Yes, it’s an old and silly internet meme, but I really mean it. Ok, not the masturbation bit, but the “Please, think of the kitties” bit.
Now that I’ve got your attention, I’ll get serious and tell you what’s aroused my ire enough to finally post something to my long-neglected blog. I’ll confess to feeling rather uninspired in the story-telling department of late, but something happened on my ambulance shift last week that has got me riled up. I’d like to think that by writing this, I’ll help keep it from happening again, but I’m too cynical to believe that one little blog post that only my pals will read will make a difference. Still, I’m sick to death of the situation and need to get it off my chest.
So what happened last week? At the very end of a relatively uneventful day we got called out on an emergency; cat vs. car. The cat was still alive and had crawled into the bushes. We put on our flashing lights and drove as fast as we could to the scene, only to discover (as is usually the case with cats who are hit by cars) that we were too late. It’s too much to expect a 5 lb cat to survive the massive trauma of being hit by a several-ton vehicle even long enough for the ambulance personnel to get there. Sadly, in the time that I’ve been volunteering at the animal ambulance, I’ve lost count of all the cat vs. car incidents I’ve been called out to, and not one cat has survived even long enough for us to get there. Cats getting hit by cars are one of our most common calls having to do with domesticated animals. So what made this call different? The owners.
In most cases, we’re lucky if the cat in question has a chip and that chip is registered so we can actually contact the owners and let them know what has happened to their kitty. More often, there’s no chip, no collar, no tag, nothing to indicate who was caring for the cat, or if anyone would even miss it. In this case, the owner happened to be walking by on his way home as we were carrying the lifeless body of his pet to our vehicle. Shocked, he ran home to get his wife as we turned the car around to follow him. Before we could, though, we were greeted by a distraught woman, hysterically sobbing and calling “Ollie! Ollie! No!” My heart went out to her. I’ve lost beloved pets and know how horrendous it feels. Clearly she loved Ollie. But while my heart shared her pain, my brain was screaming “IF YOU LOVED OLLIE SO MUCH, WHY DIDN’T YOU KEEP HIM SAFE?!!” I didn’t say that, of course. Aside from the fact that it would have been inappropriate to say something like that at the moment, it’s not the policy of the Animal Ambulance to tell people to keep their cats indoors. In fact, very few people working there even believe in keeping their own cats indoors. Which brings me to the bigger issue.
There’s a general misconception in this area of the world that it’s somehow cruel to confine cats to the inside of houses or apartments. The idea is that cats are meant to roam freely and that a cat can’t truly live a happy life if it’s kept indoors. Even shelters perpetuate this idea; in their ads for most adoptable kitties, they’ll indicate that that cat needs access to a garden and the ability to run free.
Utter poppycock! Many shelters and animal welfare organizations in the US have long advocated and educated about keeping kitties safe and happy indoors. I’ve seen for myself how even a hardened outdoor kitty can learn to love the great indoors. My dear departed Oscar was plucked from the street where he’d clearly spent a good chunk of his 4-6 year before being brought to PAWS. Once in my Capitol Hill apartment, however, he quickly adjusted to the good life of a safe home and lots of love and nummies. No one who ever met Oscar could ever say he was suffering for not being allowed outside. My boyfriend’s cat has the run of the house, with cat toys, cat beds, scratching posts and water in multiple rooms of the house (including the bathroom) but – unusually for this part of the world – is not allowed outdoors. A happier, healthier cat I have rarely seen. I’ve told my boyfriend on various occasions that while I don’t believe in reincarnation, that if such a thing did exist, I would want to come back as a kitty in his care. And if you need more convincing that an indoor kitty is a happy kitty (or even if you don’t) check out the ubercute Cult of Otis website and the Blog of Otis. If there’s a better testimony out there for keeping cats indoors than Otis and his brethren, I have not run across it.
What’s missing from the discussion here is the responsibility we have as cat guardians for their welfare. Folks who would never let their small children play unsupervised in the street, have no qualms about leaving their feline charges to their fate. When I asked my ambulance partner – whose kitties have access to the outdoors through a cat door – if it doesn’t worry her that her cats might get hit by a car, she replied that yes, it does at times worry her, but she gets so much pleasure seeing how much fun they have playing outside. All I could think was, if your two-year really enjoyed playing with sharp objects, would you take them away from her or would you hand her the kitchen knives and say “I know it’s dangerous but look how much she enjoys playing with them”? The fact is, we are just as responsible for the animals in our care as we are for our children, yet many folks, even those who obviously love their animals, are much more cavalier about their responsibility for the safety of that animal. And even folks who would never let their dogs run free think it’s cruel to confine their cats. There’s a misconception that domesticated cats are somehow street savvy in a way that dogs or children (or rabbits or guinea pigs or pet rats) aren’t. Storage shelves full of feline road casualties in the walk-in freezer at the ambulance facility evidence that they are not.
Cars are just one of the many dangers faced by cats who are allowed to roam freely. Communicable disease, fights, attacks by wild animals, and cruelty at the hands of humans are just some of the others. That’s not even counting the problems the cats themselves cause: they do untold damage to local wildlife (one of our most common wildlife-related calls is cat caught birds), use neighbors’ yards as litter boxes, potentially spreading disease not only to other cats but to humans, and unsterilized cats roaming free simply add to the cat overpopulation problem.
I suspect that for many of you who read this I’m preaching to the choir, and for a number of others I’m talking utter nonsense. But if I’ve succeeded in getting you thinking about making your outdoor kitty an indoor kitty, please do check out both the PAWS link and the links to the Cult/Blog of Otis I posted above (and in my blogroll) for ideas and resources to help you make the transition. And for those of you who are already convinced, help spread the word: An indoor kitty can be a very happy and healthy kitty.
On Wednesday, I did my first orientation day at the Amsterdam Animal Ambulance service. What this consisted of was riding along with one of the ambulance crews for a day to see what the job actually entails. They (very wisely) ask all potential volunteers to do a couple of ride-alongs and a couple of shifts shadowing in the dispatch room before signing a volunteer contract and starting the training program.
This was my first chance to dip my toe back into the animal-rescue waters since the end of my internship at PAWS. I’d been looking at ways to start working with animals again since I got back, and working for the Animal Ambulance seems like the ideal combination of being able to help both domestic and wildlife. But I wasn’t sure how it would compare to my expectations. I’m still not sure. I’m still digesting the experience, and looking forward to my next ride-along to help firm up my thoughts. But here are some first thoughts and impressions from the day itself:
* Pigeons are the schlemiels of the animal kingdom. Our first five calls were pigeon related: four were feral Rock pigeons (the ubiquitous street pigeon that most people think of when they hear the word) and one Wood pigeon. According to Albert (the driver), around 50% of all calls they go out on are pigeon related. Despite their ubiquity on the street, feral pigeons seem to be the least street smart birds on earth and seem to get themselves into all sorts of trouble. The ones we saw had all stumbled into trouble one way or another (aside from the Wood pigeon that was suspected to be infected with Trichomoniasis), whether getting tangled in wire and breaking a leg, or somehow getting covered in oil.
* Geese and highways are not a good combination. I won’t go into details, but although the bird was still alive when we got there, the story did not end well for the goose.
* I am more convinced than ever that not only is it NOT cruel to keep cats as indoor pets, it’s actually irresponsible to let them wander freely. (I know my saying this will not go down well with a number of my outdoor-cat-owning friends.) Anyone who truly believes that cats are savvy when it comes to traffic has never had to pick up a recently-expired, still-warm, heavily-bleeding tabby from the side of the road. (For anyone interested in information on keeping cats indoors, please check out this PAWS page about cat health and safety.)
* If you do let your cat go outdoors, please get it microchipped, so that when it does get hit by a car, or attacked by a larger animal, or tortured by some sick fuck, the animal care workers who pick it up can find you and let you know so you won’t always wonder why Fluffy didn’t come home one night. In fact, getting your dog or cat microchipped is a very good idea even if you don’t let it roam free. Even indoor cats and dogs who are always kept on leads can wander off sometimes, and if your pet is chipped, it makes it much easier to trace the owner and reunite you with your furry friend.
* Sometimes there are happy endings. One of the last calls of the day was to come get a seemingly stray dog that had been dropped off at a police station. This dog was obviously owned, it was sweet (if a bit scared), well-fed, and wearing a collar (although no tag, and no microchip). We picked it up and brought it to the nearest shelter (which was just about to close for the evening). When we got there, the shelter staff had a woman on the phone who had lost a dog that fit well with the description of the pup we’d just brought in. So it looked like a happy reunion was the likely outcome of that call. It was a nice way to end the day.
All-in-all it was a good, if not always happy, experience. The rhythm is very different from what I was accustomed to from working at PAWS. For one, I was (stupidly, perhaps) surprised at how much time is spent just driving from place to place. That’s something that I’ll have to get used to. Also, the turnover is something I’ll have to adjust to. At PAWS you saw the entire trajectory of an animal’s recovery (or lack thereof) from intake to release (or death). On the ambulance, it’s pick up the animal, assess its condition/needs, figure out where it needs to go (shelter, vet, disposal), and bring it there. That’s where your involvement ends.
I’m still mulling over if this is the path for me. I’ll admit that last night, late at night, I was having some doubts (although I think that’s natural). But doubts notwithstanding, I think that for now, this is a way to move forward in my desire to work helping animals, and something that will prepare me to move in a different direction if that’s what I choose to do at a later time. It’s a good way to start wading into that pool.