When I moved to Portland, ME, last spring, I told my colleagues and local acquaintances that I was looking for an animal shelter where I could do some volunteer work. They told me about HART — the Homeless Animal Rescue Team — a no-kill cat shelter in the nearby town of Cumberland. I was intrigued, but I was so busy dealing with my own cat drama that I didn’t have the time to investigate. Then last month, my friend and fellow Catster contributor Dorian Wagner told me that HART was one of the beneficiaries of the 2012 Santa Paws Drive. That got me motivated to see what the place is all about.
So I visited HART’s shelter and took a tour. I loved the place and the wonderful energy I felt from all the people working there — and from the cats, too — so I signed on as a volunteer. Although my first idea was to help with the website (and I still plan to do that), the person giving me the tour said that because HART is all volunteers, it also asks people who want to work there to help with daily cleaning and caretaking chores at the shelter.
So a couple of Saturdays ago I reported to the shelter at 8:30 a.m. I was placed with a pair of experienced volunteers in the main cat room, where I learned the procedures for cleaning, sterilizing, and preparing the shelter for the open-house hours that begin at 11 a.m.
I was surprised to find that the chores I do at home without much thought or emotional involvement are somehow a lot more fun when you’re doing them for a dozen cats — and I eagerly signed up to come in again.
This weekend, I had Room 1 to myself. Most of the kitties in that room tend to be skittish and wary of human contact, but a few of them greeted me with nose-taps and head rubs when I sat down on the floor to say hi before I started cleaning. I talked to the cats in a soft voice as I emptied water bowls and removed dirty wet food trays and sang along quietly to the ’80s music playing on the radio as I removed dirty bedding. I wanted them to get used to me before got to the serious work.
The "getting used to" part worked pretty well until I began moving beds so I could sanitize the shelves. Cats scattered to the farthest corners of the room as I wielded the Kennel Sol and paper towels. As I approached them, the cats, who had huddled together for comfort, parted like the Red Sea and hid in the darkest corners they could find.
They didn’t like it any better when I moved every shelf and cat tree in the place so I could sweep. Mostly they hid, but I did get a couple of hisses for my trouble. I didn’t take it personally. I know how I’d feel if my world were turned upside down by a stranger and there was nothing I could do about it.
With the sweeping done, I put the shelves and cat trees back. But just when the cats thought things were getting back to normal, I started digging up their poo and moving their litter boxes all over the place. (The nerve!)
I finished cleaning and mopping in about an hour and a half. Twelve pairs of eyes peered at me from various corners and caves, and the cats’ curious stares and baleful glares followed me out the door.
Once I came back with two trays laden with delicious wet food, all was forgiven.
That’s what I love about cats: If you feed them, it’s all good! Even "less socialized" cats can forgive almost anything when the gooshy foods come out.
So that’s my Saturday morning routine, from now until whenever.
And yes, I love it.
Do you volunteer at an animal rescue or shelter? How did you get involved, and what’s your favorite part of your work? Please share your answers in the comments.