In Memory of Kodak the Blind Cat--And a Way Forward

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This weekend, my husband celebrated his fiftieth birthday.  I threw him a big surprise party with friends and family traveling in from all over the country.  It was one of those weekends when I was so happily preoccupied catching up with loved ones we hadn't seen, in some cases, in years that I didn't have a chance to do even a general cursory sweep of Homer's Facebook page for three days straight.  And while I was so preoccupied, a tragedy occurred.

Many of you by now will have heard the story of Kodak, the blind "feral" (I put that in scare quotes because I don't think we can know whether Kodak was truly feral. But I'll come back to that in a minute.) who was brought into Companion Animal Alliance in Baton Rouge.  Over 2000 people shared Kodak's photo on Facebook, and several local and national rescue groups as well as individuals stepped forward offering to take Kodak in and off the "death list."  CAA acknowledged that Kodak was "safe."  I was one of many people who were emailed about Kodak's story.  I also shared the post about him on Homer's Facebook page just as soon as I got back online after Laurence's birthday weekend.  But by then, it was too late.  Several readers let me know that despite all the efforts on Kodak's behalf and all the temporary and even permanent homes being offered him, he had become aggressive with shelter staff and had been euthanized the day before.

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Kodak's death is a tragedy.  Any needless death is a tragedy, although I'll admit that stories about blind black cats who are considered "unadoptable" and end up euthanized hit me on an especially personal level.  There but for the gods of fate and timing might Homer have gone 16 years ago. 

Many people are angry at what they perceive to be CAA's negligence--or even outright malfeasance--but I'm hesitant to judge them harshly without knowing more.  I spent many years working in non-profit, and I know how very difficult the work is--the chronic underfunding and understaffing; the persistent sense that no matter how many you save, there are so many more who you can't save; the knowledge that many of the people who are the first to criticize the work you're doing are also the last people who would ever step forward and help you do it better.  I can't claim to know anything about CAA aside from the fact that they picked up and ultimately euthanized Kodak, but I do know that there are many shelters staffed by wonderful, compassionate, hard-working employees and volunteers who nevertheless have to face the daily heartbreak of euthanizing healthy animals simply because they have no other choice.  I freely acknowledge that they do work I can't do and never could have done.  Whenever I catch up with Jackson Galaxy, we talk about the glorious day when this will finally be a no-kill nation.  It's a goal we firmly believe can be attained.  But that day, alas, hasn't come yet.

I'm not saying we shouldn't be angry.  We should be angry.  We should be enraged.  Any needless death is a tragedy.  But, rather than directing anger at CAA and what they did or didn't do, I want to see us channel that anger.  I want to see something come out of that anger that will help prevent needless deaths like this from occurring in the future.

I keep thinking about Homer when I think about Kodak, and not just because of the superficial similarities between them.  Those of you who read my blog and keep up with Homer's Facebook page will remember how very, very violently Homer reacted the last time I brought him to the vet's office.  Homer had collapsed, and I rushed him down to out vet.  They immediately took him from me and wouldn't let me follow him into the emergency area.  I understand, of course--there were other animals there who wouldn't have found my presence particularly calming. 

But Homer was terrified out of his wits.  Three grown people--a vet and two vet techs--all wearing the protective gear used to handle feral cats couldn't control this little four-pound cat without risking serious injury to themselves, Homer, or both.  By the time they finally called me in, Homer was little more than a vicious, dangerous, out-of-control animal who (I have no doubt at all about this) absolutely believed that these strange people were trying to kill him. And his response, understandably enough, was to fight for his own life with every ounce of strength and courage his poor little body could muster.  As it turned out, there was enough strength there to keep three strong adults at bay.  When he heard my voice and smelled my hand, he immediately and quietly crept into my lap, curled up in a little ball, and began to purr.  The jaws of the other three people in the room dropped at seeing such a swift and dramatic transformation from crazed beast to affectionate lap-cat.  It took twenty minutes of my sitting alone with Homer in my lap for both of us to calm down enough that they could administer a mild sedative (I wish there'd been one for me!) and finally begin to examine him.

No cat likes the vet's office.  But for a blind cat--or any special-needs animal deprived of one of his or her basic senses--the utter inability to make sense of what's going on in a strange and frightening new place is going to lead to a situation in which you don't see the animal's true personality.  That is, not unless there's someone there who understands that special-needs animals have to be handled and calmed differently than the ways in which "normal" (for lack of a better word) animals are.

Personally, I'm not and never have been of the opinion that ferals should be euthanized simply for being feral.  I know I'm not alone in having stories of feral cats I've worked with who've become among the most loving and good-natured domestic companion animals once given enough time, patience, and love.

But in a shelter that's forced to euthanize animals who are considered "unadoptable," I still maintain that we can't know that Kodak was feral simply based on his reactions at the shelter.  Any sane person who'd seen Homer at the vet's office wouldn't have doubted that he was feral, aggressive, and completely unfit to be adopted out.  And yet, if there's a cat out there who's more affectionate and more prone to loving humans than Homer is, I've yet to meet him.  He was just scared.  He was scared because he couldn't see and couldn't understand what was happening to him, and the people attempting to care for him--who were trained and experienced professionals--simply didn't have an understanding as to the specific ways in which you have to calm and soothe a blind cat, which are different than the ways in which you approach a cat who can see.

Maybe Kodak was like Homer--not just in the sense of being a blind black cat, but also in showing a very different personality under the stress of a new place than what his true personality was.

There's nothing we can do for Kodak now except to mourn him.  But I, for one, would like to see us channel our grief and anger at Kodak's death into something more positive.  I would like to see someone--some shelter, some rescue group--create a training program that teaches people who work with animals how to work with special-needs animals.  I would like to see this become a program that spreads to more shelters, and then more, until knowing how to approach and handle special-needs cats is common knowledge.  And I would like to lend my name, my time, and my pocket book to making such a program a reality.

I know that a lot of you who read my blog are active in the rescue community.  Who's with me?

Comments

  • Mary Donaldson Friday, 22 February 2013

    Great Idea

    Wonderful idea Gwen, I am sharing this with all the people I know who work in or with shelters in my area. I am a shelter manager at a no-kill feline shelter. Part of our shelter is a feral sanctuary and a better understanding of the nature of ferals, as well as how to work with special needs cats, would be a blessing. Thanks for all you do to support no-kill shelters, and please give Homer a kiss from me.

  • friendbear Friday, 22 February 2013

    Love u Kodak! ;(

  • greta salem Friday, 22 February 2013

    I agree!

    I'm a dog foster mom and have adopted several dogs - one a deaf double merle sheltie. We've learned hand signals together and he's even gotten his CGC. But, when we go into new situations he looks to me for reassurance. If he's not approached in an open and happy way by a vet or a stranger he will panic. He just needs to be communicated with in a different way and I think that's now it is with all special needs animals- especially in a fearful situation like the shelter.
    Thank you for what you do!

  • Lisa Shackett Friday, 22 February 2013

    President

    I run a no kill shelter in CT and we specialize in and love black cats. We have many who are absolutely amazing and luckily it doesn't take much to convince our adopters that black cats are the best! Right now we are dealing with an 8 year old declawed black female who was surrendered because the people had a baby. This cat is terrified, and bites; hard. She now has a URI and we can barely medicate her and she isn't eating. What to do with a cat like this, it is so difficult to know. We are trying everything, from feliway, a private area for her cage, soft touches and voices. The vets don't want to handle her either. So as a shelter in a situation like this it causes the decision making to be that much more stressful. Especially since we took her from a high kill shelter to give her a chance! Kodak's story touched me because I love Homer like all of you and know that without you Gwen, he had no chance. Our cat Sadie deserves a chance and we will do everything possible to try to help her. But Sometimes I do think that the cat needs to help us too. A cat like Kodak may have been feral, but maybe not, being a blind cat in a situation as he was in can only be described as terrifying. I wonder though why the shelter staff did not give him up to any others who were at least willing to help. I Am sure there must have been reasons, but I don't know what. I am hoping for a no-kill nation someday, but right now I only see overcrowding and not enough good adopters, vets and funding to help us to make that happen. Gwen I do hope that you can help to make that difference by getting the word out there to all of your fans. Everyday that a black cat goes to its forever home, we have a victory!

  • Christelle Smith Friday, 22 February 2013

    Kodak's story

    At the shelter where I volunteer I have seen many so-called feral cats become the most loving and lovable animals. Given time, patience, understanding and compassion, these cats absolutely blossom.

    Yes, Kodak probably became agressive, but put in the situation that he was, I probably would lash out too. He couldn't see who or what was coming at him. In all likelyhood, Kodak might have been ill as well and his instincts for self-preservation at all cost kicked in. Somebody could have knocked against his cage and scared him to the point where anything and anybody approaching him was a threat.

    Cats are incredibly sensitive creatures who react positively or negatively to their environment and the situations that they are placed in.

    I studied basic cat behavior because I felt I lacked the necessary skills to help the cats at the shelter. I think a short, but comprehensive course in cat behavior should be implemented at all shelters and vet practises (yes, even vets should attend!)

    This will also help the staff to better advise and equip potential adopters who come to the shelter looking to adopt.

    Yes, I know that shelters are under-staffed and that these people often work in extremely stressfull situations without the necessary emotional and physical assistance that they need. However, I truly believe that if the staff where better equiped to deal with cases such as Kodak, their jobs would become much easier.

    I fully agree with you Gwen - things need to change and I believe that change starts with education.

    Maybe a training program needs to be developed and implemented in shelters, perhaps this is something to get Jackson Galaxy involved in?

    I can already hear the sighs of protest going up about an idea like this - "shelter staff don't have the time," " there is no money for such a program," but think of it this way: if one person trained in this program takes the responsibilty of training two others, soon enough the knowledge and understanding will spread to enough people so that a difference can be made in these cats lives.

    Kodak, I am so sorry that your last moments on earth were spent in fear and that you weren't given the chance to experience the love and warmth of a home. R.I.P. little one.

    Gwen, thank you for raising awareness about this and for volunteering to help. You truly are a warrior for our little furry souls.

  • Patrice OConnor Friday, 22 February 2013

    So Sad

    This makes me very sad. I work in a cat shelter and many of the cats are extremely frightened and shut down. Many of the cats, whether they are special needs, or just regular kitties who have ended up in the shelter can lash out at us when we do the simplest things like cleaning a litterbox or just try to pet them. Our volunteers understand (thank goodness) and don't take any of these behaviors personally. We know that 99% of these behaviors come out of fear. I always make sure the volunteers on my shift are careful when handling the kitties or petting them. We have made great strides at our shelter to rehabilitate strays (whether truely feral or not). I just placed a beautiful 9 month old calico who was dumped as a stray. It took the shelter 6 months to get her to the point where she could interact with humans. Two days before she got placed I "caught" her playing with the tags outside her cage and rubbing on the bars!!! Chloe had finally come out of her shell and she was delightful. What keeps us going are the good stories like Chloe's and we can only hope that someday all shelter cats will end up like Chloe in a great home with a family that loves and understands her.

  • Lori Friday, 22 February 2013

    Thank You

    Thank you for another wonderful post, Gwen. Kodak's story made me cry for days--so sad that he lost his life because his behavior was misinterpreted. I will help in any way I can with an initiative to help professionals better care for special needs kitties. Love to you and Homer!

  • Jackie Wendland Friday, 22 February 2013

    Agree with taking positive action....

    ....in response to Kodak's tragic death. Two avenues for getting the word out about the need for more education and training for handling special needs cats would by via Best Friends Animal Society and Maddie's Fund, a large grant maker to no-kill organizations. I am a bit tech-challenged, so not sure how to connect your blog content to their websites or FaceBook pages. But I am sure doing so would get your message out to a huge base of no-kill advocates and rescuers.

  • Laura Carter Friday, 22 February 2013

    Gwen: no way could I have said it better myself. You go, girl. Shared on my FB page.

  • Lyndsaye Shades Friday, 22 February 2013

    Shelter Volunteer

    I volunteer at a Canadian shelter, and my understanding is that the American shelters have a much bigger kill rate than, at least, our small one in Western Canada. We do everything we can to save animals. Yes, we know that most of the time they are scared and that causes them to lash out. However, there are some dogs (mostly) that are so aggressive that even when we foster them for a number of weeks in private environments away from shelters, they do not adjust. It's unfair that most of these animals come to us from bad pasts that have caused them to distrust people. Not their fault. But I don't think it's fair to risk the lives of the public because the animal cannot be rehabilitated into more domesticated animals. None of us enjoy euthanizing animals for behaviour reasons. We do our best to help them find stability and give them quite a bit of time to adjust. Cats, we have found, have it much harder. After 6 days of not eating their bodies shut down. If we have cats that are completely unwilling to accept our affection and help, I feel it is cruel to watch them crash. I don't disagree with anything you are saying. If we didn't have the surplus of animals coming to our doors everyday due to irresponsible pet owners who don't spay and neuter their animals we wouldn't have so many unwanted pets.

    Just a side note, No-Kill shelters are great in theory, but all the ones we have around here have a limit as to what they take in, and they only take in the "adoptable" animals. So they send all the "unadoptable" ones to our shelter so that we can either try to rehabilitate them, or ultimately euthanize for severe behaviour or health problems. We have a horrible reputation because of the fact that we euthanize (rather than watch animals suffer--I just want to be clear we don't do it because we WANT to!), while they don't, but no one sees that they send us the animals they don't want.

    Again, I know things are different in the US than they are in Canada, and I appreciate this post. I just wish people would be a little more open minded to those of us who work at shelters and see what we see. We work there because we care, not because we don't.

  • Hedda Schupak Friday, 22 February 2013

    Oh, poor, dear Kodak! What I don't get is why, when the shelter obviously seems to have had multiple offers to take him, they didn't hand him over to someone else who'd volunteered to care for him? YES! There definitely needs to be special-needs animal training. What's the most effective way to do that, though--start yet another charity to compete with existing animal-welfare groups, or approach a major organization like the ASPCA to start a program under their aegis (and with their fundraising clout) and then do outreach to other shelters?

  • Cheryl Hogeland Friday, 22 February 2013

    SO UNNECESSARY

    My heart just breaks for poor Kodak. I have long felt that it is just wrong when a cat whose only crime is that he has the misfortune to have no family to care for him has to be euthanized. because he is considered unadoptable. I have fed/spayed/neutered many ferals over the years. I have found homes for those who were adoptable. Many of those I actually was able to pet after a time, and a couple also became part time housecats. Many times, supposed ferals are not feral at all, they are lost/abandoned/discarded pets who have been left to fend for themselves. And if they are not spayed, their kittens are most assuredly feral. Some feral cats make excellent pets - I know - I have one. They are not for everyone, they take time and patience (LOTS of patience!) I know that most shelters rely on volunteers, and that many times you have more cats than you can care for, or have to make hard choices to be able to help the largest number of cats. But I just cannot help but feel outraged on poor Kodak's behalf. I hope that shelters everywhere learn from this needless tragedy and that it can be avoided in the future. You and Homer are an amazing testimony for cats everywhere. I look forward to the day when "no-kill" shelters are the norm and not the exception. Thanks for everything you do.

  • Sherri Friday, 22 February 2013

    Thank you Gwen!

    You Rock Gwen! Thanks for being there for ALL the animals whom can't speak up for themselves. People in this buisiness ought to know that no two animals, just like people are the same, and sometimes you have to take care of the not so easy ones, be it feral, blind, or just plain scared. This was a tradgedy that could have been averted, and I pray that we don't see this continue needlessly. Thank you for sharing your experiences with Homer with the world. He is a true cat ambassador for all felines!

  • Vickie S. Friday, 22 February 2013

    Thanks

    For posting this, Gwen. I am so sad right now, and thinking of Homer of course. I will do my part. It is heartbreaking to say the least. Happy birthday to Laurence, bless his heart his birthday may have gotten a bit lost in the shuffle with this terrible news.

  • Calico Junction Sanctuary by Annie Spokescat Friday, 22 February 2013

    What a tangled web

    I for the life of me, I cannot understand how anyone who works with animals can give a death sentence to a scared captured fur. Claiming them dangerous and saying they need to be euthanized takes a whole different personality then I care to know. Every time I need to make that choice it is because, quality of life is in question not personality or deformities. I know my decision has to be 100% so, I can look in the mirror the next morning and not hate what I see.
    We have had our share of ferals, deaf, blind, hurt, scared, and deformed furs come into our Sanctuary. Knowledge tells you that it takes months to adapt to the new people and the surroundings. Government supported kill shelter surroundings, are dark, dank, cold, and uncomfortable. Loud noises, slamming doors, barking dogs, people poking, prodding and handling them with out compassion. All this is absorbed into this poor scared soul. Then these kill shelters call them un-adoptable.
    I have been to kill shelters that admit they are dog people. They know nothing about cats. That's like saying, I will do the surgery but I'm not a Doctor. I have seen shelters leave cages with kittens on cold floors bare cages in drafts, provide nothing for the animal to hide in except a litter box when caged. Volunteers are most only hope giving fresh hope to them.
    Knowledge in cleaning with proper cleaners and equipment, hand washing and keeping the animal less stressed element 90% of the illness problems. Cats are sensitive and need specialist to care for them. Certification of paid personnel taught by people who know behaviors, diseases, and anything to ready them for the job they are hired to do. Keeping shelters on their toes and information known by all.
    Local governments run kill shelters on a slim budget. They only concern themselves with providing the taxpayer with eliminating what they consider a nu-sense. . When hiring for a their shelter they pay as little as they can. Curing this problem is like curing the national debt. Fighting with council members, shelter officials, and more animals keep coming to these horrible places as there is no alternatives. Feral colonies TNR programs and caretakers of these colonies need to be supported by all shelters to help eliminate kill shelters all together. Stricter laws and jail time for abusers needs to be implemented.
    Those with knowledge would never give a death sentence because of a natural re-attraction an animals fighting for survival shows. Lack of education, organization, planning, and old school ideas are what keep kill shelters alive and animals dieing. They need to learn how to make the computer a friend of the shelter. There are helping hands out there they need to learn how to network and have alternatives at hand for any situation. The whole mess needs to be given an update and a new beginning.
    Respect for those, they are suppose to be helping, should be top priority. The people working there need to ask themselves, is it for a pay check or is it for the animals welfare. The pay check?? Find a new job.
    Tax payers money pays for this treatment. Demanding change so, tragic stories like this do not have to be written over and over. A study of the successful shelters and showing the blind may be a possible eye opener for kill shelters. When success is like a text of instructions then just maybe those people without vision may understand.

  • June and Sienna Friday, 22 February 2013

    More Tears

    I started out this morning crying happy tears when I read that Stella had (finally) found her "furever home." I know how gratified you, Gwen, must have felt to learn about this.
    Then later came the story of Kodak which brought on tears of sadness and frustration.
    And then as I read about the terrible experience that you and "our" darling Homer had at the emergency vet, I cried yet again to imagine how confused and frightened Homer must have been in that circumstance - and how the love of his mom saved the day (again).
    I wholly agree that part of orientation for work with shelter animals should be instruction about helping special needs animals to compensate in stressful circumstances.
    Thank you for all that you do for your own feline family and as an advocate for special needs kitties everywhere.

  • Becky Friday, 22 February 2013

    I agree!!

    I'm so sorry for Kodak, especially when he had a rescue. It happens too much. My cat might do terribly if she had to go to the shelter to. She's by no means feral. She's like a different cat at the vet. I hope we can be no kill one day.

  • Lorraine Gregoire Friday, 22 February 2013

    Totally Understand

    I totally understand Homer's reaction to the vet. My cat who is 12 and only weights 8 lbs. was rush to the vet hospital and they could only do so much of an exam because of her "temperment". At our regular vet's office one time it took 4 people to get a blood sample. I know it's fear, I've never seen her act our except there. So I"m sure Kodak was also scared out of his wits and just protecting himself. I hate to see any animal put down and you idea for the program sounds great.

  • Jim Kurack Friday, 22 February 2013

    Pretty Much Agree

    I pretty much agree with you Gwen. Seeing some of our local shelters and helping out , they are understaffed & underfunded. I've been feeding stray (feral) cats at work for about 5 years. Last year we rescued & brought a brother & sister home. A couple of months later, I fell for their oldert sister, who actually befriended me. She would sit on my car & I would pet her while drinking coffee. We were in the process of moving at home, so I couldn't bring her home. The last I saw her was two weeks before we moved. As she slept on the floor of my car, I knew I wouldn't see her again. I never did. Skweekies is my facebook profile. It broke my heart & she'll always have a special place. I realized that you can't save them all, but at least she was able to feel loved. So my goal has become to make them feel loved, whether with food at work or helping at shelters. They have so much to teach us about "unconditional love."

  • Nicole Friday, 22 February 2013

    You're a beter person than I am...

    I'm still so angry at them, I feel shaky, tearful, and filled with rage. I'm sure half the people who ready your blog and posts would have taken him if they'd known the "shelter" planned to murder him. Maybe one day I can be as understanding as you. I'm not there yet.

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