Poverty, Instability and the Aching Human-Animal Bond

By Susan Stevens

At the intersection of human poverty and mental instability, animals are engulfed in loneliness, hunger and neglect. Cheryl Gleason, my Kansas City, Kansas neighbor and impassioned volunteer with the Heart of America Humane Society and their TNR (trap, neuter, return) Angels — who also lovingly feeds and shelters numerous feral cats on her own property — writes:

‘It’s “Kitten Season” now and we’re coming across a lot of kittens being found in people’s yards with or without mama cats. So many of the mama cats are feral, and people can’t take them in. By the time the kittens are big enough for people to notice them, they usually have to be trapped if no one has interacted with them enough to socialize them. That’s a big problem, since we don’t have enough fosters at rescues that have the time to socialize feral kittens. They have their hands full with friendly ones. The root of the problem is that people aren’t getting their owned or feral/community cats spayed and neutered. We in rescue are having a very hard time keeping up with the amount of kitties needing help. Our clinics are having a hard time finding enough veterinarians and vet techs who can volunteer their time at feral cat clinics. There’s actually a shortage of veterinarians country wide. It’s just a huge problem in our area, and it’s an uphill battle sometimes, educating people about the benefits of TNR. Alley Cat Allies —  https://www.alleycat.org/ — is a great source of information for the public about the benefits of TNR. Since October of 2020, my husband and I, and another volunteer in rescue and TNR have taken over 1300 cats, feral and owned to out of town clinics for altering and vaccines. The other 300 that we’ve taken have gone to local clinics — only 300, since that’s all the appointments that the local clinics could give us in that same period.’

It is a vicious cycle in poor communities. People raised in situations of economic deprivation, abuse, addiction or neglect often crave the faithful, unquestioning love and companionship of a forever pet and impulsively bring one home — but may lack the teaching or economic resources to provide that forever home. Situations of economic deprivation can increase the risk of abuse, addiction or neglect. Incomes that don’t keep pace with inflation and rising rents exacerbate the risk of eviction, and an overwhelmed individual or family may have to go someplace where they can’t take their pet. With shelters here often overflowing, they may abandon them to the mercy of the neighborhood.

According to our Catskills-based SDUSA Chair Patty Friend, a lot of people abandon their pets out in the country, which is devastating for domesticated animals who’ve “lost the only family they’ve ever known,” have no idea how to survive in the wild, and are therefore doomed to become either easy prey to the wild predators, or “feral-crazy” predators themselves. Patty has also lived in the mountains of Southern California in Los Padres National Forest and observed a similarly tragic situation, so she knows this behavior is not confined to any one region of the United States. She points out that changing policy will not change people’s behavior — that they’ll just continue doing whatever they want — and that what we need is “an all-out media campaign that goes after people’s conscience” — that makes it clear that rather than leaving a domesticated animal out in the wild to fend for itself, it would be much kinder to take it to a kill center where it could just go through death, rather than immeasurable suffering followed by death.

This campaign should get people to think about what they’re giving up of their own soul when they dump a living creature “that they have most likely fallen in love with,” Patty says, and also educate them about the enormous responsibility they must be ready to take on before bringing a pet home. For example, a puppy needs obedience training as well as food, vet care, love and exercise. She knows that when we start thinking this deeply about the needs of animals, the end result is that we’ll start treating each other better, too.

At a Unified Government of Wyandotte County and Kansas City, Kansas Commission meeting last winter, a woman described the plight of her new neighbor who’d taken over the home of a previous tenant who simply left their dog behind, outdoors, when they moved. The new tenant already had a dog and couldn’t take in the new one, who was desperate to get inside and kept scratching and scratching, leaving streaks of blood on the door. Animal Control said there was no shelter space and nothing they could do.

Abandoned animals who haven’t been spayed or neutered scavenge for food, and follow the call of nature and make babies. As Cheryl shared above, kittens who lack sufficient human interaction become feral cats. The Heart of America Humane Society’s TNR Angels are doing a lot of good in diligently and creatively working to trap and location-tag feral cats, take them for vet care including spaying/neutering, and then return them to their familiar neighborhoods where they can live out their lives without multiplying quite so exponentially the number of kittens who have to be born into a life of hardship.

As social democrats who see our country’s trend towards ever-increasing economic and psychological instability as food, transportation and housing costs skyrocket and wages stagnate, we must get behind every initiative that increases warmth, well-being and love for every living creature.

Prison animal programs are one such initiative, such as the FORWARD program — Felines and Offenders Rehabilitation with Affection, Reformation and Dedication — at Pendleton Correctional Facility, a maximum security prison outside of Indianapolis. (https://www.indystar.com/story/news/local/indianapolis/2020/10/19/cats-inmates-rehabilitate-each-other-through-animal-care-program/5798291002/)

We must also support incentives to exponentially increase the number of pet-friendly low-income apartments, and legislation to fund more training and resources for at-risk pet owners — those with barriers that threaten their ability to be consistently responsible in caring for their pets. In these soul-crushing times, it can be tempting to retreat into tunnel vision, and decide that any problems peripheral to our central focus will have to be left to others. I’m reminded of the old — possibly Hopi elders’ — quote: “We are the ones we have been waiting for.”

No one person can do everything, but as social democrats, we know that all change results from being willing to do at least one thing — whether volunteering at shelters or as TNR Angels ourselves, sheltering and feeding stray and feral cats on our own property while also seeking the Humane Society’s help in getting them spayed/neutered and vaccinated, or donating generously to worthy organizations like the Heart of America Humane Society (https://heartofamericahs.org/).

This is part of a larger effort to keep encouraging others to add their own personal threads to our social safety net, until the gaps are filled and we evolve beyond this despair-inducing world of what novelist Raymond Chandler termed “mean streets”.

Susan Stevens is the Chair of the Kansas City, Kansas chapter of SDUSA.

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