Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Socialization and enrichment for sheltered animals

In many shelters across the nation, enrichment and socialization efforts and programs for both dogs and cats are showing that thinking outside of old-fashioned sheltering cages and kennels does a world of good for both animals and people. There is no doubt that landing in a shelter is a stressful situation for all animals, but a big part of this has to do with regressive shelters that do not offer enrichment for animals in their care. Animals suffer for the "this is the way we've always done it" mentality that befalls many an industry.

Historically, the sheltering situation has been worse for cats, who fall to illness and then subsequent death in greater numbers than dogs in shelters. Because cats hold a strange place in our society, where people less frequently reclaim them at shelters when lost, and because communities such as ours are very outdated in how we deal with homeless and free-roaming cats, our shelter's kill rate for cats is deplorable (more than 80%). So are the conditions in which our cats are housed.

Dogs do not fare too much better in our shelter. Even dogs lucky enough to make it to the adoptables section can languish in kennels and get out infrequently for walks or other escape from the confinement and stress. Blankets and toys and beds are not provided, and sometimes dogs and cats can remain in these conditions for many months (years for court-held animals).

One court document I read recounted how some dogs kept in kennels for years in our shelter had literally chewed on the concrete so much that their teeth were mere nubs when they were finally returned to their owner when the charges were dropped against this person. Needless to say, this owner was back in court charging the system with animal cruelty. This same circle of irony is one that happens often, though it's not something you'd read about in our newspapers!

At our shelter, supposedly to combat disease spread, cats are not allowed to be handled or socialized by volunteers at all. Only staff are allowed to touch the cats, but little in terms of enrichment is offered to cats in their cages by the staff. Cats are stressed, and because of this, they die in more numbers than are probably necessary.

Alternately, many shelters, even those overwhelmed with a large number of cats, are doing things differently and seeing fantastic results in both lowering disease and making better matches for cats and their adopters in the long run and making cats' stays in shelters more peaceful. It has to do with thinking outside of our traditional sheltering boxes.

Special volunteer teams that focus on cat enrichment alone are offering ideas and implementation of programs to help cats survive and thrive in the shelter setting. What shelter staff and volunteer groups need is the same training on properly handling cats to avoid disease spread, but once everyone follows these protocols, the next most important step in mitigating disease is to help cats feel less stress ... provide spots for cats to stretch and scratch and perch and hide, and provide plenty of human contact so cats do not become more and more aloof and nervous, which often causes them to be next on the dreaded kill list.

If you care about cats and want their level elevated to that of dogs in shelters, the thing you need to push for is a shelter enrichment program for our cats, whether this is lead by staff or volunteers. Even simply providing a cardboard box for cats to hide in and perch on in their cages can make a difference ... but why not shoot for better? Push for cat colony rooms to be developed. Do some research about what other shelters are doing, and do the best to emulate these efforts with the resources you have. At a shelter like ours, dogs need this type of advocacy as well.

Still, cats have it worse at our shelter. They still take more of a backseat in terms of staff and volunteer efforts made on their behalf. In response to this, many of us often lament the second place that cats take in both society and in our shelters; however, if you work or volunteer in the animal-welfare arena, you have to lead by example to show that cats deserve the same efforts as dogs. After all, how will the general public ever change their tune if we don't change ours first?

In our shelter, socialization and enrichment efforts and consistent programs are sorely needed for both dogs and cats. If the staff cannot find the time to do it or are not directed to do it, then volunteer teams have to be formed to take care of this important business. Now that the shelter has hired a new volunteer coordinator, the time could not be better to push for these efforts.

For further reading/research:

1 comment:

Kimberly Doner said...

Having worked in shelters for many years, including the shelter in Las Cruces, I can be a witness that cats are treated as "second class citizens".

I believe that the LC shelter actually allows stress on purpose, killing a cat that is sick can be "excused". It looks better in the reports that the cats were sick, its a “good reason” to kill, its being “humane”.
The LC shelter has not had even an attempt at a shelter pet enrichment program for over three years.
I know; I was the one who attempted to put one in place when the shelter was still calling itself a Humane Society. At every turn I was blocked by shelter management,but the volunteers, did make some changes for the better. Only to have them disappear when the volunteer program fell apart after I left.

The failure of animal sheltering in Las Cruces is one of the most frustrating and depressing situations that I have ever experienced.... Because it does not have to be this way, the answers are out there the opportunities that are available are being ignored, again and again.
The only change will come from the people of Las Cruces, the single voices that will join together to turn the tide and bring the walls of bureaucracy down and the light of reason in.