Millie, a long-haired tabby cat with large green eyes, ended up at the Springfield, Vt., Humane Society shelter through no fault of her own. For nine years she was a child's pet, but then something in her household changed, and Millie was out.
A week after Millie had been dropped off at the shelter she crouched in a corner of her cage, trying to hide. Cages next to her contained more cats: some crying, some wailing, some trying to play in their small space. The cages were clean but the smell of other cats was inescapable, and the noise was bedlam.
“She stopped eating,” said Anne Eddy, the shelter's executive director. “Emotionally, she doesn't know where she is. She's only ever known one home.”
Millie didn't eat, drink or go to the bathroom, although the shelter workers tried to bring her out of her state of shock. Finally, almost a week after she'd arrived at the shelter, she ate a few cat treats.
Off the hallway, there are social rooms for cats that get along with other cats, with carpeted climbing towers, warm places to sleep, and windows to watch the visitors go by. A tall fluffy cat butts his head against the window, insisting on pets. Others sleep with their tails curled around them. These cats have been here long enough to pass a two-week quarantine, get all their medical needs taken care of, and are the type of cat that enjoys cozying up to strangers.
It seems everyone adjusts to confinement differently, but no matter what their temperament, Eddy said, it's not good for the animals to be in the shelter. “It's stressful. It's noisy, and even though we get them out as much as possible, they're in a cage.”
So Springfield recently launched a new initiative to find more foster homes, people willing to take home animals even for a short period of time. Fosters take in the pets while the shelter continues to work toward finding adopters.
“If we could find a foster home for Millie, we would provide anything they need,” said Eddy. “Food, litter, litter box, everything.”
She's worried the little girl cat won't make it, if they can't get her out of her state of fear and shock.
“Maybe somebody wants a cat but can't afford one, or doesn't want a long-term commitment, or just wants to save a life,” said Eddy. The shelter already takes care of veterinary care for the shelter pets, and keeps a pet food pantry for low-income pet owners to draw on in time of need.
They started a Rent-a-Rover program, so screened volunteers can take dogs on outings, or even overnights. “Say you're on your way to get an ice cream. It's not much of your time, and it would mean the world to the dog,” said Eddy.
According to Lisa Gunter and Kelly Duer, authors of a national study on weekend and overnight fostering, the shelter is stressful, so getting out into the real world helps animals calm down. It also makes the animal more likely to be adopted, because the volunteers and shelter workers learn more about the pet, and gives them chances to be socialized. It's also easier to get positive pictures of dogs on outings.
A trip around the block would calm Bree, a petite beagle female who's shaking as she stands in her cage, waiting for dinner. Or help Harley, a fuzzy Chihuahua mix who looks like he just wants a quiet place to nap. Or Ruger, 60 lbs. of coonhound energy, who is literally bouncing off the walls.
Ruger is like someone “with ADD on speed,” said Eddy. When he bounces out of his cage on the end of a lead held firmly by shelter worker Becca Riley, he goes briefly airborne. All four feet rarely meet the ground at the same time.
Dog behaviorist Meredith Lunn works with the shelter, and she came up with a treatment plan for Ruger. While all the dogs get “brain food” toys to keep them busy, Ruger takes all his meals in Kong toys, because the activity helps to calm him. The shelter workers learned to walk Riley on a short leash around the community room, which he can now do without climbing on the tables.
“He's much better than he was,” said Riley. Even though he doesn't know “Sit” or any basic commands, he can now walk calmly on a leash for very short periods of time.
All volunteers go through a training and screening process, and the shelter offers every kind of support to everyone who interacts with the animals, whether it's just for a walk or for the weekend. Or even home for good.
“We like it when fostering fails,” said Eddy. “Because they're adopted.”
-- GLYNIS HART