By: Robin Desmet – Feb. 2017
The building in New York City is so non-descript that you could easily walk by and think nothing of it. But inside the locked structure is a veritable beehive of activity. The building serves as a temporary residence to over 450 New York shelter cats that were exposed to a rare form of the avian (bird) flu. Although it is unlikely that the flu will transmit to humans, only 3 cases have ever been reported, it was still necessary to quarantine all of the shelter cats as soon as the illness was discovered.
The ASPCA (American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals) rapid response team was called in to take control of the situation. They quickly set up a temporary shelter and transferred all of the cats out of the various shelters in New York and quarantined them in a single location. They mobilized volunteers from all over the United States to help care for the animals while they are being treated. As an MSPCA volunteer, I was able to offer my time and help at the shelter for 5 days last month.
When I arrived at the shelter for the first day of work, along with about 50 other volunteers, we were told that we would be required to wear PPE (personal protective equipment) while caring for the cats. If you have ever seen someone in a hazmat suit, then you can pretty much get the idea. We were required to suit up from head to toe before entering the area where the cats are being housed. Every 2 hours we had to remove the suit in order to take a 15 minute break. The suit is completely thrown away before break and a new suit is put on after break. At first, it seemed like a colossal waste of time and resources to keep up this operation. After about 1 day in a Tyvek suit you look forward to those 15 minutes when you can take that suit off and not have to look through goggles or breathe through a face mask.
When you first enter “The Hot Zone” where the cats are sheltered, what strikes you immediately is how organized the place is. Picture row after row of cages containing cats. These cages are then arranged into groups called “pods” and each pod is surrounded by a gate enclosure. The gates ensure that if a cat gets out of one of the cages, it will have a limited area in which to escape. Each volunteer is responsible for taking care of 1 or 2 pods of cats—anywhere from 50 to 80 cats.
Some of the volunteers are professionals—-veterinarians, vet technicians, cat behaviorists, and full time ASPCA staff. They spend the day treating the cats and managing the entire operation. The rest of us are volunteers that come from all different walks of life and have all different careers. We are assigned to “daily care”. This is basically 10 hours a day of feeding and watering, cleaning cages, mopping floors, fetching supplies, and snuggling with cats. It is dirty, hot, hard work in a Tyvek suit. The reward comes at the end. After an animal has tested negative for disease twice, one week apart, they can return to their previous shelter and be put up for adoption.
After 5 days of close contact, you really feel a connection to the cats. I am hoping that Smoky goes on to a loving home where his thirst for adventure can be realized and that Martian will find someone who will appreciate his warm personality and who will snuggle with him forever.