Me holding a cat at the shelter that took 2 months to socialize.
The Northeast Missouri Humane Society is located at 2923 Warren Barrett Drive, Hannibal, MO. The Northeast Missouri Humane Society is a non-profit organization. The existence of this shelter is possible due to the donations that we receive and the volunteer base that we uphold. This is where my story unfolds; where I gained the confidence to beat depression, and become part of the animal shelter team. There were many that doubted that I would succeed… but at the same time, others saw hope, experience, and possibility. I see that in every individual – human and animal alike. My experience and quest through depression is not at all unique; the battle is repeated hundreds and hundreds of times throughout the United States. My personal fight against depression and against bullying in the face of other alternatives was dangerous and had no clear end in sight… it was a fight like so many others are facing right now. But for those that doubt I beat depression, for others that say that no one else can replicate my success… let me say this; it begins with you.
I work at the Northeast Missouri animal shelter. In my line of work I have learned about trial and error, love and forgiveness. I have learned this not just from myself personally, but from co-workers and animals that spring into mind when I think of an animal advocate. Being an effective animal advocate has me a cost me a lot both physically and emotionally. It has. Being an advocate for the animals has cost me my want to be quiet and give up. It has cost me my want to isolate into a corner so I could avoid any tension. But I have learned that we do not affect change by alienating ourselves; we affect change by battling it out on the frontline. We are the heroes of the animal protection movement… and we must speak up and speak loud, even when the stakes are insanely high. I am just one of the many individuals that animals have touched and inspired to do great things in spite of a horrible beginning at life. This is what working at a humane society and taking chances is all about – the success stories.
I enjoy working at the Northeast Missouri Humane Society. Animal shelters are constantly evolving as more information becomes available about animal health, medicine, behavior and nutrition. The excitement and ability to go forth and do more with my constant expanding knowledge is what inspires my daily work. Still there are some people that say that working in the humane society would be depressing. I will tell you one thing; working in an animal shelter is never easy and is often time demanding. Sometimes I am caring for a cat when they are hurt, or abandoned, but I am also blessed to be with them when they reach their best. As I take a look at the cats every morning, I not only have a view of cats that need my companionship and support, but of cats that can find their forever homes. I want to make that a reality.
Working here at the local animal shelter I have the unique opportunity to work with each and every cat, and target specific improvement areas among the general population so that I can make their stay at the shelter stress-free. For each cat I give individualized attention and change my cleaning protocol and socialization protocol to nurture their specific needs so that they can get adopted faster. Having the chance to turn the most terrified cats into the best lap warmers is a part of what makes me the cat man. The staff personnel here work as a team to make sure everything is run correctly and that the animals are well cared for. Our loyalty and devotion allocated toward finding homes for homeless animals is immense. It is out of that same pool of devotion that the energy is supplied to keep on going… to tread forward and look forward to a day where there are no more homeless animals.
While working here at the animal shelter I have seen some of the most outrageous animal injuries. I have seen cats that have lost their legs in leg traps, and cats ran over that ended up with broken bones or broken jaws. I have seen cats ran over by semi trucks, thrown in garbage bags, and I have even seen cats caught in a box floating in the water. The great thing about it all? All the cats were survivors and were adopted. I never gave up hope on any of those cats and continued fighting on their behalf.
I have always done what is best for the animals and so does the team. I can recall times I have walked three miles in 23 inches of snow to feed and water all the cats at the shelter one day because most vehicles could not move. Some would call me crazy and out of my mind, but I do what is best for the animals and always will.
We do our best to save all the animals. We even socialize feral cats which can take months and do our best to heal the sick. But there are the ones that we cannot save. I remember a few kittens that came in too sick to save one time. After days of almost no sleep it was still not enough. Working at a humane society you see life and you see death. Also working at animal shelters you see miracles being performed each day and you witness what it is like to experience happiness beyond measure as well as heartbreak that never seems to pass.
The biggest thing I have experienced working here is the amount of teamwork and level of care supplied to each and every animal. Often the care of animals in the facility go outside what is required and personal commitments and funds are allocated toward saving more animals. Saving animals and seeing new opportunities open up for our shelter animals is an example of happiness beyond measure.
Speaking of feral cats and scaredy cats, they were the cats I enjoyed helping the most. The cats who hid in the litter boxes did so because the litter boxes held their own scent more so than the rest of the cage due to their feces being in it. This reminds me of people and security items which keep them feeling safe. However, many people are not trained to recognize either behavior. Cats that hid in the litter boxes and hissed at people would scare some people off but I recognized the hiss was not a sign of being aggressive, it was a sign of being scared. I What I would do is distract them from their fear (socialization) with something pleasant (canned food) I would even spoon feed them the canned food while petting them if necessary. When I was distracting them I would gently pet them 1 time then slowly work up to 2 and 3 times. From there I would try to maintain a continuous pet and work on holding them for 1 second, then 2 seconds.
For the hard cases I would involve toys to distract them while petting or trying to hold them for the first time. Over time socializing cats helped boost my own confidence. I knew from my own experience with being scared to socialize, that I could not rush things… sometimes it could take 2 months for any progress to be made. I remembered that each individual cat was different and goes through progress at different rates, and that was fine. Some cats took 3 months while others took 6 months to socialize.
Another important lesson I have learned: animals with disabilities give people with disabilities great hope. I often compare the endeavor of a cat with three legs being happy and purring, jumping about, and living life to the fullest to how we can interpret life. If you let your disabilities get you done (remember they do not define you) you miss out on a whole lot. Another example is comparing a cat with cerebellar hypoplasia and a person with cerebral palsy. Just because they are often labeled as “limited” doesn’t mean they have to be. As I always say, limits were meant to be broken, and so they shall be.
Three legged dog we saved
Three legged cat we saved
My story and journey of how I got here
I have worked here at the Northeast Missouri animal shelter for three years now. I have also volunteered for two years previous to being employed. That is a combined five years of shelter experience. In the time I have spent here I have befriended countless feline, canine and human friends. After graduating high school, I was offered a part time job. My job entailed that I clean cat cages and dog cages, socialize animals, and help steer unwanted behavior in an effort to get more animals adopted. My life hasn’t always been filled with happiness and success. Living with aspergers and depression and having experienced abuse, I know the feeling of being alone and undermined in a world that seems to just spin on by. When I first voyaged out to be someone, anxiety and doubt shrouded my mind and I was completely clueless on what to do. Unless you are a paragon of confidence, the feeling ebbs at you like frost through leaf.
While a big part of elementary school impacted my life, middle school and high school were the biggest stress of all. On the first day of middle school my foster dad had just passed away and my mom was recovering from thyroid cancer. While I didn’t have a big attachment to my foster dad and I had been a victim of abuse, as well as many cats that he hated, it was such a hard hitter. He was changing over a new leaf prior to his death. He was an animal abuser so I could never have a cat around which is why I feel so strongly about how cats are treated in and out of the animal shelter environment. During this time we had to move multiple times due to financial problems and foreclosure on the house. Everyone was feeling the shock and this was a very sensitive time for me. At this point I did not fancy being socially active in middle school. I did not want any part of sports, class rooms, or discussion groups. I was picked on to give presentations, to stand up in front of the class and answers questions on the chalk board in spite of my social disability.
I barely passed middle school with all D’s. Middle school did not improve and as I made the transition to high school, I was scared. The feeling of being alone clawed at me. I was forced to participate in socially stressful situations such as gym and give oral presentations in English. I was verbally abused and disliked by other students. My first year of high school ended with attendance probation and a grade card full of F’s and a disappointed outlook on life. 10th grade was the year I dropped out – in the middle of the year. During middle school I had three near life encounters. One in which I had a kid chase me with a knife, another which was a bullying incident and the last one was me thinking of suicide which is never an option. I did not see the light at the end of the tunnel and there was no safety net to catch my fall.
Sometimes a miracle shines down on you
Since I quit prematurely, it was basically summer time for me. During the summer time I played video games, chatting with the friends I did have, and I watched television. I slept maybe 3 hours per day. Somewhere during the middle of the summer my mom brought me home my first real cat. It didn’t take long for the love affair to bloom. After spending a lot of time with my new kitty, Tiger, and learning vitals about cat care and cat socialization, I dreamed about what it would like to be a vet. Cats were so intricate and complex. This sprouted the idea of wanting to volunteer at the humane society. One week before school my mom and Learning Opportunities really urged me to give school another try. We talked about it and deep into the conversation my ambitions about working at the humane society popped up. Learning Opportunities agreed to the idea.
I returned to school only to expect the same (if not worse) abuse than last year. At the beginning of the year, I was pushed around and tormented like a rat in a labyrinth. People passed me up in lunch lines, made up stories about me and got me into trouble. The school did however allow me to volunteer at the humane society for two hours per day. I enjoyed socializing the cats but in honesty, I was lazy and did not even uphold my original initiative to learn how to clean cat cages. I was still bummed out about the previous year which included suicide thoughts, bad grades and attendance, and lack of friends. Every scintilla of my confidence was broken. I made it through 11th grade with just a little ounce of motivation left.
At the start of 12th grade I requested that the school allow me to work at the animal shelter for four hours instead of two. At first I was declined because of past work ethic. Regardless the animal shelter administrator gave me another chance. When I had decided to volunteer for four hours instead of two, I was very pessimistic about the outcomes and had premonitions of failure. Since I was working four hours instead of two, I would have more responsibilities and obligations. The animals were depending on me to clean their cages, to socialize them, and find the best way to get them adopted. This was a big step up from just lobbying around.
I started to volunteer four hours a day at the animal shelter about a month into the school year.Volunteering really boosted my confidence and my drive t to succeed. I had the opportunity to clean five to ten cat cages per day and the other part I spent socializing and grooming the cats. I really enjoyed brushing the cats. I volunteered until the end of school and I also joined the HSUS club at the Hannibal High School. I helped in various fundraisers and educated everyone about spay/neuter. Together the group made a dramatic impact in the lives of the many animals that come into the shelter per year. I ended up passing high school with all A’s and B’s along with an attendance rating of 95% on my senior year. On the last day of school I walked out with my diploma in one hand and my Humane Society of the United States club scholarship in the other!
Tilly, the one eyed special dog
After school and my new job
After school I tried out for a job at the animal shelter for part time on behalf of Learning Opportunities. Being employed as a worker would involve a lot more than when I was a volunteer. Being a worker would involve sanitizing dog and cat cages, cleaning floors and windows, laundry and dishes, and several other daily tasks. I was very ecstatic to get started. The first task that I learned to do was cleaning the cat cages the professional way. I pushed myself to know everything and how to do it the best way. I learned to sanitize the food and water bowls the proper way, glass cleaning and how to move the cats the best way.
The first day I cleaned a cat cage myself, everything went wrong which is expected on a new job. The windows smeared, and I forgot which litter box went into the cage since we did multiple cages at a time which as I know now was a bad idea. Cleaning one cage at a time and sanitizing between each cage is the best method . After much trial and error, I finally got the trend down to a tee. There are more variables to cleaning a cat cage than a lot of people think there is. There is mixing and application of disinfectant, feeding and watering, and that doesn’t even include what medical and behavioral supports each cat might require.
The following month I was taught to sanitize dog cages in case I would ever have to clean them. I was taught to use the hose, wrap it and how to move it without tangling it. I was also taught to use bleach and parvo-clear to keep the dog area free of infectious diseases such as parvo-virus and other related disease. I was taught to feed the small and large dogs the amount of food set forth by the Department of Agriculture every day and follow their guidelines to keep the food preserved properly when not in use. I was other taught how to lasso the dogs with the blue nylon collars we use to transfer them between cages when necessary for cleaning.
Doubts I had and new horizons I reached
When I had first just started working I was very pessimistic about the new experience. Have you ever examined how you have really felt about working at a place with a disability? Some of the negative feelings about being developmentally disabled that I had was:
“Someone could do better”
“I do not have enough experience”
“I am being watched and evaluated”
“I only fight the small fires”
“What If I speak and fail to make a point?”
“What If I mess something up?”
I was scared of walking into the darkness. At first I felt judged and constantly evaluated. But I have realized that people whom are are resilient and are willing to get back up on there feet after a recent failure are usually very hard workers since additional work is mandated to get to where we want to go in life. And there are really no small fires. Every person that works in the job force is a part of the team.
At the animal shelter I had a job coach which helped me through the training stage of the job. They taught me how to do things that I never had a chance to learn when I was a teenager. I was taught to do a wide array of tasks from sweeping to mopping, all the way to doing dishes and laundry. I taught to use a garden hose and wrap it. Job coaches are fair in that they are able to judge how to do a job better and give creative and interactive feedback based on the individuals’ strengths and weaknesses. What they lack in return is the ability to say that enough training is enough.
The problem exists that some job coaches might alter their feedback based on how they would do the job their way, which isn’t always fair. Or some (and we both know it is wrong) will change feedback to keep a job. Not many reputable job coaches do this, but I bet it has been done several times. There are a few job coaches I have had. The first few were okay but they had no right being around animals; two of them said bad things about the animals which got them evicted from their right to be my job coach.
The last job coach I got was awesome. I kept her so long because she really helped me in socializing the cats and getting them adopted. She was at the animal shelter for three months with me. In the end we ended up coming up with creative ways to socialize the animals and she ended up adopting a cat by the time she left. When she did leave, Learning Opportunities over stepped their ground by wanting to give me more job coaches when I had been exceeding in my job.
Learning Opportunities and I got into either or not I would be able to do the job on my own. The first two meetings I had with them I gave in and said nothing. I let them over talk my opinion and the room was filled with people who wanted to see me continue services. After all, why wouldn’t the business owner not want extend their services to more people? It is more money. With so many people pressuring me (peer pressure, anyone?) I decided to continue services for one more month with different job coach. After I had one more month with the job coach, whom at this point they were only watching and said I was doing a good job, it was seemingly pointless to continue on with services.
I’ll admit that Learning Opportunities opened a big door for me in learning a lot of skills, for that I am grateful. But they have to know when enough is enough. What I did next was I opened up another meeting and they said it would be a month to they were ready. I told them I was terminating services with them if they were unable to make it sooner. We had a meeting that month and I spoke up about what I have been doing, what I am going to do and where I see myself in one year. They still spoke down to me. I opened up my voice and told them the following: “I value your services and I can see the benefit of extending services, however, I choose not to continue with your services at this time.” Simple and right to the point. There is power in the words you would rather not say.
Never giving up and moving forward
The world is a huge litter box, with lots of room to scratch around. There is no reason to be limited to only one small location or area in life. Nor should you allow other peoples’ values take place over your own. What allows the paradigm of people voicing their opinions over yours if the lack of an official advocate. This often makes it difficult to get too much done. I will admit that it is never easy to say what needs to be said and along the way, certain people will erect barriers and roadblocks. What we can do is fight back with everything we got. Sometimes we got to fight as hard and almost unfairly as we can, to win.
What you are, what you can be, begins with you…
(Zach – 2012)
After I learned enough about cats and started learning a lot on my own which included reading books and learning tapes, talking to and shadowing vets etc…I was given the job of managing volunteers and community service in the cat section. This is the role I prize most preciously. I train all new volunteers and community service individuals that are assigned to clean the cat section. I take this role very seriously. I make sure that all of the windows are void of snot or cat litter, the sides and bottom are clean, and the cage gate is washed of any fecal matter. Cages that are empty and will be occupied by another cat must be pre-cleaned before being disinfected. Food and water bowls are emptied then they are sprayed and cleaned thoroughly water and paper towels. Empty cages are pre-cleaned and disinfected with bleach. Cat toys or accessories are placed back in the same cage. If anything hits the floor – it is contaminated and will be placed in the directed pile to be disinfected.
My second favorite thing I enjoy doing is keeping up to date on cleaning procedures. I revitalize and review all the cat room cleaning protocols and guidelines for the section monthly with feedback from volunteers and co-workers. I’ve added a lot of new protocols since starting which includes keeping up to date on good disinfectants, mixing and applying disinfectants properly, labeling disinfectants, and keeping food sealed properly. Other guidelines include the handling and cleaning order of cats, the stacking and storing of waste, and labeling each item for its intended use. I got to the point where a vet would probably consider me an expert in the animal care field for cats.
Introducing my opinion and ideas at first was the hardest part of my job. At first I was so scared of giving my opinion to anyone that I would stray away. I moved up to sending emails, leaving notes on the desk and then running the other direction. I literally tried anything that I could to avoid communication, and I was a professional at it. It took getting one idea right to finally realize that my contributions mattered. I found that it can help not to center an idea around yourself, which helps to take the weight off. I would say “this would benefit the cat” rather than “I think that this idea would help.” I would start conversations by saying “Isn’t this cat beautiful?” – something I knew someone would agree with rather than saying “How are you?” I found that mentioning animals made it easier to make a suggestion or start a conversation.
Litter boxes are scooped of urine and feces, completely being swapped out if the litter box is too filthy to be used again. Covers are evaluated on their overall condition. If covers are covered in tons of cat hair, urine or feces, the cover is completely replaced. If the cover is in decent condition then it can be reused. This is good for a new cat that depends on scent for comfort. It is especially important to exercise professional cleaning habits around young kittens.
I often capitalize on the idea that cats need to be handled in the way they prefer – not the way we prefer. This is to minimize stress – thereby, reducing the risk of a cat catching anything. (The same can go for dogs, though aggressive dogs do need to be handled in a way that ultimately protects the person handling them.) I show people the handling method that is most comfortable to the cat, and least likely to elicit an injury as a result of miscommunication.
My cat handling method implies that the cat is carried out hindquarters first so that they are not introduced to a new environment too fast. The cat can see where he has been, not where he is going. And a cat that is not accustomed to people might feel threatened being pulled out head first anyhow, which could lead to biting. If the cat is new or scared, I normally survey the cat’s behavior (eyes, tail, and body gestures) and I make a cleaning decision based on the overall message. If the cat is scared and anxious, I clean the cage with a little more respect to their body language. With cats, I always try to clean the cages with the cat sin them because moving them form place to place disrupts their lives and can cause stress associated upper respiratory infection.
I force fed this cat by 40 days straight when he had a cold and could not eat.
I also enforce sanitation rules strictly. Upper respiratory infections in cats are commonly spread by fomites and by air. The two main culprits in upper respiratory are Calicivirus and Herpes virus. They both are very viral among cats. A fomite is any inanimate object that can hold an infectious agent. Fomites are highly considered by shelter professionals to be the highest cause of URI spread since fomites can travel on basically anything. And sanitation is not all simple like it is made out to be. There is a certain percentage of ethanol alcohol that has to be in sanitizer to be effective and it has to be rubbed in for twenty seconds which requires compliance. Another thing some people overlook is that detergent deactivates bleach and that bleach only lasts 24 hours. Education is always key. Small kittens need to be inoculated as they come in as kittens are more prone to the illnesses that are found in shelters.
Very wild kitten I socialized, took 3 months
I’ve also learned to give vaccinations. Leaning to give shots was a learning experience. You have to know how to handle the cat, site of the injection, dose for weight and also how to give the shot. It took me several times to get my first shot, but I’ve had almost every shot after that perfect. Other things I know how to do is trim cat claws, groom cats, clean ears and give oral medications. One example of an oral medication is Clavamox. Clavamox is a veterinarian prescribed medication used for preventing secondary infections in cats with upper respiratory infection.
Vaccinations for the cat are the FVRCP (Rhinotracheitis, Calicivirus, Panleukopenia). For dogs there is the DHLPPC (Distemper, Hepatitis, Leptospirosis, Parvovirus, Parainfluenza, and Coronavirus.) Both shots are given under the skin. While inoculations are effective in containing the specific diseases, immunity is never one-hundred percent so kittens and puppies need to be handled with care. Also the time between shot and immunization is approximately two weeks in most cases. A strong disinfectant and an eye for detail are important. Sanitization is paramount to stamping out URI in the shelter environment.
Confidence is what keeps our dream alive
Confidence is everything… animals have taught me that.
So what is confidence to me? Confidence is everything. For every homeless animal that needs a home, for every worker trying to advance in his job, for every manager looking to obtain results from his new business plan. Confidence is the one magic missile that breaks though any barrier and paves the way for success. Chances are that we have all paid the price for being low in confidence. Either it was the wrong words said during an ISP meeting, the words left unsaid when tensions were high, or shutting down when your job was on the line.
But you can be confident and succeed. You have the power to listen only to positive individuals, to stand up for yourself, and speak up against the onslaught of resistance. You have the ability to transform your life; to be an inspiration to others, and a role model for the world. And you can look forward to a time where depression and disappointment is an aberration of the past.
In fact… just this month I was given the power to answer phone calls and socialize with customers. After a long time of being confident in my decision making skills and work ethic I was given the chance I finally needed and wanted. Now I work forty hours per week at the animal shelter now as well since I am given more responsibility. This includes doing adoptions and handling problems that a customer might have which can range from pleasant customers, to crazy, to angry. The common problems that customers have are; lost cat or lost dog, or to reclaim their companion animal. I also now help run the place on Sundays and I get to lock down the building too.
I have been through a few stressful encounters with community service and volunteer people, but I handled the situations properly and professionally. One situation a person got mad that a cat accidentally got a claw stuck in his new jacket and tried to throw the cat. I do not tolerate any animal abuse in the facility even if it is minor. I told him that no abuse would be allowed and he asked me if I was serious. I told the guy that I was very serious and that I could not make any exceptions to the rule because I stand up for the animals and I appreciate their boundaries as well as their rights.
I have actively been taking pictures of all the adoptable cats, and a friend of mine snaps pictures of the dogs. And I often have the friend help me with cats. We both work as a team to keep the Facebook page going. I created a Facebook page for this purpose. Since starting this page and posting pictures, we have gotten more attention and community support. More animals are getting adopted, and people are becoming aware about adoption opportunities and volunteer that our facility offers. The Northeast Missouri Humane Society Facebook page has garnered over seven hundred daily members and ten thousand total page views since the initial creation of the page in October of 2011. We have also erected a cat roaming room which houses multiple cats in an effort to get them adopted faster. The cat roaming room is made up of a rocking chair; several screen doors and a window, and several tiered shelves for effective cat roaming and exploration. Cats in the cat roaming room are sterilized before being placed into the cat roaming room.
Recently also, we opened a foster to adopt program executed to help small kittens and puppies get out of the shelter environment quicker. This program is very extensive and the prospect is good. My friend and I have been resolute in helping as many small animals find homes with this program as reasonably possible. We have had booming success with it. I am currently taking care of five foster cats – four which are kittens under six months old.
I have adopted three cats; AJ, Titan and Butterball. Butterball is Flame Point Siamese whom was an ex-feral who also took several weeks to socialize. AJ is a Siberian and Titan is a Maine Coon. Titan was at the animal shelter and had been there on two separate occasions. A few weeks after I got Titan I learned not to give up. I learned what it is like to be unsure of the future. When my family was in the middle of moving, someone shot a fire cracker and it scared Titan so bad he broke the carrier and got loose. I walked three miles at 3 A.M. between houses to find him. Some would call me crazy. Many would call me insane. I found him after two weeks. I call that success, I call it a miracle… and most of all, it took confidence. AJ I adopted after he was in the shelter for six months. He came in very scared and not socialized. He even wanted to bite and had nothing to do with anyone. After working with him for so long and no one wanted to adopt him, I did. I figured he was just like me – a rough start at life but can be great given the right circumstances and support.
Success does not arrive in a parcel overnight; rather it comes from hard work and devotion. And to reach that goal we have to be all who can be. We can continue to adopt the two-pronged strategy for failure; give up and let others decide what is best for us, or we can embrace the power of being confident and move forward. I am very thankful to the people who helped me get this far. An awesome boss, co-workers, and for everyone who has donated to the humane society to help keeping it running. Everyone together can do something.
I don’t expect you to become fearless overnight. Do one small task per day and conquer it. Even the strongest leaders have fear. Just because you are scared to try something new… doesn’t mean you have to let being scared stop you.
I did not wake up one day and proclaim that I would start speaking up and stop bullying from taking over my life nor did I think I would go on to write about it. There was a battle going on with bullying and my confidence and I decided one thing for sure. The one you feed always wins. I fed my confidence level. When you eliminate suicide, giving up and giving in as an option… you are forced to come up with more solutions to a problem than just temporary quick fixes to a very real and dynamic problem. A full guide on surpassing the impossible would not be fully complete without acknowledging the ones who have lost their fight against bullying either directly or indirectly and the lessons we can learn from them.
A final word
When someone tells me that I am not capable, that there is no hope, I think of a person who had nothing… I think of a day that everything seemed hopeless. And then the next day everything changed. I started volunteering at the animal shelter and my success skyrocketed. If I hadn’t have gone onward… if I didn’t have a very supportive friend circle or the will to help animals, I would not be what I am today.
That is what Being Confident and never giving up can Achieve.