Pilar, the Chihuahua

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURESSometimes, something happens that makes me realize why I love the animal sheltering world. Sometimes, something small can happen that makes a big difference.

I was at work, when a couple was at the shelter looking for a Chihuahua. They had a Chihuahua mix with them, and they wanted a companion dog. There is no short supply of Chihuahuas in California shelters, and Best Friends is no exception.

But this couple happened to be looking in particular for a small Chi, one no bigger than the one they had already, capping the weight at around eight pounds. Most Chi mixes are at least ten pounds, and they hadn’t seen anyone they liked yet. The couple was about to leave, ready to look elsewhere or come back another day, when that pesky little lightbulb of inspiration went off in my head, and I asked them to wait a moment.

All shelters (that I know of) have “back rooms” or “inside rooms”. They’re just extra kennels, not open to the public, where animals are held for a number of reasons: they might need a vet exam, or are on hold for a possible owner, or perhaps they have behavioral issues that need to be worked on before they can be put up for adoption. And in many cases, the animals are there simply because they’re waiting for a kennel to open up in the main adoption area.

At Best Friends, there are some inside kennels (although almost all of our adoptable dogs are “out on the floor”), and these are usually dogs that we have just pulled from the city shelters and will go on the floor in the next couple days, as soon as there’s room. They are still adoptable/available animals, but for obvious reasons, we want the animals that have been waiting longer to get adopted before the newer ones.

There were a few Chis back in those kennels, and I decided it might be worth it to see if there was anyone who might fit what the couple was looking for. The only small Chihuahua we had, coming in at a thin six pounds, was a little chocolate and tan female named Pilar.

I took Pilar out and her goofy expression and petite size immediately entranced the couple. She was extremely cute, had a great disposition, and was five-and-a-half years old.

She was bow-legged. After looking through her medical files, it turned out that Pilar had some orthopedic issues that could potentially cost a lot of money down the line. She had been at a city shelter since April, and had lost a lot of weight during that time (probably due to stress). But she kept a sunny disposition despite it all.

For most adopters, a medical issue is a major reason for not taking home an animal. So while I didn’t push the adopters one way or another, I was prepared for a “no”.

However, the couple—who came from an animal rescue family (they had a blind cat, among others)—loved Pilar. The medical issues were a serious concern, but after speaking with our shelter vet, and having a long discussion with each other, they decided to adopt Pilar.

She had a home.

Of course, it is the couple who deserves all the credit for taking on a special dog. But it sparked an appreciative acknowledgement in myself as well. If I hadn’t taken the extra time to check out the dogs available inside and picked out Pilar, this harder-to-adopt Chi could have spent a long time waiting for someone to take her home. Instead, she was with us for just three days.

Moments like these are the most rewarding part of my job. Sometimes, it might seem like the differences we make are small. But then I am reminded of the oft-quoted phrase:

“Saving one animal might not change the world, but for that one animal, their world has surely been changed.”

Everything in Mint Condition

KirbyThe Business of Animal Sheltering
An animal shelter is, in fact, a business. (Arguably, a public service. But we’ll go with business for now.) There is “product” (the animals), that people pay for (the adoption fee), and the business is interested in creating high turnover and “moving” product (adoptions).

An animal shelter is unique, however, in that the shelter often puts way more money into its products than it earns back from actually selling them. Often times, one particular item (say, a sick or injured dog) will cost the shelter a lot more money than another animal, but ultimately all the product will be sold at the advertised price regardless (i.e. an injured dog that costs the shelter $1,000 in vet care will be sold for $200, while a dog that came in healthy and was already neutered and cost the shelter only $60 in vaccinations will also be sold for $200).

Sometimes a shelter asks for more money based on age (puppies and kittens are sometimes more expensive than adults). This is true at the Animal Rescue League of Boston, but untrue at Best Friends in LA. Even then, a kitten who needs a fracture repair will still be sold at the same price as a healthy kitten, so the price scale is very rigid. But since puppies and kittens get adopted at a much faster rate, and (generally) cost the shelter less in vet care, the money the shelter makes on those animals helps to off-set the cost of the older animals that the shelter loses money on (the senior cat who stays for seven months before being adopted and needs medication).

It seems a little weird when you think about an animal shelter this way: in cost and product. But the fact is, even though almost all shelters (if not 100% of them) are non-profit, they still need to be able to pay for things and not go into debt, and therefore must be able to function as a business, albeit most of their revenue comes from donations and grants.

Another unique thing about an animal shelter though, is that the product is living creatures. Creatures that get sick, or have quirks, or have special needs. This makes everything quite unpredictable. Even an animal that seems to behave perfectly and is in wonderful health can suddenly become ill or develop behavioral issues once it’s in someone’s home. Animal shelters do their best to tell people everything they know about an individual animal, but often times they don’t know the animal’s past, and because an animal shelter is such a bizarre environment, an animal may not act the same or even show the same health signs as it would in a home setting*.

*It’s important to keep in mind though, that this is really true of animals in general, and not just the shelters. There are plenty of horror stories about people buying animals from pet stores and ending up with huge vet bills. Even animals purchased from small-scale high-quality breeders can still develop health or behavioral issues.

The point I’m getting at (or at least trying to get at), is that in an animal shelter, there’s no such thing as “bad product”. Even an animal with behavioral or medical concerns can be wonderful, loving pets. In fact, often times they’re more wonderful and more loving, because taking care of their special needs creates a stronger bond. And even a dog in “mint condition” can get sick or develop issues further down the line.

The Heart of Animal Sheltering
My favorite cat at Best Friends LA right now is Kirby. He’s fourteen, has three teeth, arthritis, and recently developed a skin issue (most likely some type of stress-induced allergies). He’s somewhat lethargic. He doesn’t play with toys. He doesn’t make a fuss when a younger cat gets in his face. He lets you pick him up and flop him onto your lap.

He purrs when you pet him. When you brush him and wipe down his fur and give a little relief to his scabs, he gives you a look of deep gratitude.

The shelter takes good care of Kirby, even though he’s only going to lose them money. Their loss, but also their gain, because he’s a wonderful cat.

And maybe one day soon, some kind soul will take pity on this cat in less-than-mint condition. And when they do, they can pay the full price for him. Because he’s worth it.

West Coast Alcohol Cats

I was standing in the corner of a dog kennel with my back turned, as a large, young Boxer jumped up, pummeling my arm, not letting me leave. It was the first day of work at my new job, and I could feel the bruises start. The shaded outdoor dog kennels house around 175 dogs at any given time, includes dozens of breeds (most common are pitties and chihuahuas, but also has huskies, shepherds, labs, beagles, etc.), many of them sweet, wonderful dogs. This particular Boxer was just young and rowdy, not aggressive at all. And he was beating the crap out of me.

As I got out of the kennel, unscathed except for a purpling arm, it was clear that this was going to be very different than my cat days at the ARL in Boston.


Scaredy Cat
Transitioning to a new coast was a very scary prospect for me. I’ve only ever lived in two places my whole life: my parents’ house in New York State, and Boston. And I love Boston. So even though I was eager for the new job, and gaining new experiences, on the inside I was panicking.

I had to remind myself of Pacino, and all the other cats who came to the ARL several times before finally finding the right home. Pacino, when he first arrived at the shelter, was super sweet but super shy. Hiding in everyone’s lap. The second time he came to the shelter, he was still shy, but still sweet. And then the third time he ended back at the shelter, something had changed. He was sweet as ever, but finally over his fear of change. He had been moved around so much, that he was suddenly able to adapt to being in new situations. He strutted the upstairs hallway of the shelter like he owned the place. And finally, he was adopted by the perfect family and became the first cat to a young boy.

I had to be like Pacino. I needed to uproot myself in order to build confidence. If I had stayed in one place, I would have been too comfortable, and in turn too scared to ever go anywhere. As I was panicking about the move, I had to constantly remind myself that it would be good for me, just as it was good for Pacino and other shelter cats like him.

So despite the fear, and with the hope of moving forward in life, I packed everything up, including Smirnoff and Bacardi, and headed for Tinsel Town.

Cats on a Plane
Animal aviation is a complex web of rules and procedure and sedatives. But after I had called the airline to book two passengers and two cats, ordered the right pet carriers, experimented with cat sedative dosages (as Bacardi has panic attacks when he travels), and made sure all of my checked bags were under 50 pounds (it was touch and go for a while, and I eventually had to leave behind Bacardi’s dry food). After I had given away or sold the alcohol cats’ nice scartching post and cat tree, and tried to encourage them to use the litterbox one last time before I threw it away, it was time to go.

At security, I had to take each cat out of the carrier, walk with them through the metal detector (while their carrier went through the xray), and have the cat hair from my hands tested. Luckily, they let me walk back and forth and do both cats (first Bacardi, then Smirnoff), so that my friend who was traveling with me didn’t have to try and wrangle a nervous cat.

But despite a two-hour delay, I was so incredibly proud of the alcohol cats. They were in their carriers for about 11+ hours, didn’t have any accidents, and only started to meow and complain about 30 minutes before the plane landed (by which time, the sedatives had long since worn off). For most of the flight, they slept under the seats in front of us.

The Pacino Theory, Part 2
When I moved last summer, it was a 20 minute drive across the Charles River. Both cats wailed the entire time, and Smirnoff huddled behind Bacardi in the bathroom of my new apartment. He had spent the past two years of his life (so, two-thirds of his total life) in my Brighton apartment. For a week, he spent most of each day under the kitchen sink.

So naturally, I was apprehensive about traveling across the country. But then the day of plane travel went smoother than I could have possibly expected. And the alcohol cats were fully settled in my new apartment in two days.

They proved once again that the Pacino Theory is true. The more you uproot yourself and take chances, the easier the transition becomes every time you do it.

So then I had no excuse. If Smirnoff and Bacardi could brave a transcontinental journey, and stand strong at the other end of it, so could I.

Best Friends Animal Society
I spent the first few days of work being pulled around by large dogs, eager to get out of their kennels and into the play yards. I knew that dogs would be at least half of the job, as the shelter can house around 175 dogs at one time, (and I made sure to spend time with the dogs in order to get more comfortable handling them), but I was eager to show my expertise.

During the quieter hours, I snuck into the cat rooms for some peace.

There are two communal cat rooms at the shelter, both designed by Jackson Galaxy. I slipped into the bigger one, and purring bodies came over, rubbing against my legs and arms.

I picked up a grey tabby with a crooked mouth. His name is Kirby and he’s fourteen. He only has three teeth, has some arthritis, and spends all day lounging on the floor. I scooped him up and he sat in my lap, purring gently and drooling as I petted him.

And despite the marks of the Boxer still on my arm, I felt like I was in a good place. A no-kill shelter that cares deeply about its animals, that will rescue all types of cats. The Best Friends Animal Society shelter in Mission Hills, CA, has several senior cats, FIV+ cats, a FELV+ cat room, and a mostly volunteer-run neonatal nursery, that bottle feeds tiny kittens around the clock. A room that would make the ARL cat ladies swoon in envy.

To be a part of that, I’ll take on a few dogs.

To Be Continued…