A Very Purrculiar Practice: You Don't Have to be Mad to Work Here ..... But It Helps
Copyright 1997, Sarah Hartwell

The quarterly advert for shelter volunteers generally brings in a mixed bag of people, though out of every four who turn up once only one proves reliable, resilient, feral-proof and useful ... and having just the right amount of insanity to last more than a month.

Some are gems - totally cat-proof, able to convert feline incendiary devices into purry lap-snugglers with a single word (maybe the Aborigines' "Word of Power" idea has some truth in it), clean an entire shelter top to bottom in record time without leaving a speck of stray litter, can single-handedly microchip or pill a cat that normally requires four people to restrain it at cleaning out time, can cope with early morning sights of litter-trays, coughed up worms and still laugh after being sprayed by a tomcat and then falling into the shelter cess pit (big plank-covered hole where the Elsan chemical karzi gets emptied).

Some are hopeless like Mad Sal who had to be collected by her husband after only an hour; unable to stand the sight of a recent amputee or stomach the fact that she -along with the rest of us - was expected to clean out litter trays and note which cats had a touch of the 'galloping whatsits'.

Or Jean who sounded very sensible on the phone, but who turned up for the evening feeding shift wearing a short skirt, pinny, tights and sandals rather than sweater, jeans, Marigold gloves and wellies. I was supposed to show her the ropes and tactfully suggested that it was a 'gardening clothes' job.

"But I thought you said I'd be feeding the cats," wailed Jean.

"That's right. But as you can see the grounds can get rather muddy and we don't have paths to all the pens yet. You also have to dip your feet in infection-control footdips between pens and you need clothes that you don't mind being scratched or climbed up, or even sprayed by a cat. It's not quite, er, silver service and it can get a bit messy," I told her, "And when it rains ... well the cats have shelter, but we have to race about from pen to pen; even in an anorak you can get absolutely sopping wet. I cycled home last Saturday looking as if I'd fallen in the millstream."

Then there was Richard, lovely chap, very dependable ... until he discovered we had spiders around the place. Richard had a phobia of spiders. He ran off screaming down the lane, never to return, after an encounter with a big spindly house spider in Twinks' pen. Alas the spider came to a sticky end - as Twinks' dessert.

We hesitate at suggesting that all applicants require a reasonable bosom and a bra with room to put a tiny orphan kitten to keep it warm between feeds. Or that all volunteers should possess a pair of welder's gloves in case they get called upon to handle a feral kitten. Only Elvira came equipped with full motorbike leathers and a crash helmet, which came in very useful when we had to send someone into an enclosed space to catch and basket an extremely wild feral for return to site, but then the lady in question was a fully paid up member of the Hells Angels and when families came to view cats, the wives ended up choosing the cat while their menfolk admired Elvira's Harley-Davidson. Sadly she eventually spent more time showing people her Harley than doing any shelter work, though for a while we had a lot of male volunteers and hosted two or three impromptu Harley-fanciers reunions. Oddly, Elvira's husband was a City stockbroker whose vehicle was a foldaway bicycle. Accuse me of double-standards if you will, since I regularly deal catnip to cats as young as six months, but Elvira left after we found her smoking a suspicious smelling cigarette behind Isolation; now I'm no expert, but I'm not convinced it was a menthol ciggie as she claimed.

But the good ones are not only worth their weight in gold, they're game for a laugh. Alison was definitely one of our better ones (please come back soon, we can always put the baby in a collapsible pen while you work). Her self-inflicted, sorry self-allotted, duties included cleaning the kittening pens and since Alison had trained as an infection control nurse she knew the importance of thorough cleaning and making sure that nooks and crannies invisible to other people were disinfected. Never mind that the kittens viewed her as a convenient climbing frame and by the time she'd finished a pen she had to peel them out of her hair; those pens were spotless.

Given Alison's background, we were surprised to hear an anguished shriek for help from Kitten Pen C ("Suki + 7") since even the feral mums recognised brisk efficiency when they met Alison and stayed on top of the door until she'd finished (most moved once in a while just in case they were mistaken for fixtures and fittings and scrubbed with Virkon). Suki was the softest mum-cat in the shelter and her 7 roly-poly six week olds had inherited her daft temperament, so unless the eight of them had suddenly developed a criminal streak and were holding Alison to ransom until given a 24-pack of Kitten Whiskas we couldn't imagine what was going on. Within minutes there was a crowd outside Suki's pen trying to figure out what could make the normally capable, unflappable ex-nurse call for assistance.

Inside the pen Alison was hopping on one leg, trying to shake something out of the other leg of her jeans. I counted the kittens - one, two, a little tortie playing in a puddle - three, the cute black one with white whiskers made four. Suki was rolling on her back and purring smugly as usual, totally unfazed by the demented dervish hopping around her pen yelling "Getouttathere you buggers". Inside the leg of Alison's jeans (the one she was frantically shaking) there was a wriggling movement. Come to think of it, we couldn't recall her legs being quite so knobbly. One lump wriggled up around the knee; another moved inexorably up her calf while a third mobile lump was circumnavigating her leg at calf level. Three lumps .... plus four visible kittens. I'd heard of ants in the pants, but kittens in the jeans?

All the while, Alison was trying to dislodge the furry burrowers, but the more she shook and hopped, the harder they clung causing a lot of muttered curses, winces and exclamations "Ouch that hurts you bugger!" The more she tried to shake them loose, the faster they climbed upwards. As we watched, the little tortie lost interest in the puddle and scampered onto Alison's trainer. Intrigued by the fabric tunnel above it, little tortie stuck her head up inside the hem of Alison's jeans. Suddenly all that was left of little tortie was a furry tail and bum poking out from the jeans as she climbed the sock to explore Alison's uncharted leg.

"Help!" wailed our unflappable nurse, "They're up both legs now!" By now she was holding onto the mesh for support, one leg raised and bent at the knee like a human flamingo. "They're like bloody fleas!"

"Unlock the door!" I told her, choking the words out between fits of laughter. I was laughing so hard that tears were streaming down my face.

"I can't get there!" Said Alison through gritted teeth, "I daren't move or I'll crush the little buggers, one of 'em's fallen asleep behind my knee. And I can't hop because something's climbing the other leg. Dammit!" she cursed, "There's nothing else for it." she said with a resolute look and began stripping off her jeans.

Doing a one-handed striptease while hanging onto something for support and standing on one leg is not made any easier when you have four furry lumps wriggling round your clothing.

"Stoppit!" said Alison, addressing the wriggling lump that was a tortie kitten tunnelling up her trouser leg, "Those whiskers tickle ... she's licking my kneecap ... god that little tongue's like a rasp ... ouch! Little monster's biting my knee .... teeth like needles ....ouch!"

Unflappable Alison stripped off the kitten infested jeans revealing another side to her personality - a hitherto unimagined side far removed from the familiar down-to-earth person we were used to. Okay, so we all like to wear something a bit sexy from time to time, and maybe something daring under workaday clothes - but scarlet satin thongs with the front shaped like a lace trimmed heart and strategically placed feathers? Even Suki stopped rolling and purring and began to stare with predatory interest at the feathers.

"They were a Valentine's present," gasped Alison trying to peel her jeans inside out and remove the exposed kittens (which had begun to wriggle downwards to undisturbed areas). "Don't you dare," she warned Suki who was trying to work out whether the feathers were part of Alison or whether they were some dangerous alien parasite that could only be rendered harmless by an all-out feline assault.

And it wasn't that we hadn't seen tattoos before; when Elvira stripped down to her sleeveless top we had been treated to the very pinnacle of the tattooist's art. The tops of Alison's thighs, however, were adorned with tattoos of a rather raunchier nature. Snakes appeared to be vanishing in a suggestively upwards position accompanied by the motto "Abandon hope all ye who enter here". I wondered if daughters could be temporarily tattooed with "No entry" signs. The other side played host to a tattoo which ought not be described in polite company; suffice it to say that I'm a woman of the world and have read the illustrated Kama Sutra (okay, stood in a bookshop glancing through a well-thumbed display copy which I put back everytime anyone looked in my direction and pretended I was really looking at Mrs Beeton's Guide to Home Management), but either one or other of the parties depicted was horribly deformed or both have qualifications in advanced contortionism. Any sane person trying to emulate the couple depicted on the tattoo would need to be unravelled by a qualified osteopath. And while the tattoo of a kitten might be very apt for a cat shelter volunteer, I think it related more to the "Mrs Slocombe's pussy" school of double meanings than to dedication to the feline cause.

"Look," (we were looking, we couldn't help it) she said in exasperation as she plucked a couple of furry lumps from her almost inside out jeans, "I was a bit of a rebel when I was younger, okay?"

We nodded dumbly, unable to imagine the matter-of-fact, down-to-earth Alison as a rebel. No more surprising facets of Alison's character were revealed by the time the final kittens were removed and order - and decency - was restored.

"Next time I'm bloody well wearing cycle clips," Alison snorted, "This is SO embarrassing."

Luckily, Alison managed to laugh at the incident and regaled us with the story of her tattoos and her taste in exotic lingerie (she ran Ann Summers parties). Never mind putting "sense of humour required" in our advert, maybe we ought to say "you don't have to be mad to work here, but ...".

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