Between The Bars, or, an essay about shelter cats
As I mentioned at the beginning of the week, I've written for the Southern Minn Scene magazine since 2013. Throughout my tenure, outside of the regular monthly column I contributed, I occasionally wrote a feature story. The minor viral sensation, "We're So Small Compared to Our Hearts" was one of those.
The July issue of the magazine is my final issue. It also happened to be animal/pet themed, so I am happy to be going out on a somewhat positive note.
I pitched this story to my editor a long time ago, and he agreed to it. But then he got laid off in April. And I kind of had to re-confirm that I could write it and they'd publish it.
It, like my final "Bearded Life" column, wound up online last week. Whomever is in charge of the Scene's website now did go back through and add photos, however, not the photos I submitted to run with the piece. If you feel like giving them click throughs, click here. But if you just want to read all 2,500 words, just read on below.
* * *
Between The Bars
My wife tells me I need to get out of the house more.
Even though I am working two jobs, seven days a week, and writing material for both my own music blog as well as various other publications—on top of doing chores like the laundry, grocery shopping, and the dishes—somehow, somehow, there are still small parts of the day where I find I have a few moments to myself, and in those moments, I am driving our rabbit, Annabell, mad.
Contrary to what you may believe, rabbits are not nocturnal; they are crepuscular—meaning Annabell is most active in the morning, and in the evening. She sleeps most of the day, and like most people who sleep, she prefers it to be quiet, and becomes visibly irritated when I am home during the day, prattling around, saying “Sorry Annabell!” every time I make a little too loud of a noise.
My wife tells me I need to get out of the house more, so she suggests volunteering.
To an incredibly selfish individual like myself, that’s not a super appealing proposition until she suggests I look into doing something at Prairie’s Edge Humane Society.
I email Kathy Jasnoch, the director of Prairie’s Edge, to let her know my situation, my availability, and I ask if there are volunteer opportunities. I presume that I’ll be stuffing envelopes for a fundraising letter, or some other kind of administrative task. Much to my surprise, when she responds, she tells me she has just the thing for me.
I’ll be socializing shelter cats.
* * *
The first thing you notice is the smell.
It’s kind of hard not to. It’s early in the morning still, roughly four hours before Prairie’s Edge is actually open to the public, so there is still time—and as the day unfolds, various staff come in and slowly begin the task of cleaning all of the litter pans, bedding, and cat kennels, along with the carpeting in the lobby area.
By 1 p.m., things are probably as clean as they are going to be for the day, and the doors open.
The next thing you notice are the cats themselves.
It’s kind of hard not to. At any given time, there are probably around 30 or more of them housed at Prairie’s Edge, and, much like the odor that hits your nose after opening the door, the sheer amount of cats living at the shelter can be overwhelming.
The cats living in enclosures located in the lobby are let out first for the day and they waste no time scurrying around—prancing back and forth, getting into things they aren’t supposed to, roughhousing, meowing for your attention, et. al.
Then, later, as the shelter continues to be cleaned, the cats stationed in the ‘cat colony’ are let out in groups.
Since it’s morning, all of the cats are hungry, and no matter how quickly breakfast is served, it’s not fast enough. The cats that have not been let out yet for the morning continue to meow loudly until they get what they want—food, to be let out to roam around, fresh bedding, or all of the above.
Even after volunteering once a week for a number of months, the cacophony of desperate meows is still difficult for me to hear; everyone just sounds so upset. It’s even more difficult if you walk by the kennel door of a cat that hasn’t been tended to yet—if it’s a cat that is new to life at Prairie’s Edge, they may be cowering under their blanket. However, if it’s an old timer, they will stop at nothing to get your attention, and you will see a number of paws sticking out from between the bars, batting at you.
For me, the image is never not heartbreaking.
* * *
Kathy Jasnoch has been involved with Prairie’s Edge Humane Society in an official capacity since 2005, when she was asked to join the Board of Directors. In 2011, she became the Executive Director of the organization.
She tells me that her work with PEHS is a big part of her life.
“I can’t imagine not doing this,” she says. “It’s more than just a job.”
It isn’t just Jasnoch that feels that way—that’s apparent. This is the kind of job where you wind up taking work home with you; but instead of a presentation for the “big account” that you stay up late working on, it’s another life you bring into your home.
Staff will often temporarily foster cats that aren’t doing well in the shelter, like a morbidly obese cat that just wants to keep to herself, or a single mother with a handful of newborn kittens.
The same goes for the adoptable dogs as well—they are all placed in foster care until the right family comes along. However, there is a risk when it comes to staff, or other dedicated volunteers fostering animals. They can wind up being what is commonly called “foster failures,” and this is how the animal winds up with a new, permanent home.
* * *
Cats are the final companion animals I make peace with.
I used to be afraid of dogs; like, really afraid. But thanks to time spent with friends who have dogs, my fear slowly went away.
Both my wife and I are horribly allergic to cats. We always have been, and nearly ever cat I’ve ever met seems to know it. When I am in a home with cats, they come right for me, walking up to where I am sitting, slithering past my legs, rubbing their body up against my pants as if to say, “THERE IS NOWHERE TO RUN.”
Loading up on allergy medication and nasal sprays is one thing, but it took time for me to comprehend that cats, like all animals, just want affection.
Cats are just different; different than dogs, and different than rabbits. And I think along with my aversion of cats, primarily due to my allergies, came a misunderstanding, something that volunteering at the humane society eradicated almost immediately.
There is no time for hesitation, or worry about allergies, or thinking about your previous misconceptions when you are reaching into a cat kennel, and the cat is desperately clinging to the side because it is afraid and doesn’t want to be picked up.
There is no room for misunderstanding when a cat greets you at the door by starting to climb up your pant leg, or climbs onto your shoulder.
There is no place for misunderstanding when a paw is reaching out from between the kennel bars, and you hang onto it with your hand, as if to say, “I’m sorry you are here.”
* * *
I take to a small black cat named Filbert almost immediately. The first few times I visit with him, he is afraid, but calms down when I sit down with him in the acquaintance room. After a while, the staff comments that he is noticeably less skittish, and this apparently helps him get adopted.
Initially, I am sad that my first “favorite” is gone, but I shouldn’t be. I should be happy that Filbert has found a forever home, and I am. But I miss him.
Later, I take to other cats—all of whom also get adopted out as well, like Filbert’s roommate Alexander, who is just as skittish and is hesitant to open up; or Rocky, a young cat who arrived at Prairie’s Edge in poor health. He’s feeling better now, and he’s taken to pawing at my beard and giving me kisses on the nose; then there’s Edgar, an older cat, big and orange, who enjoys having his face patted. When I sit with Edgar in the acquaintance room, he paces and stalks around—obviously weary of being cooped up in a kennel for most of the day.
Many of the other cats feel the same way he does.
* * *
That is the way Jasnoch explains how a number of animals end up in the care of Prairie’s Edge.
“Circumstances change, and even if you are willing and able to make that commitment (to the animal), and something else prevents you from fulfilling it—that’s why we are here,” she tells me. “However, most of the animals that come to us are in need of care because their owners did not understand the responsibility they were taking on. If more people did their homework—there would be fewer needy animals.”
Some of the cats that I visit with have outlived their elderly caregivers; in some cases, they’ve outlived multiple caregivers.
Some cats are strays that get picked up by local law enforcement, or are found by a concerned citizen and turned in.
More heartbreaking than the animal who is surrendered is the PEHS alumnus—like Edgar, for example—who thought they found a forever home, but “life happened,” and the animal is returned years later, waiting for another chance.
* * *
I take a lot of photos of myself uncomfortably holding onto the shelter cats while I’m volunteering. The ones that turn out well I share on social media—people like cat photos, I am told.
When I tell people that I volunteer to do this, they automatically say, “That’s awesome.” It is fun, sure, but it isn’t easy. It’s incredibly difficult sitting with an animal that is skittish or downright frightened, attempting to earn their trust; it’s even harder to pick them up and place them back into their kennel when your time with them is over, with the hopes that you made any difference at all.
It isn’t all humorous selfies and kittens and fun anecdotes, however. In the same 90-minute span of time, you can go from getting a smooch on the nose from one cat, to getting punched in the face by another. It wasn’t his fault though—Poe, the cat who punched me, leaving a scratch on my cheek that I have to explain when I show up at work and my boss raises his eyebrow when he sees me.
Poe was being antagonized by another cat, and I just happened to get in the way.
* * *
When I was still writing for the Northfield News, one of the final stories I wrote prior to my departure—and one of the only stories I even cared about writing at that point—was about a dog named Butters.
Butters was having a birthday party—her first birthday party, and it was a momentous occasion because Butters was very ill.1 She was diagnosed with having polycystic kidneys, and due to her special needs, after being surrendered to Prairie’s Edge, she was placed in permanent foster care with Jenny Kelly, the dog fostering coordinator for the organization.
In interviewing Kelly, it was refreshing to speak with someone who cared about animals as much as I do, and off the record, we started talking about how frustrating it can be to remain professional in situations with people who are mistreating an animal, or are surrendering them. I know for a fact that what she does, and what Jasnoch does, every day, is something I wouldn’t be able to do.
Jasnoch tells me that even for her, it’s difficult to remain professional sometimes in what she does.
“I just try and remember that I am here to help the animals, and I educate people whenever I can,” she said. “Most of the time, when people are bringing us their pets, they have already given up, and the best we can do is take the animal, assure them that we will do our best, and hope that they (the people) learn a lesson.”
She tells me that when working with an animal, she assures them that whatever bad thing has happened to them, it wasn’t their fault—that there are no imperfect animals, just imperfect situations.
* * *
Some people think I’m joking when I say things like, “I like animals more than I like people.” But I’m being completely serious. And when I told one of my co-workers about that philosophy, and about my experience visiting with the shelter cats, she was in disbelief at first.
“So if you had the choice between saving a child from being hurt or an animal, who would you—“
I didn’t even let her finish before I blurted out, “Oh, the animal for sure.”
Once, I explaining my volunteer experiences to someone who didn’t know me all that well, and I mentioned my cat allergy. He asked me why I do it. “Do you have a heart of gold, or something?” he said.
I don’t think this gives me a heart of gold. It doesn’t make me a better person. It just means that I care—same as Jasnoch does, as well as the rest of the volunteers and staff at Prairie’s Edge.
It means that when I see paws sticking out from between the kennel bars, I hold onto them, and I say, “I’m sorry that somebody gave up on you. You deserve so much better than that.”
For more information on fostering, adoption, volunteering, or donating, please visit prairiesedgehs.org, or call 507-664-1035.
1-Butters passed away due to her condition about four months later. At her birthday party, I gave her a small stuffed turtle as a present. A few days after she passed away, I run into Kelly and her family. She tells me that Butters loved that turtle I gave her so much that it was cremated along with her. During my first shift volunteering at the shelter, Jasnoch gives me a photo of Butters. “We wanted you to have this,” she said.