Saturday, November 05, 2005

How I spent my summer vacation (2005)

I don't really know where to begin so I'll just begin. My apologies in advance for the length, but trust me....this is an edited account. (!)

I took two weeks off work, spent eight of those days volunteering with Best Friends animal society (
) around the middle of October in Tylertown, Mississippi, and it was simply one of the best experiences I've ever had.

The conditions were fairly primitive, but nothing worse than your average camping trip. Much better, actually, as we did have a couple showers set up, multiple porta-potties (those are always fun), and we were fed a very good lunch and dinner every day. I'm not sure how many of us there were at the time I was there.maybe fifty to sixty, maybe more.but we came from all over the place. The South wasn't very well represented, though I did meet a fellow Dallasite and a Houstonian toward the end of my stay, and one of the volunteers in my building, the wonderful Kathleen, was from Alabama.

The first day and a half kinda sucked because I was working in one of the two cat buildings and I happened to pick the one with the most overbearing, anal-retentive, condescending old lady I've ever met. I thought she might have worked for the sanctuary or Best Friends, but I wasn't sure. She certainly acted like she invented the place. I was deciding to myself that if this (her) was what I had to put up with.I just wasn't going to put up with it. Fortunately, someone asked me if I would go socialize a couple of problem cats up in the cat barn. Thank god, because the cat barn was paradise in comparison. I wound up meeting three girls who all happened to be around my age. Somehow, the four of us kinda jelled into our own little gang pretty quickly. Thus, I wound up making three really good friends, also....Karon and Wendy from Minnesota, and Barrett from North Carolina. That may have been the best part of the trip. We've already exchanged a few emails and photos and have plans to hook up again in the spring in North Carolina. Always good to make new friends, as I don't make friends too easily.

At any rate, the cat barn was overseen by one of the Best Friends folks, a biker named Frank. He looks the part, has a pretty impressive Brooklyn accent, and may actually curse more than I do. But, like me, he loves cats and is relatively benevolent. We had much longer hours....8 a.m. to midnight, with a couple nights lasting until 1:30 or so, at the cat barn than at the other building, as we were usually the place where the incoming cats were processed. But it was worth it. The intake process was also the most eventful, as most of the animals were scared out of their gourds, having just been trapped/found/captured after their human companions either left, died or were forced out, transported via truckload a couple hours north, and then unloaded onto unsuspecting strangers. As most people would, the cats handled this with no small amount of distress. They were all hungry and more than a few were injured. That's where I sustained most of my injuries....forgetting to tuck a leg into a towel and having a back claw rip across my hand. And, in the case of the very last cat I helped take in before I left, that's also where the worst of my injuries occurred. Either someone had not closed the carrier or it had been jostled loose, but as Frank picked up the carrier to move the cat from it into a larger cage, the carrier door flew open, the cat came screaming out, and chaos ensued. At one point, we had the cat caught on one end of the house and somehow the cat got hold of one of my fingers....chomp....and didn't let go. For future reference....if this ever happens to any of you, grab the cat by the scruff. Do not try to use your free hand to pry the cat's mouth open. Because when you do....chomp....on the other hand. So the cat breaks free, blood is dripping all over the floor from both my hands, and two very tired men are dropping F-bombs like its the only word they know. We managed to fish the cat into a towel from underneath the refrigerator in the back room, blood drops dotting the entire floor the whole time. Looked like a crime scene in there and hurt like a bitch. But I got cleaned up and stuck some band-aids big whup. Until the next day, when I woke up with a badly swollen thumb on one hand and index finger on the other. Was given some dog/people antibiotic pills for the road and had to visit the dreaded Wal-Mart the next day in Florida for additional medical supplies. (If anyone really wants to experience the Deep South, visit a Wal-Mart in rural north Florida on a weekday morning. Nothing will turn you into an uppity urban snob more quickly than that.)

Keep in mind that all this is happening right smack in the middle of dog-fighting country, rural south Mississippi. There were more than a few pit bulls and other large fighting dogs that looked like theyd been through the ringer. There were more than a few three-legged dogs who'd gotten that way because they had to chew their own legs off to escape some sort of trap or something. I heard one night when I was there that members of the Mississippi state police were trying to catch some local folks who were armed and outside the sanctuary, trying to break in to steal pit bulls for fighting. I later asked the stupid question of why the folks conducting the dog fights were not prosecuted and was given the answer....Well, when the local sheriff is in on the betting. We had quite a few pit bulls there with scarred up faces....scars from their experiences as bait dogs (when its decided a dog won't be a good fighter, he's muzzled so he can't bite and used as bait for other dogs to attack while being trained to fight). I was also told that the dogs that were killed in the previous nights fighting some of which were found by the sanctuary folks were left on the road as advertisements for where to see the next fights. Lovely, huh?

The cats were much fewer in number than the dogs and in better shape, collectively speaking. We did have our share of injured cats, like one who was FIV-positive and had an ugly abcess on his neck, and one with broken hip who was ironically named Precious (ironic considering her owners left her in a house with no food or water and never returned to check on her, while she managed to survive having something fall on her during the storm, thus breaking her hip....I really hope she ends up in a home with folks who will care for her the way she deserves). There was also another one with some sort of disease Id never heard of.something bacterial that seemed to be the feline equivalent of the flesh-eating disease. The area from his nose to his upper lip was basically gone, leaving his front teeth showing a bit below half a nose. (It wasn't contagious, the cat wasn't in pain, and the exposed pink flesh would eventually cover up with a more suitable new skin. Very weird and very sad. I didn't get his picture, but I wish I had.) I remember those three examples because those three were also among the sweetest, most affectionate cats there. There were others with various respiratory infections, other minor disorders that required medication, and plenty of FIV-positive cats. Also a few pregnant ones. Many of them, though, were just scared and traumatized. Some responded a little to attention and affection, others didn't. And some were just plain feral.

But as depressing as all that sounds, it's actually really heartwarming to be in that atmosphere. Everyone there was just there to help and for the most part animal welfare was the one common goal. And there wasn't any corny holding-hands-and-singing-Kum-Ba-Ya crap, either. Just normal folks doing what they could do to help in some way. As sickening and mind-boggling as some of what we saw was, being in that situation with those people doing that work made me feel proud to be a human. The few people that did go down there to be heroes didn't do well and didn't stay long, fortunately.

Anyway, the whole thing for me was so wonderful that I'll be going back soon for another week. In fact, my new friend Wendy from Minnesota is flying down to Dallas and riding out there with me. Kathleen from Alabama will be joining us and I'm counting the days. None of the other volunteers I've spoken to since leaving has really left and more than a few have used the phrase life-changing to describe the Tylertown experience. As you can tell, I feel pretty similarly.

By the way, did I mention we had a celebrity in our cat barn midst? A Baywatch babe, no less. I thought she looked familiar when she got there, but I didn't pay it much mind because almost everyone there reminded me of someone else. I just thought she was some tall, skinny chick from LA. Which, of course, she was, but she was also an actress. Her name is Alexandra Paul. If any of you ever saw bits of Baywatch, you might remember her as the somewhat normal looking chick without the monster implants. Anyway, she has her own website and she's been posting pictures and journal entries from her time there:
. (When you read about the six volunteers she mentions....that's me. If anyone needs an autograph or something, Ill sign as volunteer #4.) That aside, she was a very cool, really down-to-earth person and she really busted her hump while she was there. She was a good egg. Kathleen, the Alabama volunteer, said she figured Alexandra would have the place painted and wallpapered by the time the rest of us got back from lunch. Alexandra never dined with us and I'm pretty sure it was because she was working on her website narrative and photos in addition to working. And it does bear repeating how hard she worked when she was there.

So that's my story. I wish I'd gotten more photos of the people and the animals, but it didn't start to become apparent to me how completely wonderful this all was until just before Wendy, Karon and Barrett were ready to take off. I have some photos posted on one of those Kodak online gallery thingies. Please feel free to holler if you have any desire to check them out. They aren't that great and don't come anywhere near doing the experience justice, but it's all I could bring back.

Lastly, if you do view my photos, please be gentle and keep in mind that I had not showered since arriving in Tylertown as you look at them. That and, despite my expression in some of the pictures, I am, in fact, not gay.

(A final footnote....both the ASPCA and HSUS have pulled out of the Louisiana/Mississippi area. I'm sure both organizations have their reasons, but my theory is that it's because Hurricane Katrina has become old news. At any rate, this leaves Best Friends as one of the few remaining animal relief organizations on hand. From what I've heard, they are becoming overwhelmed by the number of animals they're still receiving, are starting to run out of foster organizations and shelters that can accomodate more animals, and are starting to get uncomfortably low on volunteers. If you'd like to volunteer for or contribute to what is truly a miraculous endeavor, please visit their website at

Labels: , , ,


Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home