Back in April, we took in 10 cats from a very overcrowded home. This is the story of their journey, and ours.
Miss K reached out to us by email. I could tell from the length and details of her note that surrendering some of her 30+ cats was a difficult decision for her. She was very emotional, and very frustrated. Having received zero responses from rescue groups in her area, she was afraid no one would help her. She was wary of taking any of her cats to a local shelter, and for good reason. She lives in an area with one of the highest shelter kill rates in the U.S.
About 10 years ago, 97% of shelter cats were euthanized in Miss K’s area. Today it is closer to 70%, in line with the U.S. national average. This is still more than 2 cats for every dog killed. And that is why, for us, 2021 is the Year of the Cat.
I spoke with Miss K over the phone many times, discussing strategies for managing her cats and also talking about personal things. She needed to be heard, and I made as much space as I could for her to tell her story. The cats were very important, obviously—we are an animal rescue group—but the human caretaker needed help, too. I won’t delve into those details because confidentiality is a big part of this work. But I will say that we should always—always!—ask a few questions when someone intends to surrender a pet.
A recent data analysis found that human reasons outweigh animal reasons for owner surrender by 3 to 1. Issues related to housing are in the forefront. Pets acquired from the community are more frequently surrendered than pets acquired from shelters, rescues, or breeders; this accounts for 61% of surrendered dogs and 79% of surrendered cats. There are a few obvious takeaways from this data. First, we need to better support the humans we work with in rescue, and especially related to owner surrenders. Second, we need to do more outreach in our communities related to spay/neuter. If folks are acquiring animals from their communities, we need to reach the source of these animals.
Data aside, owner surrenders are a serious matter. With the current state of sheltering in many areas, the large-scale killing of animals leaves folks with few safe options for pets they are no longer able to care for. Life happens and people become overwhelmed, especially so during a global pandemic. People love their pets—that doesn’t change just because they must give them away. It’s a horrible thing to go through. These owners bear regrets and the weight of guilt. There is a heavy sadness, of the unknown missed time and future with their pets.
I went through all of this myself as a young person, giving away a dog I raised and loved deeply because I couldn’t give her the environment she needed to thrive. Sometimes I still regret it, to be honest. Maybe I should have fought harder for her. Maybe it was best for her, I don’t know. One thing I do know, the experience does not quickly leave you.
So when we met Miss K at an interstate rest area to transfer the cats to our care, I knew what she was going through. Not only did she drive 9 hours to meet us, she was grieving. She cried. I felt her grief and cried with her. In this situation, as a rescuer you want to see that weight lifted immediately, but it is a process that takes a great deal of time. This is why it is important to build relationships with the humans we work with in rescue, as well as the animals. We must support them through this process.
I had a terrible dream that night that I had left a kitten somewhere in the truck—I hadn’t, but it really speaks to how affected I was by the sudden responsibility for so many lives. That Miss K had put her trust in us meant a great deal. I could tell from our many conversations how hard it was for her to reach the decision to surrender them, how long she had wrestled with it. And to have not found any local help was devastating to her.
Many people in her situation simply do not have the insight to realize when they are overwhelmed, and it is even less common for them to reach out for help. Whether they gradually became overwhelmed due to the natural breeding of their animals, took strays in over time, or actively or compulsively sought pets, it can very easily become a private or public health issue.
Miss K’s cats were among the sweetest and most beautiful animals I have ever met. They were clearly raised with love. You would assume that because she was surrendering them, they would have behavioral or health issues. This was not the case. These cats were healthy and friendly, although at first they were a bit stressed by their journey and the new environment. I was struck by how quickly and easily they adapted; it was only a matter of days. It was a very profound illustration for me of the resilience animals possess.
Eight of Miss K’s cats found loving homes, and quickly. Our community came through for them. Two of the cats, a bonded pair of tabby sisters, Harley and Sammie, stayed with us. Sammie came to us pregnant. I discovered her pregnancy about a week before she was scheduled to be spayed. A great many vets will spay a pregnant cat. It is not unusual. It is also not really talked about much, but I think it should be. Terminating an animal’s pregnancy is certainly contradictory to the lifesaving mission of rescues and spay/neuter clinics. We’ve all heard about how “spay/neuter saves lives”. Obviously spaying a pregnant animal would not be saving lives! And as a sanctuary, we are a decidedly pro-life organization.
As Sammie’s due date window approached, in early June, a series of interesting events transpired. One night, I had set up lights outside to attract moths (documenting species in our area is a hobby). I mentioned to my husband that it would be so cool to see a Beautiful Wood Nymph, since I had never seen the species before. I even showed him a picture of one in a field guide. That same night, not hours later, we had a Beautiful Wood Nymph visitor!
Several nights later, having set up the moth lights again, I thought to myself, wouldn’t it be wonderful if both of my daughters could see a special moth tonight? (They are junior lepidopterists; and fascinated by all things that fly). Again, not hours later, we had two Tulip Tree Silkmoth visitors, one for each sister!
A few days passed again, and three kittens were abandoned in a cardboard box in one of our sanctuary board member’s yards. It took my breath away at the time. One Beautiful Wood Nymph, two Tulip Tree Silkmoths, three orange tabby kittens. What a strange coincidence. Were we working on a new version of an old song here, “The Twelve Days of Rescue”? 😊
The Sunday before Sammie had her kittens, I was outside on the front porch filling bird feeders. I noticed something out of the corner of my eye, like a bright flash. I walked to the edge of the steps to investigate, and saw four pure white dogs running down the gravel road in front of our house. In the sunlight, they shined so brightly, it was incredibly surreal. We have lived in the same place for seven years, and I had never seen those dogs. Haven’t seen them since, either.
Later that day, I confessed all of this weirdness to my husband, who of course shook his head! I told him then that I had a feeling Sammie would have five kittens. Made perfect sense to me. One Beautiful Wood Nymph, two Tulip Tree Silkmoths, three orange tabby kittens, four white dogs… ?
Two days later, Sammie delivered five healthy, beautiful kittens on June 15th, the 806th anniversary of the Magna Carta. Yes, these kittens are into history. 😊 Watching them grow has been a bright streak through my life and work over the past ten weeks. They are amazing little cats! As they reach adoption age, I realize how much we will miss them. But they will bring joy to others, I am certain.
A final note:
To all the rescue groups out there, Please return your phone calls and emails. Even when you must deliver bad news, you can always listen, and offer suggestions and ideas. Compassion costs you nothing. Don’t leave people hanging—sometimes they just need to talk to someone, to get support, or to make a plan. And who knows, you might be surprised by the joy of getting to know 10 terribly sweet cats and 5 little happy accidents, like we did.
Adoption inquiries: firstname.lastname@example.org.