Vashon Pet Protectors give homes to lonely pets

I’ve always gravitated toward animals; as a kid I was the one who brought home skinny stray cats and flea-infested dogs. As an adult, I’ve rescued countless feral cats from the Central District of Seattle, where we used to live. When we moved our family to Vashon years ago, it was natural for me to volunteer for Vashon Island Pet Protectors (VIPP).

I remember people asking me why I would donate so much time and money to an organization devoted to animals. I mean, why not people instead? What I didn’t realize when I began volunteering for VIPP was how much the work was helping not just animals, but people as well. When there is a death or a divorce in a family, or even the birth of a new child, pets are often the first ones in need of a new home.

There was the old man whose wife died and left him with 10 cats. Because he had to move to the Midwest for financial reasons and to be closer to relatives, he could only take four cats with him. When I heard about his situation, I thought, “Oh, that’s great. His wife dies and he just gives up six of their cats? What’s his problem?” Then I met him.

This crusty old man wouldn’t just quietly drop the cats off with VIPP. He pulled up a stool next to me while I cleaned litter boxes and tearfully told me about his wife, how much she loved animals.

He gave specific instructions for each cat: the black female couldn’t eat dry food, the orange tabby liked to be scratched right under his chin, the little calico was afraid of men. He insisted I write it all down.

I realized that he truly couldn’t care for 10 cats, and with this relinquishment, he was grieving his wife all over again. I sat with him for more than an hour and just listened.

It’s hard not to be judgmental when you’re on the frontlines of animal relinquishment. People give up their animals for all kinds of reasons, and some of those reasons seem ridiculous to a die-hard animal lover like myself. When the shelter is full and funds are low, I have to work hard to push my nasty little judgments aside — because you do see animals that are mistreated or, more commonly, just plain neglected.

Toby, the young male tabby with FIV (feline AIDS virus), was my greatest success story. Supposedly he had been “kicked around” by his owner, and by the time VIPP got to him, he was so scared and traumatized he would not look you in the eye.

I made him my project and spent hours sitting by his kennel just softly talking or singing to him. Gradually he began to respond, looking over at me quickly before turning away, then staring at me, then sitting closer to my side of the kennel. I took him home to foster, where he immediately made a nest under my son’s bed.

He spent over a month under there, coming out only at night when we all slept. Then one day I walked in and he was sitting on top of the bed. He let me approach slowly and pet his head. After a few months, he ventured out to the rest of the house, and while still a scaredy-cat, he was out and about, almost like a “normal” cat.

This was a cat that would have been put down by most animal shelters, considered feral and unadoptable. All he really needed was time and patience. And for us, he became one of the family.

Our two kids used to accompany me to my VIPP shifts at the shelter and would help clean litter boxes, feed and give TLC to the cats. At a young age, they learned how to keep their voices down and approach frightened kitties slowly. They loved entertaining the kittens, so much so that their bedrooms at home often became a refuge for kittens in need of more human attention.

I’d like to say we were able to give all those cats up that we fostered (my husband wishes this were so!), but we did adopt our fair share, especially the skinny old ladies who were given up after all their lives in one home because of “behavior” issues.

While I no longer am an active VIPP volunteer, I continue to support the organization because I know that my family’s life would not be the same without VIPP. This Island would not be the same without VIPP, thanks to all its loyal, hardworking volunteers who donate time to homeless animals as well as to fundraising.

The Fur Ball Auction raises more than half of the group’s operating funds for the year. These funds enable VIPP to pay expenses for more than 350 cats and dogs that are touched by VIPP during the year. In 2007, VIPP found homes for 86 cats and 44 dogs. We returned 63 cats and dogs to their owners. Also, 184 cats and dogs were neutered in 2007 through VIPP’s Spay/Neuter Program.

For animals that are adopted through VIPP, these funds ensure that each animal is examined, vaccinated, micro-chipped, combo-tested (for cats, a blood test for FIV/FELV) and spayed or neutered if necessary. VIPP also provides a warm, safe place with food, water and plenty of loving attention while cats and dogs await careful placement in their new homes.

Toby, my special FIV kitty, died two years ago and is buried under a young dogwood. Each spring when its light pink blossoms unfurl, I think of him, of his big frightened eyes and deep rumble of a purr. And while we all miss him, we feel good knowing that we helped such a kind, gentle soul emerge to trust us and share our lives, even for a short time.

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