Nearly eight million dogs and cats enter animal shelters every year in the United States. But only 30 percent of dogs are reclaimed by their owners. For cats, the outlook is worse: Less than 5 percent of shelter felines end up back in their homes, according to the Humane Society. Due to city-run shelters with pared-down budgets and limited kennel space, more than half of all the remaining animals are eventually euthanized.
But two organizations in Lodi are doing their best to save as many animals as they possibly can. Sometimes no-kill shelters provide medical care or behavioral training for the animals until they are ready for adoption, but sometimes the cats or dogs find their forever homes right there at the shelter.
A heart for animals
Kneeling down on a black doormat, volunteer Pat Wakefield scratched the ears and head of a medium-sized black and white pit bull.
She murmured to him quietly, telling Sharkey he was a good boy, and so pretty, too. Sharkey just wagged his little tail, enjoying the attention.
Wakefield has been a dog handler for several years, but she is actually allergic to their dander. She doesn’t care.
“I’m not giving up my dogs, and my allergist understands that,” she said, giving Sharkey another pat on the head.
This is the kind of one-on-one interaction each animal gets at People Assisting the Lodi Shelter, or PALS.
PALS works with the Lodi Animal Shelter to raise money, staff the office when animal control officers are called out, and take in those special cases that just need a little more time.
Office manager Stephen Curr is happy to take visitors on a meet-and-greet with the current residents.
There’s Wesley, a 7-month-old Great Dane mix with so much energy he can jump to the roof of his 8 ft. tall kennel. Faith, a dog with digestive problems, relies on a special diet of food donated to the shelter. And Cosmo, a Dalmatian mix, is deaf in both ears.
But Sharkey is an unusual case. He was pulled from the Lodi Animal Shelter after a vet diagnosed him with a severe overbite that prevented him from eating or drinking water easily. Donations paid for his surgery at University of California, Davis Animal Hospital. Now Sharkey can eat and drink with no problems, and is waiting for his forever home.
The dogs hang out in outdoor kennels complete with shade and water misters to keep cool. Volunteers take them for walks each day, and they have time to run around with other dogs in the yard.
There’s cats, too. Inside, cats that get along with other animals live in one of four cozy cat rooms. Some cats that are sick or aren’t big enough to be vaccinated live in more isolated cages. All of them have platforms or cat trees to climb on, and soft blankets for cuddling.
PALS does not take in animals from the public. All of their critters are pulled from the city-run shelter on the same property. However, they are a hub of information and resources, and are happy to direct callers to other breed specific rescue programs or other organizations.
Messy tasks, too
Working at an animal shelter can seem like a dream job. Cuddle cats all day and help families find their new best friend. But the employees at Animal Friends Connection can confirm some tasks are less than glamorous. There’s the morning cleanup in the cat and dog areas, plus litter box to tend throughout the day. Add in endless laundry of blankets and towels, plus medicating any cats that are ailing, and it can be a very long day. There are some emotional challenges too, when an adult cat has to be put down, or a favorite animal is adopted out.
“But what better job could you have?” said Randi Smith, an animal caretaker. “We love animals. Here, it’s almost like our own homes.”
The cat sanctuary and adoption center was started 22 years ago by Patricia Sherman. These days, they also house about a dozen small dogs.
Nearly 25 cats hang out in a forest of cat tree towers, scratching posts and nest-like baskets. The caretakers can name each one and spell out their histories. Soccer and Simba are two orange tabby brothers. Two aging Siamese cats are very chatty with one another. And one epileptic cat hates taking her medicine.
“We’ve all tasted it,” said Smith. “It’s bitter.”
Both shelters are limited in space, and rely gratefully on their fostering volunteers to take some of the load off. Curr fosters a 4-week-old puppy found in an alleyway with a bent leg, and said many of the foster volunteers help out so they can do exactly what they love. There’s one woman who has a heart for kittens, and often offers to take in underweight or very young kittens who need to be bottle-fed. Another loves Siamese cats, and opens her home to cats of that breed that come through the shelter.
“Our volunteers love these animals, not because they are bored with life, but because they want to find them good homes,” said Curr. “We know we can’t save every animal, but the more space we have, the more we can save.”
The best thing is when an animal is adopted into a permanent home. Employees at both shelters do their best to match the dogs and cats with a family that will suit his or her personality. Sometimes, finding that family can take years. One cat named Bob struggled with neurological problems, causing him to bob his head up and down constantly. It seemed that Bob was destined to be a lifelong shelter cat, until a woman called in who has experience with special needs animals. She took in Bob, and now calls weekly with updates on him.
“You never know when the right family might come along,” said Curr. “We’re here to give animals the time they need.”
Contact Sara Jane Pohlman at firstname.lastname@example.org.