromone sprays and bookshelves: Cat Versus Cat, I’ll be Home Soon, How Dogs Learn, but probably, at first at least, they will remain towards the front.
In the cattery I pet a friendly, enormous black cat with a horribly mangled ear: it looks like crumpled tissue paper and stands out from his head. Moments later someone comes in to place a microchip in the scruff of his neck and put him inside a cardboard transport box. “Cats are angels with paws” is printed over the air holes, which will be punched out—a few at first by the staff member, the rest by the cat himself. “This guy’s going home!” she says. Just outside the cattery window I see the new owners waiting for him beaming, themselves an oddball pair of brightly dyed, spiked hair and full-sleeve tattoos. They hold hands and wait, glancing again at their new cat, affectionate with each other, anxious to leave. I cross the cat off my list of profiles to write; I had been trying to come up with something clever to say about the ear.
There are the people who seek us out, too: the ones who see us in the kennels and must tell their story to someone. “My dog died yesterday,” one man told me. “She was twelve, and I’m not ready to have another. I just wanted to be around the dogs.”
And there are those of us who spend our time here too. The animals that stay the longest are often the ones we fall for; I always expect that I’ll jump to adopt a Bengal or a Siamese—some elegant animal that finds its way here, but that’s never really how it goes. A cuddly one-eyed cat named Grey Boy went home just recently after a summer-long shelter stay. I was there when the staff member, the same young man who had let that other cat slip through his hands early on, announced the news to us at the end of his shift. “That’s it,” he’s said, smiling, as he burst through the cattery door. “I’m putting Grey Boy on hold for myself. I just need to bring my roommate by to meet him.”
On a quiet winter day last year I jotted notes from the intake forms in the dog kennel, and all around me the dogs whined and barked, howled and jumped. I looked up at the sound of the door to the lobby and in walked an elderly woman of the sort I don’t often see in this town of flashy, youthful software entrepreneurs. She was in her seventies with a posture and a careful walk that suggested arthritis, but she had a bearing that was strong and willful. Perfectly made up with a sandy brown bob, she was dressed in the sort of understated way that costs good money: plum cashmere sweater, dark leather flats, beige-colored slacks in a fabric that draped beautifully — a finely knit flannel or wool. She was more Katharine than Audrey, and fixed me with a unwavering eye. There were no greetings or formalities; she simply let the door close behind her and announced, in my direction, “Where’s the Chow?”
I walked her to the cage, to a ten-year-old blond purebred Chow. There, her poise fell away; I lingered, skimming the intake paperwork of nearby dogs. She knew dogs well, it appeared to me, and did not hesitate to reach her fingers through the cage door, watching the dog’s reaction. He sniffed her with caution at first, then wagged its curled tail. She scratched his chin, and spoke directly to him. “I think you should come home with me,” she said.
About Melissa Oliveira
Melissa Oliveira grew up in central Connecticut and has essays and poems published or forthcoming in AGNI, Kindred and Harpur Palate. She is an occasional reviewer at The Review Review and a longtime volunteer at animal shelters. She currently lives and writes in Portland, Oregon.