A Day in the Life of a Shelter Worker – River

  • Post category:4-Paw Posts

It’s 6:55 AM. I’m unlocking the staff door at the SPCA. I can hear the dogs in Canine Intake barking already – “Let us out! Feed us! We can hear you out there, human!” I imagine them saying to me.

I’ve already been up since 5 this morning. I fed my cat and my dogs, and took the dogs for a quick walk. I’ve gone to the barn where my horses live, fed them breakfast, filled their water, cleaned their stalls, and put fly spray on their legs so they’ll be comfortable on this hot, sticky day. And here I am at the shelter, ready to start my day.

I go into Cat Intake first. I check the log book. (I wasn’t here yesterday, better see what’s going on!) Looks like one of the pregnant cats went into foster; her cage is empty. This other cat who’s desperately trying to get my attention is new; she must have arrived yesterday. There’s another new cat who’s hiding in the back of the cage. I can’t tell if that cat is friendly or not, but they sure look scared. There are three empty cages set up with notes on them saying that there are new cats expected to arrive… well, this one says expected arrival yesterday, but it’s empty. The others are supposed to get here tomorrow. Looks like there are a couple of kittens with a cold in Iso (Isolation, the room where we quarantine contagious cats), but not very many.

Another staff member arrives as I go through Canine Intake. That’s good; they’re here to take care of the dogs this morning, and I’ll be focusing on cats. We check in with each other about updates about various animals’ statuses as we walk to the Staff Kitchen to punch in. We each take a radio, making sure to choose the ones that work, and go our separate ways – her to feed the dogs, myself to feed the cats.

Feeding the cats takes forty minutes this morning. It sounds like a simple task, but there are a lot of details to keep track of. Special foods, kittens need KMR mixed with theirs, making sure to give medicines to the correct cats, and oh drat the board with all the details is out of date because several cats got adopted and others just arrived! I counted out the wrong number of bowls and have to go back and scoop up some more food. Not a biggie, but I better fix that before the next person needs to feed.

My fellow staff member calls me on the radio – can I come call the dogs to their inside kennels in Intake? She’s trying to bring a dog through the outer kennels who is too scared to walk past the others while they’re barking. I wash my hands and hurry to help. I give the dogs treats for coming in when I call them.

Now it’s 8 am. I’m hoping the volunteer on the schedule is able to come in today. I count in my head while I start cleaning cat cages in the lobby – I am responsible for the care of 96 cats this morning. Luckily, many of them are housed together in community rooms, so I only have… I count in my head… 40 litter boxes to scoop. More dishes, though – about 110 dishes this morning, because some were left over from yesterday. I sure hope that volunteer can make it in.

It’s 8:30. Where is that volunteer? I check messages at the front desk. Someone wants to surrender a cat. Someone else wants to surrender a couple of dogs. Someone else is fostering a kitten and wants to know when to drop them off for the spay/neuter clinic. Another person is asking what they should do about the skunk under their porch. No message from the volunteer. I look up – they’re arriving just as I finish writing down the messages. Whew!

The volunteer jumps right into cleaning the community rooms. I finish the lobby and move to the small kitten rooms. Thankfully the kittens in here are doing a good job with their litter box training, so it’s not such a big mess. The next kitten room is a different story, though – I have to put up a baby gate in the door just so that I can open it. They are so big and rambunctious now that they run right out the door! I am so glad to see them thriving, because they arrived without a mother and we had to put a pair of unrelated mom cats in with them.

While I’m juggling kittens – no really, I have three tucked under one arm and another in my hand, while I’m trying to carry an empty food dish out the door of their room – the volunteer shouts that she has a cat loose from the community room. Drat! Some of those cats are really skittish! While I’m looking at the volunteer, the fifth kitten leaps the gate and goes dashing out of sight around the corner. “Reggie’s out, too!” I call, setting down the dish in my hand and trying to unload the kittens in my arms back into the room without squishing any of their little toes in the door.

We corral the loose adult cat – thankfully it’s one of the friendly ones who just wanted to go for a wander. “Here, we’ll let you hang out in the Cat Kitchen while we clean,” I decide. We give him a toy and some catnip to play with.

I call Reggie and he comes dashing right up to me. This kitten knows his name and gets out at every opportunity, and he’s not scared of anything. He’s adorable, but I still have to clean his room and I don’t want to leave him loose in the lobby. I put him in the Staff Kitchen with some toys and a sign on the door: “Reggie is in here – Watch Out!”

Of course, I forgot he was in there while I was washing dishes. I’m reminded when our director arrives, because while I’m mopping the lobby I hear a shout and here comes Reggie again. I scoop him up and put him back in his room while giving her the update about what’s been going on so far this morning. She’s not sure how to help the person with a skunk under the porch, either – other than “well, don’t make it mad!” We’ll have to direct them to Acadia Wildlife for a better answer.

It’s 10 am, and my volunteer thinks she can handle the rest of Adoption cleaning before we open at 11. I hurry down to Cat Intake to clean the cages there. Maybe I can get done before 11:30; there aren’t a lot of cats. On the other hand, the sick kittens in Iso looked pretty messy.

The cat in Intake who looked scared didn’t eat his breakfast. Not only that, he didn’t use his litter box overnight. His cage looks untouched. But he’s been here less than 24 hours, and that’s not unusual for a new cat. I’ll keep an eye on him today anyway and make note of whether he eats before I leave. I pet him gently on the top of his head while checking his cage over. He tolerates it for a moment, then flattens his ears and growls. I withdraw my hand before he can swipe me with his paw. “Sorry, little fella,” I tell him, and place his wet food dish right in front of his hiding box so he can eat without coming out if he so chooses. He keeps growling every time I walk by his cage, though, so I hang up a towel across it so he’ll feel safer. He stops growling, and a few minutes later I hear him start to eat his breakfast. It’s 10:30.

At 11:05 I get a call on the radio from the front desk. Someone is here with two cats to surrender, and no appointment. “What’s their name?” I ask, but the name doesn’t match any of the cages that are reserved for new surrenders. Luckily I can set up another cage for these cats. I hurry and do that, then come to the front desk to see what’s going on.

There are already several people in the lobby, and the person with the cats seems confused that we weren’t expecting them. He’s just a friend of the person who found the cats, it turns out. Her name is the one on the forms we have, and it sounds like these are the cats we expected yesterday – except we were expecting one cat, and he’s got two. He doesn’t know any details, just that there might be fleas. And more kittens that she couldn’t catch.

I take the cats down to Intake, put them in two separate cages, and immediately put flea treatment on them. I wash my hands and change my shirt, because he wasn’t kidding about the fleas situation. I still need to clean Iso. I make a note in the log book about the new cats.

While I’m cleaning the last cage in Iso (The stickiest thing in the whole world is Amoxicillin, by the way. You are just plain out of luck if you let a drop of that stuff dry on a steel cage wall. It takes an astounding amount of scrubbing, even with the use of strong detergents, to get it off of there. Luckily if it gets on towels it comes off in the washer.), I get another call on the radio. Someone is here with their two foster kittens – they are due for distemper boosters. I peel off my Iso scrubs, wash my arms up to my elbows, and go to give the kittens their shots.

It’s Maple and another fluffy little kitten whose name I never learned. (There were so many tabby kittens in that litter, which one was this, even? I scold myself for forgetting one of our babies.) I remember Maple because she was so skinny that I had to syringe feed her three to four times a day for several weeks when she first arrived at the shelter. She’s so big now. But I have to take a good look at her eyes and nose, because the foster home is concerned the kittens have a cold, because one of them sneezed three days ago while playing under the couch. They don’t have a cold. They look great. I am pretty sure it was just dusty under the couch. I am glad their foster home is so attentive.

I wash my hands again and go finish cleaning Iso. Maybe I will have time to photograph the new cats and post them online! I get out the light and go to the lobby… to see someone else walking in with a cat carrier. It’s the people who were scheduled to bring in a pregnant cat tomorrow. They’re here today; they were afraid she’d give birth in their closet; they didn’t want to wait; they have no idea what to do with kittens; and they’re insistent that they can’t pay a surrender fee to help cover the cost of her care. But another person in the lobby hears them say that and offers to cover the surrender fee for them… and writes us a check for twice the fee we typically ask for. Thank goodness for the kind hearted people in our community who help us out.

That check will still only cover the cost of defleaing her, deworming her, microchipping her, and feeding her for two weeks. We’ll still need to feed her for at least nine weeks after she has her kittens, as well as feeding them, vaccinating them, spaying/neutering them, microchipping them, and medicating them if they get sick (it’s common for kittens in shelters to get colds, despite our best efforts to sanitize everything that comes in contact with them). We’ll also need to vaccinate her and get her spayed after her kittens are weaned. And since she’s a mom cat, she’ll likely stay at the shelter for a while while she’s waiting for an adopter… the average stay for former mom cats is around 6 weeks at our facility.

I get her settled into our biggest cage in Intake. I put flea treatment on her even though I don’t see any fleas with a quick exam. She’s very pregnant. I wonder how many kittens she’ll have. I make a note about her in the book, and about the generous person who donated toward her care. I see that our shelter manager has already scheduled a foster home to pick her up tomorrow afternoon. 

I think I can get a couple of photos taken before lunch, so I go back to the lobby. There I encounter someone who’s looking to adopt a dog, and the front desk volunteer can’t seem to find the dog staff person, who left her radio in the cat exam room while doing an exit exam for a cat while I was settling the new cat into Intake. The staff receptionist is busy helping someone who’s interested in adopting a cat. I talk to the person who’s interested in a dog and tell them what I can about the dog they want to meet. I know some of the dogs, but not all of them, because I’m often working with the cats.

I see the dog staff person walking by outside with the dog that I’m currently telling the potential adopter about. “Wait here!” I tell them, “I can get you a meeting right now!” And I hurry outside to let my coworker know that I’m sending someone out to walk with them and the dog. I really hope they want to adopt; it sounds like they have just the right kind of home for that dog.

Someone asks me a question about one of the cats, and I spend the next thirty minutes showing them several cats who might be a good fit for their home. The next time I look at the clock, it’s time to feed the cats again.

Feeding takes an hour this afternoon, because more foster kittens who are due for shots arrive in the middle and I pause to take care of them. As soon as I’m done feeding in Adoption, the person I just helped look at cats is ready to take home the playful one they liked so much. The receptionist whispers, while handing me the cat so that I can check him out for his exit exam, “Their vet check was awesome! Their last cat lived to be 20!” They must be doing something right! I tell the cat they’re adopting that he’s a very lucky kitty while I’m peering into his ears and checking his teeth. 

Then I hurry down to Intake, because those cats still need to eat and the kittens in Iso are due for afternoon medicine. The grouchy cat growls at me softly as I swap out his empty dish for a full one, but doesn’t swat me. The pregnant cat who just arrived eats like she’s starving, so I give her an extra dish of food. The cat who was trying to open the cage on her own this morning when I arrived is doing the same routine again; I guess she’s pretty food motivated. She also wants me to pet her while she eats, and if I stop she stops eating. I pet her until she’s done and put her dish in the sink with the others I haven’t had time to wash yet.

I put scrubs on and take care of the cats in Iso. I wipe up the Amoxicillin that got on the sides of the cage when the feisty kitten shook her head, so that it won’t stick on there. I take off my scrubs again and wash up, again. I realize that I haven’t had lunch, and it’s 2 pm.

I stop and eat. I notice that there’s someone on the shelter’s Facebook page asking the same question about all of the adoptable cats in our Cats Available for Adoption album: “Does this cat get along with dogs? How old?” For some of the cats, I know the answer, but for others I’m not sure about the dogs question. I let the person know that we can dog-test the cats tomorrow when the shelter manager’s dog is here. Her name is Emma, and she’s the official Cat Tester Dog. Emma is always polite to the cats, and she knows when the best choice is to run away.

I return to the Lobby and find myself trimming cat nails, because the receptionist noticed while showing people cats this morning that several of them have long nails. We manage to get four cats’ worth of nails trimmed, but on six cats because two of them aren’t willing to be held still for their back paws today. That’s ok, we can try again tomorrow.

Oh drat, it’s 3:05! Time for me to go home and walk my dogs. I make sure I’ve written notes for tomorrow’s morning shift, updated the afternoon shift about what’s going on, and get distracted helping trim a dog’s nails on my way out the door because the dog is wiggly and my coworker needs to hold the dog with both hands, which makes it hard to do the nail trimming part. It’s 3:30 and I get in my car and go home. Today was a great day – no disasters, and a few cat adoptions. I could really use a nap, though. 

This story from River, Animal Care and Development. River also handles much of the SPCA’s social media posting and writes and edits the 4-Paw Post.