“Do you want a cat?” the e-mail read. I’d sent this message out, en masse, asking people if they would adopt Soy, my friend Sharon’s cat. Sharon was moving from Los Angeles to New York. People pointed out to Sharon that you can still keep cats in New York, that many people have indeed successfully transplanted their West Coast cats and made them East Coast cats, and that there is an abundance of resources available to ease the transition — pet carriers that fit under airplane seats, pet-friendly hotels, pet boarding kennels, pet foster parents. But for reasons best known to her, Sharon was determined to give Soy away.
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If there were no takers, she would bring Soy to her local city shelter, where Soy would have five days to find new parents before she was euthanized. Sharon had been busy getting the rest of her life in order, packing clothes, changing addresses, finding an apartment, canceling utility services, scheduling dinners and lunches with people she wouldn’t be seeing for a while, if ever. By the time she got around to truly dealing with where to put her cat, it was very late in the game. Her flight date was set. We had three days.
If Sharon is not coming off too well in this story, I should clarify that she is a good person. Nice to a fault, fun to hang out with, someone you’d be lucky to call a friend, someone you could call in the middle of the night if you were in trouble. Letting Soy go says more about her inner psychology than anything else. Ultimately, you cannot guilt people into keeping their cats if they deep down do not want to.
Finding Soy a home became my quest. Her résumé reads like that of so many other cats: 4 years old, soft black fur, yellow eyes, a friendly meow, spayed and prefers the indoors. The most appealing pictures of her (the cutest ones, most likely to get her adopted) accompanied the mass e-mail, and included one particularly heartstring-pulling photo of her curled up in the bathroom sink. Love me, these photos said, take me home.
“I wish I could,” friends, and friends of friends, wrote back. “But I have dogs.”
Or, “I’m allergic to cats.”
Or, “Sorry, but good luck! She’s so cute, I hope Soy finds a home soon.”
These responses were to be expected. As were the ones from people speculating that they might know someone who knew someone who might possibly want the cat. And the ones who remembered, vaguely, no-kill places that took in strays with the goal of adopting them out: “I took a cat to this store a while ago and managed to give it away to a couple looking for a mouse catcher,” said one. What I wasn’t prepared for were the angry responses. Pets are our surrogate children, and our children are a reflection of ourselves. Soy’s dilemma tapped into some serious rage.
“Tell your stinkin’ friend cats are for life!” a colleague wrote.
“Foreals!” someone seconded.
“This story kills me,” said someone else.
“Your ‘friend’ has a heart of gold. Packing, laundry, off to the gas chamber!”
My local PetSmart did indeed host a rescue group that schlepped in each Saturday and Sunday with crates and crates (and binders of photos) of adoptable felines. The group shelters them or finds them foster parents until permanent parents can be found. But, alas, there was no room at the inn.
“When is your friend moving?” the women asked — and they were all women, all in cartoon cat-and-kitten-printed medical scrubs. They looked at me with recrimination. There is a private-school-caliber wait list to get into a crate, at times months long. The lucky cats at the store that day (“lucky” being a relative term) peered out of their cages languidly, flicking tails and grooming faces with paws.
“Can you find someone to take Soy for the time being until a spot on the list opens up?” one woman asked, after giving me a short but vigorous lecture on the evils of a throwaway society that looks upon animals as disposable accessories.
My friend and co-worker James, who lives in a studio apartment with his own cat, suggested taking Soy to our friend Frank’s house. Frank loves cats. He unofficially takes care of a dozen or so neighborhood cats that wander in and out of his backyard. But Frank might say no. A lot of people were saying no.
“Leave her at his front door? Like, in a picnic basket?” I said. “Are you for real?”
“Well, it’s better than having her euthanized!” said James. “Or set her free in his backyard. At least she’ll have a fighting chance. At least she’ll taste a few days or hours of freedom before the wolves eat her.”
“This is a really bad plan.”
“Yes, it is.”
With zero hour approaching, Soy still hadn’t found a home. “Any luck?” Sharon asked, the evening before her flight. “The Humane Society closes at 6 ... I feel so bad.”
For half an hour, she sat in her car in the parking lot of the Pasadena Humane Society, holding Soy and crying.
Why don’t I just take her? you’re thinking. There is an unspoken equation that defines the precise point at which a girl becomes a crazy cat lady. Your level of insanity rises in direct proportion to the number of cats living in your house multiplied by the ratio of house square-footage to weight of cat in pounds. I have two cats in a two-bedroom condo. You do the math.
Ultimately, however, the value of one small mammal’s life outweighed my vanity. I folded. Soy came to stay. Sharon left for New York, sad but grateful.
The Big Apple was a good move for Sharon: “As I passed by the rows of brownstones with pull-down stairs, I had a big smile on my face as I was envisioning Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” she wrote. “Called in for Chinese takeout last night ... felt very Miranda from Sex and the City.”
In the meantime, some serious cat-on-cat violence was happening at my condo. Lots of claws skidding on wood floors. Lots of hissing and puffed-up tails. The litter box became contested territory, the cat version of the Gaza Strip. Soy would have to go.
“Set her back out into the food chain, is what I say,” someone jokingly suggested. Isn’t that what nature is like? Kill or be killed?
The term “no kill” as applied to animal shelters is fraught with controversy. The term is ill-defined, for one, mainly because there are no across-the-board standards, governmental or otherwise. It’s a myth that you can drop a pet off at any old shelter and the folks who run it will care for it, love it, treat it humanely until kind, decent owners can be procured.
Same goes for rescue groups (a.k.a. networks of individuals who don’t necessarily have a physical shelter location, but try to find homes for pets anyway). There are good ones and bad ones. Some of the private shelters who say they are “no kill” keep animals in deplorable, overcrowded conditions, complacently housing them for years, with little effort to find them homes.
As for the government-run places, Los Angeles County and city shelters are bound by law to house healthy animals for a minimum of five days, after which they can be killed if new owners aren’t found. Sick or “unadoptable” animals — a judgment call, certainly — can be euthanized on the spot.
Moreover, people who want to adopt do not go through extensive background checks. There should be plenty of potential cat moms and dads, yet every single place, it seems, is overflowing with animals.
To further complicate matters, the mere fact that shelters, no-kill or otherwise, are such a crapshoot (for every beneficent, heavenly animal-sanctuary story, there is an equivalent horror anecdote) often causes desperate pet owners to turn unwanted pets loose.
Don’t do that. If your cat, or dog, or whatever, must go, the best option is as follows: (1) Start looking for a new home at least one month in advance of your move. The good places all have waiting lists. (2) Find the good places. The Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Los Angeles (nonprofit, non-government-funded) is an excellent place to start. They have a 91 percent adoption rate. “We don’t have a period after which animals are euthanized,” officer Jeff Blodgett says. “We just hold the adoptable ones until they’re placed.” If there is room, the Long Beach and South Bay branches accept owner-initiated turn-ins.
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The cats are housed in free-roaming catteries, not caged up, so they don’t go stir crazy in one little space, and the number of cats that stay in each room is capped, so they don’t get overcrowded. The SPCALA also maintains an online list of legitimate shelters and rescue groups. Call these people. Work the list. Because animal hoarding is a huge problem, SPCALA officers investigate each place. For instance, if the shelter won’t let the officers on the premises, it immediately does not make the cut.
The best option, however, is: (3) Get someone you know, someone trustworthy, to take the cat. Permanently.
In the end, this is what happened with Soy. Someone who knew someone responded to the mass e-mail. A woman who works as a city restaurant health inspector had been waiting for just such an e-mail about a cat looking for a home. “Soy is doing just fine,” the woman wrote. “She is very spoiled, she knows my schedule. When I wake up in the morning, she requires before I get out of bed that I scratch her tummy for a few minutes ... and she loves that bathroom faucet. Loves to drink from it, and occasionally she will sit in the sink, just like the first picture you sent me. She is a very good cat. Thanks for giving her to me.”
Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Los Angeles, 5026 W. Jefferson Blvd., (888) SPCALA1 or www.spcala.com. For an SPCALA-referred list of shelters and rescue groups, http://spcala.com/resources/findhome.shtml.