Last month I started volunteering with HOPE (Homes for Orphaned Pets Exist), an animal rescue organization. Disheartened over the results of the recent presidential election and what they might mean for all animal and environmental groups I support, I was in desperate need of doing something to help, something to make me feel better. I was introduced to HOPE by a friend and fellow volunteer and was happy to help.
Most of the animals, dogs as well as cats, are placed in foster homes awaiting adoption at one of HOPE’s clinics. But as is often the case, there are always too many cats to go around. So HOPE created a cats-only facility for their care.
Like most animal welfare groups, the HOPE cat house depends entirely on volunteers. Rain or shine, winter or summer, people go out of their way to donate their time and energy to the cats that live here. They also donate food and supplies, and trips to the vet or to the mall on weekends for adoption clinics.
I’ve volunteered at places like HOPE in the past, but not for awhile, and I was never quite sure why I stopped.
Especially since I was young, helping animals has always made me feel good about myself. It’s very familiar and well-traveled territory, from trying to save baby birds to adopting special needs pets. Animals have always been sources of unconditional affection, emotional support and companionship for me, both when I was an often lonely, only child and as an adult.
And it’s also become something that helps me see the good in other people, too, knowing that there are those of us who are willing and able to do such things for forgotten, unwanted, or abused animals. In a time when I’ve teetered between anger and despair like many people, this was a good place where I could find neutral ground.
So now I’m one of the “cat people,” as the woman who works at the fitness facility upstairs termed it when I picked up the cat house key from her. A few times a month I drive down to Schuylerville, New York (about 20 minutes from my house), to feed, clean, and check on the animals. There’s room for about 12 cats total, although only 8 call it home right now. My friends joked that I would wind up with many of them at my house, instead.
Behind their kidding around, however, they know me and my history well enough to know it’s entirely possible. And I know that they know.
I realized that maybe the reason I had stopped volunteering at organizations like HOPE was that they brought up a part of my past, something that’s simultaneously sad and happy, both embarrassing and painful. And a part that I’m a bit fearful of revisiting.
Growing up, when it was just my mom and me, we had many, many cats around. All but one lived outside the house, hanging out in the carport (an unenclosed Midwestern version of a garage) or the small utility shed. We had started out with just one cat who took up residence under the shed. She’d been pregnant and had several kittens, which we kept. Then more cats came, either as more litters of kittens or arriving as strays, recognizing a cat lady when they found one (two was even better).
I don’t know if my mom could have been considered a hoarder at the time. She took decent care of them all, I think, and no one lived in cages. But I was too young to really understand. I had no idea what hoarding was, or that having too many cats could even be a problem.
All I knew was that I liked the cats and enjoyed their company. Most were sweet and affectionate, and I had a few favorites whose names I still recall fondly. They kept me company, and their care gave me a kind of purpose.
And I liked playing with them. I dressed the kittens up in doll clothes sometimes (which I probably could be cited with animal cruelty for now), and most were pretty compliant. I do remember trimming a cat’s whiskers once, thinking they were too long, which makes me grimace in shame. But I also got my first experiences in nursing with our cats. When an insect laid an egg inside the neck wound of one of them, I had to remove the larvae that emerged with a pair of tweezers (a very satisfying experience only a nurse could understand).
Being increasingly in-bred, however, the cats got smaller and smaller and were often sick, though my mom still tried to take care of them. As I grew older I started to understand what was happening with them, and I remember beginning to feel that maybe us and the cats weren’t so well-off anymore.
But the worst part of my cat-lady childhood isn’t the idea that we eventually had too many. It’s that when my parents decided to move back in together after many years apart, one day my mom just rounded up most of our cats and took them to the animal shelter to await an unknown and probably sad end.
She never told me they had to go, or why. It made me very angry at the time, and didn’t help my already troubled relationship with my father improve, because I knew deep down, he’d been the one that made her give them up. In fact it’s sad and painful even now for me to think of that, that my mom could find it in herself to give the cats up without a word -whether we had too many or not- in the days when no-kill shelters like HOPE were almost unheard of.
As an adult, when I got my own house, I was determined to take in whatever pets I could, cat, dog, or otherwise. I didn’t give much thought as to how it might affect my relationships, that some people might think I was crazy. The most cats I ever had at one time was six (and none went outside), which is probably still a lot (or too many) to most people.
Smaller, independent and more portable, cats always seemed much easier to collect along the way. And there was always another one needing a home.
But I eventually came to see I was pushing it. There were always behavioral issues to deal with, fights or bad litter box habits. A few were really troubled at times. So instead of helping them, they were living in an often stressful environment, in close proximity in a small house to other cats they didn’t always get along with and a couple of big dogs. And I was always cleaning up messes.
Still, over the years I kept most of my pets until they died. There were a couple cats I found new homes for myself when I knew it needed to happen, and only one (a dog who kept jumping out of a second-story window and running off) I had to take back to the shelter after a trial visit.
So I have a long history with cats that rightfully concerns of my friends.
But they shouldn’t worry too much. I do still recall the days of living with six cats in the house and how chaotic life for us all became, and the time my best friend and I found a cat-lady action figurine in a gift store that looked an awful lot like me. Though it was funny and I was tempted to have it, I recall feeling like it hit a little too close to home.
And I have my childhood to look back on, which is maybe what I’m finally trying to come to better terms with.
Volunteering again to help take care of the animals at the HOPE cat house seems like a good solution. I know I can’t possibly save every last one in the world, and it’s a way to do something for the animals and satisfy those latent cat lady tendencies that still rear their heads sometimes.
Some of the cat’s backgrounds are sad, of course, and very tempting to take in, like one who was saved from a hoarding situation. A few are senior citizens or special needs animals. But most are young, healthy and well-adjusted, and don’t seem to have any story at all, or at least one that HOPE knows about. They were found as strays, or surrendered, or taken from another shelter. I think most seem to know they have it okay, and are glad, in their cat fashion.
And I always wonder if maybe someone like my mom just brought them in one day, dropped them off. I consider that possibility whenever I visit, and it keeps me going back.
So whether or not they started out that way, hopefully each animal’s story will each have a happy ending through HOPE and the efforts of it’s volunteers. Happier than I imagine most of the cats from my childhood ended up having. Because of that experience and others since, I know if I could take in every animal (and not just cats) that needed a home and do a good job of it– and still have some semblance of a life–I would do it.
But that’s not really possible, I know. So I do what little bits I can.
By volunteering again with HOPE at the cat house, I’m giving my time and energy to a cause I find worthy, fighting what I see as a good fight. It may seem like an uphill battle, a small thing; but it feels very big to me. And it allows me to indulge my (hopefully) reformed cat lady tendencies without becoming one.
A few things keep me in check, the main one being I have my own pets already to take good care of, and a couple getting are older and one has chronic health problems. And I have my cat-filled childhood to remind me, those days of my mom and I living with 2o or so around our house, and the embarrassment I have carried for years that feels alleviated a little, finally, by writing about it.
Or I can just picture that cat-lady action figurine my friend and I found (that she really wanted to buy me), and I know I’ll be okay. Now, just to get everyone else to believe me.
I've never really liked labels: I am this, I am that... But in the interest of introducing myself to the world, I can say that I am many things: nurse, writer, photographer, poet, painter, gardener, friend, armchair philosopher, counselor, nature lover, real-estate aficionado, movie buff, sometime yogi, and aspiring world-traveler. I think that's a pretty good list... for now. I want to become a bigger part of the vital, creative force I feel deeply at work in the world and connect with other people who want to do the same.