How the world has changed for animal shelters

June 1, 2015

Today is the 45th anniversary of the day a then-5-year-old Dr. Kate Hurley adopted her first cat, Pussywillow. That anniversary reminded her what a different world it used to be for cats and animal shelters. She tells this story in Pussywillow’s honor, and that of two other cats who touched her life.

eleventh-birthday.tmb-mediumIt was 1976 when I first walked through the doors of an animal shelter. My nickname was “Kat” Hurley and there can’t have been many kids more cat-crazy than I was. And joy of joys, my mom had agreed that I could pick out a kitten to adopt.

I saw him right away – a little grey ball of fluff sitting in a stainless steel cage in the San Francisco SPCA’s adoption center. I promptly named him “Rose Boy” after another fluffy grey cat I admired. I was smitten.  Alas, though, he was still on his stray hold. The shelter staff took our names and promised he’d be ready to go in a couple of days.

That evening, we went to a potluck with my mom’s political activist friends. While the adults schemed to end the threat of nuclear war, my mind was full of all the adventures I’d have with my new kitten.  But when we mentioned to our friends that we were planning to adopt from the shelter, we got a surprising warning. “Don’t adopt a cat from the shelter, they all get sick”.

My mom didn’t grow up with pets, and we didn’t have the money or experience to know what to do about a sick cat. So we didn’t go back to the shelter, and I didn’t adopt Rose Boy. Instead, we adopted a black and white kitten from a neighbor down the street. I named him Salt and Pepper.

Without guidance from the shelter, we didn’t get Pepper neutered or vaccinated. Soon he was over-run with fleas and our housemates said either the cat or our family had to go.

Doing the best thing she knew how to do, my mom took Pepper to Fisherman’s Wharf and let him go. She assured me he would find lots of fish there and he would be ok. I know she believed that was true.

Nearly 40 years later, I can still see Rose Boy’s little face, sitting in that cage and waiting for me to return. I can also imagine Pepper, scared and alone down by the wharf. And I’m reminded what’s at stake as we work to preserve the health of shelter animals.

A sick cat or dog doesn’t just impact that individual animal’s life (as important as that is in itself!). By damaging the reputation of the shelter, it can also jeopardize the chances of other animals for adoption. And importantly, it can result in lost opportunities for education and connection with the very community members most in need of the shelter’s guidance.

One of the most startling and rewarding things, in a career that’s contain an abundance of crazy, happy coincidences, has been the opportunity to see the story that began with Rose Boy at the San Francisco SPCA come full circle.

Little did I imagine in 1976 that I would get the chance to work with that shelter again decades later in the guise of consultant – focusing on cat care, of all things. They had come so far from that cramped adoption center of the mid-seventies, yet were still struggling with illness in their shelter cats.

bigstock-portrait-of-a-beautiful-fluffy-88334672Together, we crafted a plan to move cats more quickly through the shelter system, resulting in fewer cats in the shelter at any one time and better care for each one. The shelter committed to not only saving the lives of the animals in their charge, but also to ensuring the “Five Freedoms of Animal Welfare” for each creature in their care. We called the concept “Adoption Driven Capacity,” which eventually evolved into Capacity for Care.

When the shelter implemented this new plan, an amazing thing happened. Illness went down and cats were happier and less stressed. With fewer cats in the building and fewer sick ones to care for, staff had more time to do other work – like providing extra enrichment for both cats and dogs, interacting with adopters and reaching out to the community.

Not only did adoptions increase but their medical team was able to redirect time that had been spent on sick cats to providing more spay/neuter services. Intake at the local animal control facility went down and the spiral of success continued.

The San Francisco SPCA has some advantages compared to lots of shelters. They have a beautiful building and the support of a progressive, animal-loving community. But the concept they helped pioneer can translate to shelters of any size or budget, with facilities big and small, old and new. When shelter animals receive the care they need to stay happy and healthy, everybody wins. Success beyond our wildest hopes becomes possible.

Rose Boy and Pepper, wherever you are, I hope you’re watching all this and purring.

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