Updated: Jun 28, 2021
Shreya is an Animal Care Assistant at Celia Hammond Animal Trust (CHAT) Canning Town. She cares for feral and stray cats (that are part of Celia Hammonds neuter and return scheme) looking for homes. Over bowls of cat food and litter trays, (the cats’, not ours!) she told us a bit about her work and how she got into this field.
How did you get into Animal Care?
It was actually an encounter with two stray cats I’d been feeding that started this all off. It turns out the sibling pair had been abandoned by a family who had moved away. I called my local shelters to see if the pair could be rehomed but the shelters that I tried were not able to take them on.
Many shelters are unable to cope with the number of strays needing homes. They often have a euthanasia policy for strays - especially if the cats have FIV (a cat version of HIV that can be passed to other cats through saliva via bites but cannot be transmitted to humans).
I continued to feed the strays and searched online for shelters with a no kill policy. I eventually found Celia Hammond Animal Trust (CHAT) - a charity shelter (which also provides low cost veterinary services to pet owners). The Trust neutered both of the stray cats and rehomed one of the brothers with a local resident. The other cat was returned to me as he was semi-feral, so I carried on as his feeder.
Having had my eyes opened to the stray cat population problem and the work done at CHAT, I wanted to do more to help so I applied to be a volunteer. After a month of regularly volunteering (on weekends and one day during the week) I was offered a job that they had an opening for.
What does a typical day at work look like for you?
I work in the neuter and return scheme – the patients are all stray cats which are seen for neutering (and other appropriate medical treatment if needed) and then usually returned to their feeder. For the last 6 years I’ve been working weekends where I’ll come in for the morning shift and spend all day with the cats. I’ll be cleaning their cages, feeding them and providing any treatment they need. I like to spoil the patients so they get treats – Dreamies and chicken are a firm favourite! I’ll then have a colleague take over on the evening shift.
You just need some experience when working with feral cats. Some of them become tamer over time and get rehomed. Cats will be prioritised for rehoming if their primary care giver is no longer able to look after them or the area they came from is unsafe (e.g. if they’re from an area with high traffic).
Our neuter and return scheme is quite efficient (providing the patients don’t have any other issues). The cats stay with us for a few days for neutering and treatment before being discharged so there’s always new faces!
What did you want to be when you were 16?
My life was on a completely different trajectory at 16. My ambitions were actually nothing to do with animal care - I was focused on a career in the sciences. I studied science at university as an undergraduate (followed by a masters and a doctorate). I had actually been working in the pharmaceutical industry for 13 years and then those two cats changed everything! I do wish I was more aware of the issues with stray animals and had been doing this sooner.
What’s the best thing you’ve done in your work?
So most of the cats I own actually started off in the neuter and return scheme and for whatever reason couldn’t go back. A few years ago, there was black and white cat here called Satin who was completely feral - you couldn’t get anywhere near him otherwise he’d try and attack you through the bars.
Satin came from an area with really high traffic so it wasn’t safe to return him there. He was so feral at that time the most viable option was for him to be a farm cat (difficult to find in the middle of London!) However, after a few months of patience and spending time with him, (and giving him treats!) he was a completely different cat. He’s now called Louie and he’s my sweetest and most loving cat!
The change you see in these cats when you give them time and love is just the best.
Why do you love your job and why is it important?
Every time I’m here I know I’m doing something worthwhile and I get a lot of satisfaction knowing that these animals are receiving treatment as the cats that come here truly are in need. We once had a little black stray cat we called Poppet who had deformed paws (which meant her claws would always dig into her footpads) and a rotten mouth. After a full dental extraction and surgery on her paws she was a completely different cat. It makes me proud to work here knowing that, as a semi-feral cat, Poppet probably wouldn’t have had the same opportunity somewhere else - but we managed to significantly improve her quality of life. We have so many cases of stray cats on death’s door, but after receiving necessary treatment they are well enough to be rehomed. These happy endings make it worth it for me.
The neuter and return scheme is really important in terms of population control. Female cats can start having litters from as young as 4 months and they are able to have multiple litters in their life - leading to an exponential increase in the stray cat population. At the very least, this results in an increased spread of disease and food sourcing issues. Plus, there would be a surplus number of cats where majority would not be able to be rehomed due to the availability of shelters and homes. This scheme is an ethical method of population control and ensures the strays (which are microchipped to their feeders or the charity) can get the care they need if they require treatment later in their lives.
What one thing can a student hoping to go into animal care do today to get started?
Volunteering is probably the best thing you can do. Do an online search for any local shelters and get involved! Try and commit to one day a week, or do it over your holidays, but just make sure you are reliable. There are courses in animal care available too so do your research. I would recommend starting off with volunteering as it would give you a better idea of the challenges (and satisfying aspects) associated with animal care and if it is something you want to pursue.
Written by: Veetha Tharmarajah
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