Thursday, January 29, 2009

It's raining cats and cats

I received a belated holiday email the other day from a friend in Canada whose dedication to animals I’ve always admired. She and her husband pour a mind-boggling amount of time, effort and money into rescue. They stand out. Even when they are placed in a line-up alongside the ranks of inspirational people I’ve encountered.

Here’s how her note began:

Some people are organized and send out Christmas cards in early December.

Some people are organized and do Christmas baking.

Some people are organized and make a big festive dinner.

Those people do not have 117 cats.

This is our version of a Christmas letter…

Now you know why they stand out.

I have to keep my friends’ names anonymous. Having 117 cats in one’s house doesn’t endear you to the neighbors. Or the authorities. So for purposes of identification, I’ll call them Patty and Bob.

People like Patty and Bob follow their own law. Humanity rules, that is. They have pulled umpteen cats from death row at shelters and lovingly nurtured them in their house. But like many compassionate souls in the rescue community, they have a hard time saying no to shelter staff and veterinarians who bring them homeless creatures.

Until a few years ago, when they hit 140 cats.

When you have 140 cats, the world as you know it disappears. You can’t even cook a meal because the cats have peed on your stovetop in their quest to mark shrinking territory. Your life is consumed by feeding and watering, cleaning, medicating animals, and scooping litter. Money for the vet bills spills like an endless river. Never mind covering costs such as food and other supplies.

Realizing they weren’t able to turn away an animal in need, Patty and Bob felt they had only one option.

Leave town.

They packed up their belongings, the cats, and a rabbit, and headed across the country to find a new life. When they got there, they would be in stealth mode. They wouldn’t make contact with local rescue groups or veterinary clinics. Their new veterinarian was warned to keep the existence of their cat house under wraps.

I played a small role helping to move the cats, arriving at their place to be a catcher. We had to get them loaded into carriers two-by-two. The operation happened in stages over several days. Coralling 140 cats – many of them feral – takes bravado and some artistry. A couple of bites and scratches were the only collateral damage.

There was one escapee who made it to the lawn, but she was caught before danger befell her.

The carriers were placed on pallets and loaded into the plane’s underbelly. I jokingly called the charter ride Meow Air.

The bunny and the sickest, oldest cats made the trip with Patty by motor home while her husband waited at the other side to receive the cats coming in by air.

It hasn’t been easy for Bob and Patty. They had to do significant renovations on the old house to clean up after the cats, and to the new one to accommodate them.

But finally things are getting easier in this cat house.

On behalf of all animal lovers out there, I would like to wish Patty and Bob a belated happy holidays. And thank them for all they did for the cats in 2008, and beyond. Paws up to you!

Here's an excerpt from her letter.

“…We have way less financial stress and have used our leeway to get some much needed surgeries done for our four-legged family. The female cats we took in here, as well as some that left unspayed, have been fixed to the extent possible.

Virginia has never been healthy enough to spay, nor have we wanted to stress the two remaining from our superbug group, GypsyRoseLee and Alexa.

We have only one healthy cat named Theresa left to take in and thankfully she is not a noisy, in-heat gal.

What a relief to get Gwyneth, Stephi, Lily, Menewt, Terri, Tess, Tina and Pamela done. The noise level has been reduced enormously as they seemed to be in a constant state of heat.

The spays here are $250 each so that is why we had to wait so long.

Lots of dental surgeries needed doing as well. We have several toothless cats now, and they are much healthier and happier that way. Amazingly, several of them still refuse any wet food.

We found a vet practice a 40-minute drive away that we have faith in. It is so worth it, for all the surgeries and the diagnostic abilities there are also far better than our local practice.

Our local practice has gone through hard times and lost its best vet some time ago. Sadly three of the cats who had surgery there since died from complications from their surgery. The worst of all being our beloved Jordie whose lung collapsed. No vet was even in the office within an hour after surgery to check up on him. This despite them mentioning that he was a higher risk than some due to a heart murmur. We surely regretted having his teeth fixed and miss him still.

There is never a dull moment with our cat house.

At this time, we are watching several carefully. Sammy is diabetic and Scratch has just gone through a bad time with an infection. He is barely better today and we are still holding our breath.

Our group ages every year and so every year means more pass on to the rainbow bridge.

Most recently, our loving little Bomber and Gwen gave up the earth life the week before Christmas.

Since starting this letter last Friday night, we also had to say goodbye to Precious. I was fortunate enough to get home on Monday eve about half an hour before she died and so was able to be with her and tell her one last time how special she was.

We lost several of our babes this year and one of our two bunnies, Mutt Bunny, died. He was our little handicapped bunny and amazingly ate right up to his last day. Every year we expected him to pass. I guess he just loved the raisin and oat treats too much to go. Nine years is amazing, even for a healthy bunny – he beat all the odds. Jeff bunny is still going strong and showing no signs of age. He is still our “Watch” Bunny and drums in his cage when he feels threatened by noises outside. I just discovered that Cheerios from nuts and bolts are a tasty treat for Jeff. He stared at me intently while I was chowing down on some and lo and behold, that was what he wanted!

Maisie and Maude continue to play fetch.

Our FIV+ mommy cat April is still living happily with her daughters MayDay and JuneBug. Considering we have had her since 2001, she had truly outlived expectations and shows no signs of the advanced disease. Our other two FIV cats have passed on though. This year we had to say goodbye to Gideon. As with so many of the wild ones, he tamed quite a bit with the onset of illness.

Leo, one of our wild boys, had become a big suck now that he has been moved in with Harvey to a main floor bathroom due to breathing problems. What a beauty boy he is. Harvey has also changed, as did Guinevere, who also passed over this year.

One thing that probably surprises me most is that we still miss the movements and habits of every one that passes on. I will never get good at saying goodbye and will likely never run out of tears. There is a numbness that comes over you at times but it is short-lived.

Our Christmas day was one of relaxation after chores, but also of course included a period of remembering and assessing what we have been able to do and what we still have to do.

We just keep on going like the Everready Bunny because there is no current alternative. I do however join in the lottery pool and work and we have several tickets for tonight and tomorrow night never know!

As you can probably guess we have no plans to take a vacation. Being away is not an option with so many furry friends dependant upon us.

We haven’t exactly encouraged any visitors either. The house we have is not designed to be cat friendly and is nowhere near to the stage where we could invite anyone to stay and be comfortable. Of course, I am still stubborn and never give up. Once spring comes around I will be back at the garage renos and also back at investigating a heating system for the house. Space heaters are not something we can leave alone for too long, so we did not attend the family Christmas dinner. My niece had it at her house, which would have been a two-hour one-way drive.

Anyway, I expect this is more information than you ever wanted on the crazy cat world here so I will bid adieu and hope everyone I send this to has a happy and peaceful 2009.

Happy New Year!

p.s. Another sad delay to this letter. Osiris died last evening. We had not been watching him for illness.

There was no sign of illness until late Friday evening. So now there are only 116....

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

My day with kid rescuer ends in giggling fit

I’m starting to think that little girl rescuer Calli is a Mini Me.
A jaunt to Winnipeg (aka Winterpeg) nearly froze me solid this week as I frolicked with pen, pad and camera in icy minus 49 degrees Celsius. The harsh climate is particularly rough on homeless people and animals. While I was there, animals were being admitted to the local shelter with frostbitten ears.

But out there on the Prairies I found warmth, too. The kind that melts the heart.

Calli Vanderaa and I spent time talking about animals and compassion. We discussed responsible pet ownership. I shot photographs of her with Jessie and other animals. And we toured the Winnipeg Humane Society. Staff there called her “an inspiration.” Shelter work is difficult at times, a job that seems dismally dark on some days. Calli was a ray of light and hope on two small legs as she walked the place in awe.

I first told you about nine-year-old Calli just before Christmas (Girl rescues tortured puppy from inner-city war zone, Dec. 14, 2008).
A few months prior, she had rescued her Jessie from a trash dumpster near her house in the heart of gangland territory. Someone had tortured Jessie and her two littermates, setting them on fire before leaving them for dead. The caramel-colored dog, scorched and blackened, was the only pup still alive when Calli pulled her from danger.

Like the shelter workers, I found it inspiring to watch Calli in action. Kids naturally do the right thing by animals. They don’t think about time, money, and life’s responsibilities before attempting a rescue. But as we grow into adults, we start thinking more about our own needs. We forget we are obligated to rescue the creatures we fought to save when we were as helpless as they were. Back when we stood knee-high and looked straight into their eyes. Children view this responsibility with unfettered purity.

They get it.

Calli and I had work to do, but we found some time to play, too. I took her out for a nice lunch at a posh restaurant. It was there that we launched into a giggling fit, a familiar old feeling for me.

When I was a kid, gales of raucous laughter always got me into trouble.

Once I got started into a fit of laughter, I couldn’t stop. Teachers would sternly instruct me to stop laughing and being disruptive at once or I would be in trouble, big trouble. But that only made me laugh harder. Frequently my desk would end up banished to the hallway with me stationed at it. I recall sitting out there all alone as the humor of the situation set in. In the long corridor, I now had my own classroom for one. Tears would roll down my cheeks as I laughed even harder at the hilarity of the situation.

It was easier to laugh than to cry.

It turns out Calli is wired similarly. Our laugh track lasted a good 20 minutes. When one of us could finally pull it together long enough to catch a ragged breath, all it took was a glance of eye contact from the other and we’d be off again.

“We should go to school together – we’d be in big trouble,” Calli said in between our dueling gulping bursts of fanatical laughter.

Calli’s posted my cell phone number up on her fridge, and she knows she can call me any time. With her single dad Corey on the road long-haul trucking much of the time, she could use a friend. To talk about animals, or anything else, for that matter.

And Corey kindly offered to indulge our wish to meet up again. On his next trucking trek out to the West Coast, Calli will be riding up in the cab with him, clicking off the miles until we can hang out again. She’ll be staying with me for a while, and Corey will pick her back up to come home on his next run out.

I’ve already started figuring out where we’ll go and who she’ll meet when she visits. The cat sanctuary with 800 felines. The shelter that takes dogs seized from grow-ops. The myriad adults and kids I’ve met along the way who devote themselves to rescuing animals.

People who can’t turn away when they hear a puppy crying.

I know they’ll love her. She’s one of us. And like me, I’m certain they will recognize themselves in her.

Trading hats.

Poor Calli was frozen stiff while we took photos on a cold night.

Hanging out with Jessie, dad Corey and Calli. Check out the hot Stratus guitar she received from a reader for Christmas in the background.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Update on rescuer shot recently—she's home!

For those of you keeping Bunny in your thoughts and prayers, I'm posting this follow-up from her sister-in-law Shelly Patton.

Carreen, you captured the essence of Bunny beautifully. When she is feeling stronger, I look forward to watching her read this. She isn’t aware of the blogger’s comments and for now that is best. When she begins to seek out information on her own, I know this writing will be such a blessing to her, set apart by the tenderness with which you wrote. On behalf of Bunny and our family, thank you.

She is out of the hospital and in the best environment possible for healing; surrounded by her children, grandson and ferrets, with family and friends filtering in and out ensuring she is not alone. I’ve seen Bunny smile.

Still, it will be a long journey before she is truly home, but she isn’t walking alone.

Thank you to everyone for walking with her through your prayers and well wishes.


Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Animal rescuer shot in the face

She has always been spellbound by animals.

Even as a little girl.

Her love for creatures was so intense that she changed her name when she was in high school. Her nickname had to describe a girl who hopped around with enthusiasm. From then on, she was Bunny.

Now 60 years old, the New Orleans-area woman is devoted to rescuing orphaned baby wildlife. Gently and patiently, she nurses them back to health.

But a week ago, she was the one who needed to be rescued.

Like most people in the hurricane-ravaged region, the road back to self-sufficiency has been long and hard for gregarious, rambunctious Bunny. She lost her house to Katrina’s devastating blow.

Then it happened again.

In September, Gustav swept through the Gulf Coast, destroying her trailer. In a left-for-dead city plagued by skyrocketing crime and rampant homelessness, Bunny had finally found a temporary place for herself and her 14-year-old daughter in a motel room.

But none of that compares to what happened to Bunny on January 3rd.

In a quest to find better accommodations, she rented the bottom half of a house from a man who placed a Craigslist ad seeking a renter. For several weeks, she had been moving her possessions into the house. Then, on the day she was scheduled to make his home hers, the 57-year-old man lured her into a strip mall parking lot and shot her in the face. One 25-calibre bullet lodged there, shattering her jaw. The second pierced her cheekbone, settling in her sinus cavity. A third tore into her shoulder. The fourth grazed her back and landed in the car seat.

If she hadn’t slumped over her steering wheel and played possum, she wouldn’t be here to tell the story.

Bunny’s passion for animals isn’t the only reason I feel kinship for this gutsy woman. She’s the sister-in-law of Louisiana SPCA staffer Shelly Patton. Besides being a dear friend, Shelly is a frequent contributor to this blog. She wrote to me about the shooting.

“When she opened her eyes, his car was gone,” Shelly said. “She started the van and drove back to the strip mall, parking behind the stores. After trying to reach her oldest daughter twice by cell phone, she called 911.”

Bunny is unable to speak. But being a bubbly chatterbox, she’s still fighting to tell the story in her own words. For now, she’s communicating by madly scribbling in a notebook. Fittingly, given how she saved herself, she’s also using a possum puppet as a prop and a book on ventriloquism.

Despite her troubles, Bunny hasn’t forgotten about the animals.

“All she wants to do is get home with her ferrets,” Shelly said. “Bunny focuses so much love and attention on her animals.”

Even in her excruciating pain, Bunny made a courageous decision. She’s stopped taking pain medications. The drowsy feeling makes her feel helpless, and that’s when memories of the shooting creep in.

“She would rather deal with the pain than lose her sharpness of mind,” Shelly said. “Her face is torn up inside. The piece of bone that hinges her jaw to her skull is gone. Her nose is broken, her sinuses pressurized by blood. And she stops her pain meds. I knew she was tough, but I had no idea. I have a whole new respect for that woman.”

The physical pain doesn’t compare to the mental torture her attacker has inflicted.

“Bunny’s greatest suffering right now is from terror,” Shelly said. “I don’t know if Bunny has ever really been afraid. She cries when she talks of being afraid. Thankfully, she is talking of being afraid.”

Shelly has been visiting Bunny in the hospital, where doctors are determined to piece her back together again.

“She looks like a human, Goth god hybrid,” Shelly said. “Black lips, black shading under and around the eyes, deep purple patterns painted along the left cheekbone, chin, and down the neck, a blank facial expression caused by the drooping left side. But the eyes are so bright. There is life in the eyes. It is very eerie.”

Not everyone has been a source of comfort for Bunny. As is typical, many bloggers have been cruel. These sanctimonious cowards saw an opportunity to kick a woman named Bunny after she was taken down. From the anonymity of their computer screens, dozens of bloggers weighed in with their high and mighty opinions, blaming Bunny for what happened because she answered an Internet ad.

Saying that she deserved what she got.

Their righteous, heartless attitude churns my stomach. It’s easy for them to point fingers from the comfort of their safe homes. Bunny is a woman just trying to survive in a wasteland, a dark place that tried to waste her.

But from what I hear, the courageous, indefatigable spirit that defines Bunny won’t be dimmed by their ugly words.

“Bunny is the most perpetually happy person I have ever met,” Shelly said. “She lost her home in Katrina. She continued to smile. She lost her trailer in Gustav. She continued to smile. She has lost so much through her life, starting with her innocence in childhood. She has always smiled.

“I hope I see Bunny smile again.”

More details of this baffling crime are available in The Times-Picayune newspaper article.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

New Orleans animal control officers exhibit guts and heart in the field

Writer Shelly Patton of Louisiana SPCA hams it up at the shelter's Christmas pet photos event.

Animal control officers despise it when members of the general public label them “dog catchers”. Who can blame them? They are so much more than the dismissive title implies.

These people are essentially the police force for the animals, working the front lines of cruelty and neglect. Dogs neglected on chains. Animals beaten and tortured. Innocent, helpless creatures tossed aside and considered worthless beings. Animal control officers witness scenes daily that would feature in our nightmares for a lifetime. For little pay and no appreciation, in fact downright abuse at times, these people forge ahead without validation because they know that what they are doing is right and just.

The work being done by Louisiana SPCA’s animal control officers takes the challenges in the field to the next level. The city remains devastated by Katrina, with many residents working hard to eke out a living and a lifestyle in a crime-ridden, decimated wasteland.

Shelly Patton, webmaster for Louisiana SPCA, has been a frequent contributor to this blog, engaging us with her insightful comments and gentle thoughts. She went on her first ride-along yesterday. Although I’ve hit the road with animal control many times, it hasn’t hardened my heart to the reality. I sobbed when I read what she wrote, so I wanted to share it with you.

My day with animal control was very enlightening. In the morning, we went on sweeps; four trucks, six officers and me. A sweep is a group of officers hitting an area as a team, “sweeping” through and catching stray dogs. The day is mapped according to "roaming at large" complaints we have received. Whether or not the stray will still be in the area by the time we get there is questionable. However, strays tend to stay in their territory. Once we arrive at an address, the trucks traveling through the neighborhood split up to search.

When a stray is spotted, a call is made on the radio and all trucks converge on the area. In theory, the lead truck passes the dog, parking at the far end of the block. The other trucks park in intervals, with the last truck positioning itself at the beginning of the block. The dog is surrounded.

As quickly as possible, the end officers – we call them netters – grab heavy nets and prepare to snare the dog as it runs by. The middle officers – runners– chase the dog towards the netters. It is seldom is so simple. Dogs are smart.

I spotted the first dog captured. After the dog was poled and netted, I decided I wouldn’t make a good animal control officer.

She was a 20-pound black terrier mix. Her coat was clipped, she was overweight, and she wore a collar. Running through a field, she hid under a shed that was in someone’s back yard. With a privacy fence on two sides and officers on the others, she had nowhere to go.

By the time the officers captured her, the poor thing was so completely freaked out, I felt guilty for having seen her in the first place.

I understand banging on the shed sides, trying to scare her out. I understand poking her trying to get her to move. I understand eventually poling her, and pulling her stiff-legged fearful body over debris. I understand the streets are dangerous and it was in her best interest we take her off them. But understanding those things didn’t make it any easier for me to see this little black dog so afraid, a dog who, in my opinion, was loved. I hated that.

No, I can’t get past the emotions. I wouldn’t make a good animal control officer.

Once we captured the dog, I was very impressed by the tenderness and compassion the officers had for her. It was from the time I saw her to having her on the truck that I couldn’t deal with.

Yes, I am doing exactly what I need to be doing for the animals. I can make a difference in my detached position of building repairs and web work. I really don’t like seeing the animals upset. I wanted to scream at them to leave her alone.

I hope her owner comes in soon to claim her.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Holiday season sparkles for young animal rescuer

Readers have been emailing me wanting to hear more from girl rescuer Calli Vanderaa. Here’s her latest letter to all those who gave from their heart to hers:

Hi Carreen and everyone else. My name is Calli and you know my puppy Jessie. I just would like to say thank you to everyone who sent such nice gifts for Jessie and I. My daddy and I got to spend a lot of time together...that was really cool. I really like the Modern Dog magazine and plan on reading it as much as I can.

It’s clear that Calli is grateful for the acts of kindness bestowed upon her by strangers touched by her story. The gift avalanche from people around the continent was impressive.
For my part, I must admit I’m pleased that she’s reading Modern Dog magazine. Shameless self-promoting, I know. But I’m wondering if maybe Calli might become an animal rescuer and writer after all?

To reference the original story about Calli, go to Girl rescues tortured puppy from inner city war zone, Dec. 14, 2008. Several follow-ups have also been posted in the meantime.

Friday, January 2, 2009

Outpouring of generosity brings girl rescuer to tears

Nine-year-old Calli Vanderaa saved a puppy who was set on fire and left for dead in a dumpster. And when people read Calli’s story, they grew determined to save Christmas for her. Readers couldn’t resist showering gifts on this inner-city child who threw her Santa list away because all she really wanted to do was spend time with her dad. (Girl rescues tortured puppy from inner city war zone, Dec. 14, 2008).
Gifts poured in for Calli from Canada and the United States. But the most generous by far were kind-hearted Winnipeggers, proving once again that this city cares for its own.
I asked Calli to write to me so I could relate to you in her words what this Christmas has meant to her. Here’s what she said. I think it’s telling that she was most touched by the letters, not the presents.

There sure was a Santa this year. I had the best Christmas ever. I would like to thank all of you for writing such nice letters. I think I want to start getting into helping animals of all kinds. With everyone so busy all the time it’s easier for someone younger like me to notice the small things that need fixing our animal friends. My daddy told me there are animals all over the world that need help sometimes. Maybe one day I could help them and protect them. Thank you again everyone for all the nice things you have done for Jessie and I.

It’s true. Jessie has been well taken care of. Besides new bedding, toys and treats, the five-month-old dog has received the best gift of all – she will be spayed mid-January. Calli had been saving small change in coffee cans for the surgery, but several kind donors and veterinary clinics stepped up to offer free services without being asked.
A couple of days after Christmas, Calli showed heart again. She shared part of her bounty, taking some of her toys to the Salvation Army to help other needy children in her neighborhood. And she and dad Corey took toys and treats down to Winnipeg Humane Society for the homeless animals.
“She had a lot of fun. She really enjoyed giving out the dog treats,” Corey said.
Calli cried Christmas morning when she opened her gifts, especially when she unwrapped a signed Avril Lavigne poster. And just like her idol Avril, there will be music in Calli’s future – one person gave her a coveted Stratus guitar. She’ll be starting lessons soon.
But money couldn’t buy Calli the best present of all, granted just before New Year’s: an unprecedented three days off with her single dad, a long-haul trucker. The pair spent time going to movies and having fun together.
Calli’s already started writing thank you letters to everyone who sent her gifts and cards, so if you are among them, expect to hear from her.
I don’t think this is the last we’ll hear from Calli. She’s motivated to stay rescuing. She’s already spoken to other kids at her school about the importance of compassion and kindness towards animals.
It was Calli’s letter to her hometown paper that started it all. She wanted to tell people what happened to Jessie, and try to make things better for other animals. She tells it well, so I’ll let her say it in her own words.
“How can people do that? How can I let everyone know they shouldn’t do that?”