The interesting thing about embarking on an odyssey is that you don’t know where it will take you. As this journey has unfolded, my itineraries have changed and so have I. While I was gone, my husband discovered that he liked life better without me—that was certainly a surprise that has fundamentally changed my life. With my foundations shaken, I looked around me and have found my calling.
Two of my visits created turning points in my focus. It was sparked by a conversation with Jo Elmore the ASPCA representative in Gulfport, Mississippi. He told me about some of the innovative programs he had started while running the Humane Society in St. Thomas (Virgin Islands). St.Thomas has the highest per capita murder rate in the United States. The interior of the islands is marked by poverty and violence. Running an animal shelter in such an environment is an uphill battle. But Mr.Elmore is a non-lateral thinker. Grant funding for animal rescue can be a challenge to procure, more readily available is grant money for under-privileged children’s programs. He got funding to start a children’s summer camp at the shelter, teaching the kids Humane Education, keeping them occupied and engaging them in positive, compassionate interactions with the animals. This program gave rise to an internship program for high school students, getting them more involved in the shelter.
Mr.Elmore is a deeply egalitarian man. He sees that the animal rights movement is dominated by upper middle class white people (himself included). This concern gave rise to creating a scholarship program for the students that complete the internship program. Any of those interns that want to attend college to study an animal related field (like zoology, ethology, veterinary medicine or even some more tangentially related topics) are eligible for a scholarship program to help them pay for college.
Another incredible innovation (that I haven’t heard of anywhere else), included a Trap-Neuter Return program for feral cats operated by a group of At-Risk Youth. This program was funded by the United States Justice Department as part of its gang prevention programs. Essentially, the program involved recruiting young people who were considered at risk for gang involvement, teaching them about Humane animal practices, including locating feral cat colonies, trapping the cats, getting them vaccinated and fixed at the shelter, then releasing them and working with the community to create managed cat colonies.
These youth were particularly well situated and street savvy enough to meet the challenges of some of the tricky neighborhoods where many feral cat colonies exist. The program capitalizes on the ‘hunting’ style excitement of capturing wild cats, but then directs that energy toward positive change for the cats and the community.
I interviewed Mr.Elmore just a few days after my disturbing experiences trapping cats in New Orleans—and found his ideas to synthesize solutions with my concerns. (See my post entitled New Orleans: The Radical Ladies of TNR, April 2007.)
Of course, at that time, my focus was still squarely on the cats. However, when I told my father about these programs, he saw the programs as an incredible opportunity to help reconnect children with nature and other living beings, basically an opportunity for rehabilitation for the children that also benefits the animals.
With this in mind, I embarked on my trip to Indiana State Prison. (See my posts about the Prison Visit in May 2007.) My experience there was exhilarating—experiencing how much their connection with their cats had transformed the lives and personalities of the inmates.
The result of all of this is a major change in my life plans.
I had been planning on going to Veterinary Technician training in the fall. In preparation for opening a Cat Retirement Home a couple of years down the road. However, the divorce and impending loss of my husband’s income from my life means that a risky entrepreneurial business venture, coupled with a two-year degree whose starting salary in a vet’s office is only $10 an hour, has caused me to rethink that plan. In doing so, I believe I have found my calling.
In the fall, I will be returning to school to work towards an advanced degree in human psychology with an emphasis in Pet Assisted Therapies. In addition to enrolling at local University, I am also doing the Delta Society training for Pet Assisted Therapy partners. What interests me most is the possibility of doing research and developing programs that help to heal people through rehabilitating animals, or at the very least caring for animals in a very reciprocal manner. This idea is catching hold in prisons across the country and I want to participate in it.
Additionally, I see opportunities for this kind of work to help heal returning soldiers and others who suffer from PTSD—or to help intervene and prevent the onset of PTSD.
Perhaps, down the road, instead of establishing a Retirement Home for Cats, that is strictly focused on the cats, the idea can be expanded to include a retreat center for soldiers and others in need of Pet Assisted Therapy.
The possibilities in this field are just beginning to open up as the human relationship to our companion pets and the natural world changes and evolves.
Preview of Coming Attractions
Over the next several months, I will be traveling across the country in search of cat stories, visiting innovative cat rescues and shelters, interviewing eccentric cat lovers, leading vets and behaviorists and so much more. To view my travel schedule and learn more about my Cat Behaviorist business, please visit http://www.thecatbehaviorist.com/ . If I will be in your area and you feel you have some interesting cat stories to share, please don't hesistate to contact me via my website.