by Linda Chitwood
Director, The Homeless Animals Relief Project
200 pages, $29.00, c/o HARP, POB 371, Senatobia, MS 38668; https://homelessanimalsreliefproject.org/index.html.
Reviewed by Merritt Clifton
Describing herself as “eighty percent of the way to dead,” longtime Memphis nurse anesthetist Linda Chitwood relocated forty miles south to Senatobia, Mississippi in 1996, apparently expecting to spend a lot more time riding her horse through the countryside.
But the 40 miles south turned out to be much like moving 40 years back in time, too. There was no local humane society, nor any animal control agency.
Deep poverty was the norm among Chitwood’s new neighbors. Many cared enough about homeless cats and dogs to feed them. Few, however, took much responsibility for animal care beyond that, cat and dog sterilization was practically unheard of, roadkills were routine and frequent, and the usual responses to any animal who become problematic were either to shoot the animal or dump the animal five miles down the road to be someone else’s problem.
The title story
Chitwood dived into animal welfare work, with little pre-planning or preparation, when a local trailer park manager who perceived an overpopulation of feral cats offered a reward to local children of $5.00 per cat’s head brought to him.
This inspired the title of Chitwood’s book $5 for a cat head, but that episode was only the first of 27 case histories filling the book, eighteen of which ended in Chitwood herself acquiring new pets, or feral cats to share her barn with her horses, despite her intention to remain focused on spay/neuter, as by far the most cost-effective way to reduce animal suffering.
Each of Chitwood’s accounts ends with a summation of what she learned from the case, usually including detailed assessments of what she did wrong.
Almost all of Chitwood’s misadventures had a happy ending despite the goofs, and almost all occurred within the first seven years of the existence of the Homeless Animals Relief Project, the nonprofit organization she founded as umbrella for her work.
15,000 animals fixed for less than the ASPCA president’s pay
Chitwood says relatively little about the 18-odd years since then, except to mention that HARP has now sterilized more than 15,000 animals in and around Senatobia, on a cumulative budget which appears to be less than the $852,000 that American SPCA president Matt Bershadker was paid in 2017 alone.
(See Why did the ASPCA pres get $852,231, while we got $9.70 an hour?)
Chitwood’s work to some extent parallels that of the late Elaine Adair, who in 2002 founded the Mississippi Alliance for Spay & Neuter. This, in 2005, was rolled into MS SPAN, cofounded by retired Air Force attorney and Tulane University law school instructor Marilyn David.
(See Obits: defenders of cats, dogs, wild horses, bees, crabs, & elephants.)
Chitwood and HARP, however, have worked even farther out into the boonies, with less help from major national organizations. HARP received some reasonably significant grant support from established sources, but mostly not from the biggest of the big, and at at that, some token grants from some of the biggest turned out to be not worth the bother of having applied for.
“Think small & think local when you give”
“I regret accepting a $1,000 grant from a national animal welfare group,” Chitwood recounts. “Along with their grant came pages of demands, including their logo front and center and exact pixel size (BIG!) on our web page, and press releases I was required to send about their involvement. Nearly unlimited reports and redundant documentation was expected in return for the money. Then the paperwork would be returned for re-do; a submitted invoice proved the vet’s bill had been paid, but it was rejected because it didn’t indicate what tender (Cash? Check? Credit card?) was presented as payment. Onerous paperwork,” Chitwood concludes, “reduces our ability to help the animals the grant was intended for, and it freezes weary boots to the ground.
“Think small and think local when you give,” Chitwood advises, emphasizing a point memorably made earlier when she described helping an impoverished elderly woman to fix her dozen cats.
“Stepping into her home,” Chitwood narrates, “we were astonished to see four walls of one room literally papered with certificates of appreciation from a major animal welfare organization, thanking her for donations,” sent, Chitwood learned, in response to television ads.
“Stuck up with cellophane tape,” Chitwood observed, “the papers covered every inch of every wall in the room. We stood slack-jawed, staring.”
“Fix cats by five months”
Chitwood stresses the value of spay/neuter, including sterilizing female cats at five months if possible, before they go into their first heat cycle. This is exactly as one might expect from a book prefaced by Esther Mechler, founder of the SpayUSA subsidiary of the North Shore Animal League America, now heading the Maine-based organization Marian’s Dream as a “retirement” project and directing a national “Fix by Five” (months) awareness campaign.
But Chitwood was sold on the importance of s/n, through her own Deep South experience, long before encountering Mechler, or anyone else whose name might be widely recognized.
As a nurse anesthetist, Chitwood brought to animal welfare work a practical approach to relieving suffering, first and foremost, getting maximum results from limited resources.
Chitwood realized that others would be motivated to do rescue and rehoming, but that no amount of rescue and rehoming would solve the homeless cat and dog problem if births of surplus puppies and kittens could not be curtailed.
From road rescues to s/n drives
Chitwood herself would often drop everything to rush a road-injured cat or dog to receive veterinary care, but would wonder afterward, time and again, whether her emotional response was really the most appropriate response to the situation. Typically a road rescue would lead to a spay/neuter drive in the neighborhood, leading in turn to diminishing roadkills and road injuries, plus increasing public awareness of responsibilities toward animals.
$5 for a cat head concludes with succinct summaries of 50 of the most important lessons Chitwood believes experience has taught her, of which ANIMALS 24-7 agrees from our own experience with 48, and agrees conditionally with the other two, while recognizing some occasional exceptions.
Top 22 tips
Among the 20-odd most valuable tips, besides those already mentioned, each of which Chitwood explains at greater length:
- Don’t forget it’s your dream, not always the pet owner’s, to get the animal fixed. You may have to drive the pet to the vet appointment yourself.
- Try to schedule a spay/neuter surgery date the same day an owner calls or agrees to the surgery.
- Ditch the hassles and excessive paperwork when offering spay/neuter surgery to low-income people.
- Recognize the appeal of vaccinations for owners who otherwise can’t or won’t get their pet to a vet.
- Use the term “animal birth control surgery” first when offering spay/neuter surgery to a pet owner. Multitudes of people don’t know the definition of spay or neuter.
- Wash the wound and seek medical care immediately if bitten by a cat or dog.
- Know your local and state laws pertaining to animal welfare.
- Know the limits of what you can do for an animal you believe is suffering.
- Find a vet who will work with you to help animals. Then take all of your paying business to that vet.
- Vaccinate feral cats against rabies when they are in your care for spay/neuter surgery.
- Know that adult feral cats are not likely to become friendly pets.
- Cats who are trapped, fixed, and then returned to area where they are unwanted may not fare well.
- Accept the lamentable truth that not all animals will have the life we want for them.
- Practice safe surgery.
- Make volunteering fun.
- Move pregnant animals and those in heat to the top of the spay/neuter surgery list.
- Investigate carefully before handing over multiple [adopted] pets to one person, especially someone who isn’t interested in seeing them first and doesn’t care if they are fixed.
- Be wary of the catchphrase “no kill” if you decide to donate to rescue groups.
- Do your research on any animal rescue organization before donating
- Donate your time and money to your area nonprofit spay/neuter surgery clinics.
- Pace yourself.
- Paint animal welfare as a pest control issue first when addressing community leaders; leave the compassionate animal care lecture for later.
[Our addition: the pests often perceived to be most in need of control are animal advocates who ignore the threats to humans, other pets, livestock, and wildlife that feral and/or free-roaming cats and dogs often present.]
The most timely tip of all
And, finally, the tip that should be tattooed, if not microchipped, into the mendacious and complacent gluteus maximusses of all the allegedly leading animal welfare executives who have decided that spay/neuter surgeries should be suspended during the “social distancing” response to the current COVID-19 pandemic:
• Don’t place any pet for adoption who hasn’t been fixed. Never. Ever. It is unethical to promote yourself as an animal welfare advocate, preach the vital role of spay/neuter surgery, but then admit you couldn’t manage to get the pet fixed and sure hope the adopter can.
(See We need to open up spay/neuter – now!, by Bryan Kortis, and COVID-19: animal shelter “experts” circle back toward pet overpopulation, by Ruth Steinberger.)
Robbie Coleman says
Thank you for the story of this angel. I look forward to reading!
Thank you so much for this article. I found it especially touching, as I could relate to it. Thank you also for making us aware of books we may not know of otherwise.
The late 20th century was no enlightened time when it came to even basic animal welfare in rural, red-state America. This is where I cut my teeth as an animal advocate and it has informed me in my approach ever since. Not bothering with spay/neuter and “getting rid of” unwanted litters was common. The number of stories I heard about people disposing of litters in various fatal ways were too many to count.
Unlike Chitwood’s experience, there was a good county shelter in my area, and many animals were saved because of it, no doubt. But they were also working against cultural values that are slow to change.
Hunting was, of course, the rule of the day and hunting values were applied to seemingly all other animals around. Shoot strays to “keep their population down.” Run down animals with your vehicle for fun. Cats in particular seemed to be hated, and hearing both males and females speaking of their hatred for cats, and frequently adding in a story about something cruel they had done to a cat, was once again, common.
You could imagine me in all of this, a vegetarian who supported animal advocacy causes. I was bullied relentlessly as a teenager and young adult. Sometimes teachers or other authority figures joined in.
Examples? A teacher asked the class for examples of classroom projects we might wish to engage in that year. I suggested a food/supply drive for the animal shelter. The teacher slammed down her chalk and literally shouted, “WE help homeless CHILDREN!!”
One of the biology classes in my high school featured a cat dissection. Some students took the class specifically for this event, which was treated like a party. Kids would carry the corpses into the hallway, the lunchroom, restrooms, etc. and play “pranks” with them. There was a two-page photo spread in one of the yearbooks with students gathered around a cat’s body like it was a Thanksgiving centerpiece. I tried to speak to school administrators about this behavior. I’ll never forget walking into the assistant principal’s office to speak to him about it and being greeted with the sight of a plush toy cat that was made to look like it had been run over decorating his bookshelf.
I could tell stories like this all day, but you get the picture. What’s happened since then? Ironically, a few years after I’d left the school in the first story, there was a story in the paper about how another teacher there had spearheaded a supply drive for the animal shelter. (The school is now closed.) I know someone who works at the school in the second story, and they indicate to me that the science classes no longer do any dissections at all; it’s all digital.
Esther Mechler says
Good for you, Lindsay, that you stuck to your guns despite all the discouragement. It is true that things are way better now, but as I am sure you will agree we still have a long way to go when wildlife “refuges” are opened to hunting, trophy and canned hunts still go on, the president prioritizes keeping slaughterhouses open, and animals are still seen as ‘resources.’ Glad to know you are in this, that you are young and full of energy, and that there is hope for the future. As they say in England, Carry On!! God bless!
Thank you for your kind words, Esther. Yes, we certainly have a long way to go. And some of the things that have changed haven’t necessarily changed because of people being enlightened. Looking back to my own experiences of cruel things that went on when I was a teenager, using computer programs to dissect is cheaper and cleaner than using real animals; and the outfit that put on the idiotic ‘donkey basketball’ game each year apparently retired from business. If that wasn’t the case, they’d probably still be using the animals.