I Volunteer at a Shelter — and Three Cats Stole My Heart


I have volunteered weekly at Whiskers Animal Benevolent League, a cat rescue and shelter in Albany, NY, since August. It’s not a glamorous job by any means. The majority of my shift consists of scooping litter boxes, juggling six cans of food to accommodate different diets, and wiping down every surface with a solution that has been designed to kill common cat afflictions such as ringworm.

Over the past several months, I have been sneezed on, bitten (once leading to a nasty infection), scratched, and hissed at. I have stepped in vomit more times than I can count, and I have had to break up vicious cat fights. It’s brutal. Cat-loving friends often ask me how I can do it. They wonder how I can walk into that shelter week after week and not lose my mind seeing all of those cats without homes.

Ironically, all of the reasons they don’t think they could do it are exactly the reasons that I can. In an ideal world, I would bring home all of the cats. All 130 of them would run free in my apartment, climbing and napping all day long, and on breaks from work I’d lie on the floor and let them all wash over me in a purring wave of fur. In reality, though, the space in my small downtown apartment and the funds in my wildly erratic bank account limit my cats to two, and adding more (especially 130 more) would be irresponsible. What I lack in space and money I make up for in time, and volunteering at Whiskers is a great compromise, which allows me to care for and love the cats that I can’t bring home. As you can imagine, I have bonded with quite a few.

Rusty, a slender orange guy with a freckly nose, was the first cat I befriended at Whiskers. At the end of my orientation as I chatted with the volunteer coordinator, Rusty stood at my feet and gently pawed at my knee, asking politely for head scratches (I happily obliged). To this day, Rusty is always there to greet me when I show up for my shift, and he is always there to say "see you later!" when I leave.

I work in the infirmary, a small room that usually houses only 10 to 15 cats at a time. Some of my cats are injured and a few are chronically sick, but most of them are simply there because they require special diets to keep urinary tract or digestive issues in check. Even though cats rotate in and out of my room depending on their ever-changing conditions, many of my cats have been there since I started. As the weeks have gone by and I have learned their names, temperaments, favorite foods, and personality quirks, I have developed deep bonds with them.

Most of the cats at Whiskers are free-roaming. Cats who are new to the shelter get caged while they adjust to their new surroundings, as do cats who pose a danger to the other cats (such as cats that are aggressive or are being tested for transmittable diseases), cats who require very specific diets, and cats who have injuries that require minimal mobility to heal.

When I first met Dennis, he was being tested for FeLV (feline leukemia virus, which is highly contagious through saliva and nasal secretions) and caged while awaiting results. There was a sign on his cage asking volunteers to wear gloves when touching him. I wondered whether the fear of disease (or even the extra step of putting on gloves) would discourage some volunteers from touching him at all. My heart ached for him, because he always seemed so starved for love and affection. I made it a point to spend extra time with him, and we connected as I gave him all of the attention and rubs he could handle. When Dennis’ test results came back positive for FeLV, he was transferred to the special room for FeLV cats, where he is now able to roam free with others with the condition and receive all of the affection he craves.

The cat I have bonded with most in the infirmary is a large gray cat named Cutie. True to his name, he has the sweetest face and disposition you can imagine. I have been known to stay an extra 20 minutes at the end of my shift just to scratch and pet him.

Several times a week, Whiskers takes cats to an adoption clinic at a local pet store; Cutie was scheduled to go last month. I couldn’t imagine he wouldn’t get adopted — he’s amazing! When I showed up for my shift the following week, I found his cage empty and was suddenly filled with so many emotions. I was thrilled that my sweet boy had found a forever home, but I was also caught off-guard by the sadness I felt when it hit me that I’d never see him again.

As it turns out, Cutie wasn’t adopted. He was limping a bit at the adoption clinic, so they took him to the vet instead. (He’s fine!) I felt the most guilty joy when he was returned to the infirmary halfway through my shift. Someday the luckiest person in the world will take him home. And on that day, I hope I can feel nothing but happiness for him. (No promises, though!)

Volunteering at an animal shelter is unpredictable. There are great days when all of the cats are cuddly, sweet, and happy, and there are terrible days when a cat I love is sick or has passed away since my last shift.

Sometimes I am filled with hope by the vast amount of volunteers, who keep the cats fed and the litter boxes clean, and sometimes I am crushed by the number of cats who live there. But through it all, I know that they are always grateful to see me, and that the time I spend there is critical to the overall quality of life of each cat I encounter.

In the midst of chaos, I am just happy to be a part of a team that can provide care, love, and stability for these cats who have had so little.

Got a Cathouse Confessional to share?

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