A soft touch: Humane Society struggles with strays | SierraSun.com

A soft touch: Humane Society struggles with strays

Renee Shadforth

Photo by Colin Fisher.Miya Weber gets acquainted with the newest member of the family.

When Carol Merjil takes Zsa Zsa out of her crate in the exam room at Sierra Pet Clinic, the tortoise-colored cat’s yellow eyes have a look of viciousness. Merjil cradles Zsa Zsa, ears flat and ominously staring into space, and speculates about the feline’s uncertain past.

“When animal control brought her in, they said she was feral,” Merjil said, stroking Zsa Zsa’s head. “But I think she was just on her own for two or three months. She’s just scared.”

Everyday, Merjil, along with other Humane Society volunteers, spends two hours at the Sierra Pet Clinic socializing the cats in exam rooms while the veterinarians are out to lunch.

“They become unadoptable if they’re in cages all day,” she said.

In Zsa Zsa’s case, socialization started out with Merjil talking softly to her in her crate. It took a couple weeks for the feline to trust humans enough to allow Merjil to pet her.

Merjil only gets to spend about 30 minutes with Zsa Zsa each day – there are 30 other homeless cats in the program she needs to tend to – but the results have been noticeable.

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“If I come in after a volunteer has been here, I can tell if the cats have been socialized for the day. They’re not in the back of their cage, completely stir-crazy. They’re more relaxed,” she said, looking down at Zsa Zsa, whose ears have perked up and eyes look much less menacing.

“In most places a cat like this would be killed,” she added.

Merjil, who has been volunteering in animal welfare for more than 40 years, is the cat adoption coordinator for the Humane Society of Truckee-Tahoe, a no-kill program. The fact that the society doesn’t euthanize its animals has made it even more of a challenge for the volunteers to find places for the cats and dogs until they are adopted.

“The animal control kennels are not meant for long-term housing,” said Karen Odmark, the dog adoption coordinator. “We really need a shelter. That’s our ultimate goal.”

All of the humane society volunteers speak in hopeful tones about the day the animals will have a shelter. There just isn’t enough space for the cat and dog populations at animal control or Sierra Pet Clinic. Sometimes the animals are doubled, or even tripled, up in the 12 runs at animal control.

“I’ve seen dogs go kennel crazy,” Odmark said.

It’s why the humane society has turned to fostering, with volunteers taking cats or dogs into their homes until the animal is deemed “adoptable” or space has opened at the pet clinic or animal control.

“A lot of the dogs, we don’t know their history. We tell fosters to take them in any situation they can dream of – to the lake, in the car or around cats,” Odmark said. “When dogs are fostered, we know what issues they have, and we start working with them.”

Potential fosters should be willing to work with the animal and realize it’s not going to be easy, Odmark said. She also discourages those who work all day from fostering.

For people who can’t make the commitment to foster full time, they can volunteer to take dogs on day trips or for the weekend.

“A lot of the time, the dog will just spend the weekend sleeping on the floor. It’s hard for them to relax in the kennel, with the constant barking. It can be really stressful,” Odmark said. “Just to get the dog out for a half-hour hike can make their day. You can check out the dogs just like a library book.”

Volunteers only get two, two-hour periods each day at the animal control kennel, making it difficult to make any real progress with unadoptable animals. Not to mention the two-day period after the animal is found in which animal control cannot turn the cat or dog over to the humane society, to be sure the owner doesn’t show up.

However, the humane society is drafting a proposal to Town of Truckee Animal Control that would get the groups working more closely and allow the volunteers to be with the animals as soon as they arrive.

“If we can work with the animals right away, it will result in faster adoptions,” Merjil said.

Also, if the proposal is adopted, Humane Society volunteers will have a six-hour block with the animals, as opposed to the two-hour intervals at the kennels and the pet clinic.

“It’s the closest we’ll come to having a shelter, yet,” said Merjil, who predicts the changes may come as soon as July 31. “We would be able to show that we can run a facility.”

Until then, the volunteers continue to make what they can of their current situation.

As for Zsa Zsa’s future, Merjil said fostering should be her next step, if there is a home willing to take her. The Humane Society sees so many cats – more than 300 in the last year – it can be difficult to find enough fosters.

“It’s ignorance that allows this to go on,” she said, indicating the lack of spaying and neutering of cats. “It’s a human problem, and only the animals suffer.”

To adopt, foster or volunteer with the Humane Society of Truckee-Tahoe, call 587-5948.