Sextiped Valley column: Happier holidays for homeless pets
Years ago, when I worked in animal shelters, we used to close adoptions just before Thanksgiving and resume on Jan 2. That is, people could adopt but weren’t allowed to take their new pets home til after the holidays. I know this sounds counter-intuitive: the Christmas puppy or kitten is an American cultural icon, after all. We upheld this policy out of an excess of protectiveness, fearing that animals given as gifts might not be wanted. We thought the hectic pace of holiday festivities was too chaotic for bringing in a new pet, concerned that they might get hurt or misbehave and be returned to the shelter. Truthfully, each of those reasons deserves consideration. But too often we found ourselves defending a policy that made people unhappy and kept animals in the shelter who might have found some holiday joy together.
In a classic example of the perfect being the enemy of the good, our single-minded focus on permanent adoptions, lifetime commitments and forever homes blinded us to the many obvious opportunities to build on the generosity and open-heartedness that abound during the holiday season.
And we were, perhaps, too ready to judge adopters’ fitness and responsibility by criteria that reflected our class biases, believing middle class security was available to everyone.
It’s not that a forever home isn’t what we devoutly wish for every homeless animal. But in these days following the Great Recession, we all either are, or know someone who is, vulnerable to financial ruin from a serious illness. We’ve seen, if not experienced, what it’s like to lose everything, including the confidence to make promises. Shelter staffs today have for 10 years been receiving animals whose forever families were crushed by circumstances. With the rising costs of animal care and medicine, the uncertainty we face in nearly every aspect of life, making a lifetime commitment to a pet can feel unrealistic.
But maybe that’s led to a sadder-but-wiser realism about our capacity to create perfect lives. Sharing our imperfect homes with pets can be rich and joyful even if it is anxiety-provoking at times. So why not choose connection and love in times of uncertainty, instead of enduring loneliness, isolation and fear out of a misplaced sense of obligation to be perfect? Whatever sparks your impulse to share some love and joy and fun with an animal, the holiday season may be a fine time to bring delight and warmth into your life. It doesn’t have to be adoption.
Is there a neighbor needing someone to care for her pet so she can spend Thanksgiving with family? If you already know the animal, you can be a familiar friend to celebrate with. A stray cat in the neighborhood? You can put out food and maybe invite her in on a cold night.
There are so many things you can do to brighten the lives of pets in shelters, and your own life as well. Sign up to walk dogs, pet and brush cats, lavish attention on animals longing for it. Depending on your situation, you might love being a foster parent for an animal who needs a break from the shelter, or is too young, too old, or too fearful to do well there. You can do this for short or long stints, offering respite care for a pet recovering from surgery or illness. Even keeping an animal for a weekend can bring enormous benefits to him, and to you. You’ll learn things about him that adopters will want to know, but that they’ll never see in the shelter. You can be an advocate for him. Make him a sweater, take her for a walk or a car ride. Teach him some endearing tricks, post photos, drawings and little stories about him on your social media. Every shelter has a few older pets who have lost their owner to death or disability and are confused and withdrawn. These animals really respond to simple gestures of kindness and comfort — like an evening on your couch, being snuggled.
Yes, it’s hard to take them back. But you can be part of the shelter phase of their lives, enriching them beyond measure. Visit when you can. Whatever you have to give will mean so much to them, and be so much more than they would otherwise have. Just love and enjoy them. Why hold back?
May the holiday spirit bring you and your animal companions comfort and joy and love.
Laurie Raymond owns High Tails Dog & Cat Outfitters in Glenwood Springs.