Photo by Kyle West

By: Bridgette Walker

There have been and will continue to be various types of service and working dogs in educational environments like McMaster University and out in the world at large. I’m Bridgette and I have a dog guide named Estelle.

Please don’t freak out! Properly trained dogs are more effective, efficient and reliable than technology for a lot of physical and mental health conditions. These dogs truly do save lives.

Estelle plays many important roles in my life including going to McMaster University with me. She does many things including listening for certain sounds — especially my snack alarms — and knows where all the really important places are. Aside from deafness, I have anxiety, autism and chronic migraines. Estelle keeps me in check mentally and emotionally.

When meeting service dogs, there are some ground rules: ask first, establish what’s helpful and what are the limits. There are some things Estelle really shouldn’t do for her own sake, and a few things that would actually cause problems for me. Meeting other service dogs is cool too, as long as they're all well-behaved and ready to get right back to work.

Anyway, I don’t appreciate people randomly trying to pet or play with Estelle while I’m walking between classes. In general, all dog guides need to pay attention to where they’re going, and to their person.  We're on the move, but she’s still listening for what sounds are in the area, how I am doing and so forth.  

Please respect my space. I don’t like being “crowded in” and neither does Estelle.  She may be a dog, but she’s also regarded as a medical device — same as a wheelchair or other medical apparatus.

And yes, you can take a picture of us as part of the scenery going by, but don’t stop us to pose for snaps; if we did this every time, I'd be late for everything.

Enough with distracting the dogs themselves! This can be dangerous for other people with more serious conditions when their service dogs are being distracted and hindered from alerting them to potentially harmful or even fatal issues that can crop up at any time. I’m blessed that this isn’t the case for me, so far.

Then there are people with phobias. I don’t know whatever trauma you have endured in the past but we really don’t mean you any harm! Please, stop screaming and whining. It’s not good for Estelle's ears, not good for my anxiety and certainly not good for your throat or mental health.

Don’t project your personal problem onto us like that. You are an adult in university and entering the working world. If you’re going to be like that every time you see Estelle or another kind of service dog on campus or out in the world, you’re not going to live as good a quality life as you deserve. Everyone should be able to enjoy or at least tolerate seeing these dogs on duty — they’re really good at heart!

The secret is that if she weren’t on duty, she'd like to try being your friend! Estelle also likes visiting babies, kittens and even pet chickens. Anyway, since she can’t try comforting you in her doggy-way, try refocusing your perspective of the dog with: “It’s a special animal. It’s somebody’s lifeline.”  

From Estelle and me, see you around campus!

 

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Valentine’s Day serves as an annual reminder that I will likely, one day, turn into a cat lady. This concerns me for a couple of reasons, the most important being that I despise cats. If their condescending, territorial stares aren’t enough to detract from their appeal, then consider that they’ve been known to eat their dead owners’ bodies. Valentine’s Day might incite oozing feelings of passion for some, flowery declarations of love for others or even just a general indifference. Whenever Valentine’s Day swings around, I usually think of myself not alone, per se, but surrounded by two dozens of cats all feeding on my decaying body. Happy Valentine’s Day, indeed.

Perhaps you'll spot the obvious flaw my brain tends to miss when it conjures up these imaginary soap operas. If I don’t like cats, then I don’t have a problem because I’ll never actively decide to own a cat in the first place–let alone two dozens. No one sane would, which is maybe where the parasite Toxoplasma gondii comes into play. T. gondii alters rodent neural systems so that a rat becomes attracted to the scent of cats (specifically, cat pee) and is more likely to get eaten. Once in the feline digestive system, T. gondii can happily complete its life cycle. That’s not all: T. gondii has also been shown to use humans as hosts.

Although largely asymptomatic in humans, some have suggested T. gondii is to blame for extreme ailurophilic (cat loving) behaviour. The more cats you own, the more waste they produce and the greater the likelihood of T. gondii infecting your brain. It’s a very convoluted kind of feedback, and without any empirical evidence, hard to accept as anything but a conspiracy theory. Along with the cats comes the “crazy”: despite the minute number of historical cases, studies of people with an acute T. gondii infection show they exhibit psychological symptoms that resemble schizophrenia.

The association of female cat owners with the “crazy cat lady” stereotype only reinforces the unequal perception we are trying so hard abolish: that a person’s worth based on their achievements ... cannot compare to the worth of someone who has established a committed relationship.

A pseudoscientific basis for the “crazy cat lady” phenomenon, however, still fails to explain its inherent association with a pathetic and fornlorn soul, particularly one who lacks enough social skills to find a significant other. My friend recently recalled an instance where she had been playing Neko Atsume on her phone, a highly addictive game where the player purchases products to attract and collect a variety of virtual cats. When her brother saw this upon passing by, he commented (I imagine, in a snarky “you should punch me in the face” tone) on it being good preparation for her real life.

No one denies that my friend's story made for a good laugh, but her brother's association of a cat lady with spinsterhood, and ultimately, failure, is proof that a stigma still exists surrounding solitary living.

Yes, the world has come a long way in terms of recognizing that a woman can be successful in both self-acceptance and her career, even if it means she is not romantically involved, but it is essential that we continue to move away from outdated ideals as a unfounded basis for criticizing other people.

The association of female cat owners with the “crazy cat lady” stereotype only reinforces the unequal perception we are trying so hard to abolish: that a person's worth based on their achievements, such as someone who puts their career first, cannot compare to the worth of someone who has established a committed relationship. Everyone is unique, and as we all have different ideas of what makes us happy, it is far from our place to judge someone by the traditional standards of a fulfilling life.

When I say Valentine’s Day serves as a reminder of my probable future as a cat lady, what alarms me is not literally being forced to live alongside domesticated animals so much as the irrational fear of growing old and dying alone. With Valentine’s Day approaching, we tend to forget that we are constantly surrounded by the people (and pets) we love. So love the things you love without reserve. Love yourself (although not in the way Justin Bieber suggests). If that makes you “crazy,” then so be it. All the best people are.

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“I thought in your lease, there’s supposed to be no pets,” says Enid Pagnini, an 87-year-old Westdale resident, surrounded by her five adopted cats.

Pagnini contacted us not long ago about the stray problem she’s noticed in the city. The former teacher, cat rescuer and 42-year-strong Hamiltonian finds it difficult to understand how so many students have pets to take care of, when they already seem to have enough of a challenge taking care of themselves.

Hamilton is not immune to the issue of stray animals, a growing problem across North America. Cats and dogs alike are known to wander neighbourhoods and forested areas, causing alarm to local residents and forcing these same residents to jump to conclusions about where these animals are coming from — in particular, irresponsible student pet owners.

Students have been known to abandon pets in the neighbourhood, but they are not the only group contributing to the problem. Stray animals have been an issue in the city for years, and its citizens across the board contribute equally to the matter. According to a 2013 study by the Canadian Federation of Humane Societies, shelters across the country brought in a total of 103,000 stray cats and 46,000 stray dogs in one calendar year.

While students may not be at the root of the issue, we are still contributing to it. Should certain precautions be taken by students and the university to ensure that we are not adding to this growing municipal issue?

In regards to Pagnini’s earlier comment about having pet clauses in leases, according to the Ontario Residential Tenancies Act, it is illegal for a landlord to stipulate that pets are not allowed. While animals may seem like something forcefully preventable for student house renters, a landlord can only request for the removal of a pet if they are a danger to other tenants. With this in mind, it then becomes solely the responsibility of the student tenant to ensure that they are responsibly taking care of their animal.

Pagnini, along with other longtime Westdale-Ainsliewood residents, has seen numerous students over the years acquire animals and mysteriously part with them before graduation.

“They get their pet, while they’re still living at home, and the parent really takes care of the cat or dog. And then the child goes to university and the parents say, ‘take the cat!’” said Pagnini. “And then they dump them. And that bugs me, that really, really bugs me.”

According to an independent survey conducted by The Silhouette, only three percent of survey respondents admitting to “dumping” their pet outside, whereas a majority 82 percent of respondents claimed to have hung onto their pets long-term.

“It’s not nice to see a starving cat. It’s a very, very sad picture.”

While Pagnini’s anger towards the abandonment of animals is justified, there is no way to identify where these strays are directly coming from and who is to blame for the animals she sees in her neighbourhood.

Who takes in the strays?

Karen Reichheld, the manager of Animal Care and Adoption at the Hamilton/Burlington Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, has been working with strays for the last six years and has seen a pattern in the types of situations that lead to the surrendering of animals to the HBSPCA, as well as the situations that lead to adoption.

“Typically we’ll see people bringing animals in if their animal is having issues or they may not be able to take care of them, and then they would surrender,” said Reichheld.

“We bring in 1,000 animals from Hamilton animal services each year.”

As of the end of October this year, the HBSCPA took in 651 surrendered animals, and found homes for 1,738 of their animals.

“We have many different people come and adopt from us. It could be younger people with their first place, it could be families, it could be a single person in the community just looking for a companion…. Definitely it would include students,” said Reichheld.

At the SPCA, there is a standard adoption process that ensures animals are going into homes that will adequately care for them.

“When students arrive at our doorsteps, we do want to counsel them,” said Reichheld. “Anyone who adopts needs to have a plan.”

The counseling service offered by the SPCA is part of their “Meet Your Match” program, which gives future pet owners the option to learn about an animal’s personality before deciding on which one they will take home.

According to our survey, only 36 percent of student pet owners acquired their pets from family homes, whereas a larger 44 percent made the choice to adopt their pets after moving into their student houses. It seems that students are consciously making the choice to care for these animals, and with the SPCA’s precautions and training in place, these adoptions should theoretically be long-term solutions for these formerly stray animals.

In addition to their adoption service, the SPCA also offers foster care programs for people who are interested in taking care of an animal, but may not be prepared for a lifetime commitment. The foster program is a great alternative for students who want to have an animal, but are worried they won’t be able to take care of the animal after they vacate their student house.

“You have to become a registered volunteer of the HBSPCA. You come to an information session, you tell us what you’re interested in, we counsel you, provide food, medical care,” said Reichheld. “All you have to do is provide the space and the love.”

Where the wild things are

If students are doing a good job taking care of animals, and the SPCA is helping those who aren’t, what’s the problem?

The issue with stray animals is that they are not a problem that will simply be solved overnight, and even those of us who do not have pets already in our student houses should be taking precautions to reduce the impact we have on wildlife and stray animals.

“If somebody finds a cat, and believes it has an owner, don’t feed it, don’t let it come in. Even just petting it and encouraging it to come by, don’t do that, it’ll likely go home,” said Karen Edwards, the Animal Services Advisor for the City of Hamilton.

35 percent of student respondents from our survey confessed to having fed stray animals that they found outside their homes. While caring for stray animals may seem like a good idea at the time, allowing them to become dependent on you can prevent previously owned animals from returning to their homes.

The SPCA sheds a more positive light on animal adoption, but the City of Hamilton knows that it is simply not feasible for all stray pets to find homes or live a safe life.

“We deal with stray animals. So with regards to dogs, we will go out pick them up on the road. We don’t pick up cats anymore, because there are a lot of unowned cats roaming, and we are ending up with far more than we can handle. So in order to lower our euthanasia rates, we stopped picking them up on the road. We will pick up anything that’s injured, ill or deceased, but alive and healthy, we don’t want to have them coming here,” said Edwards.

“We do also take owner surrenders, they pay us a fee and we will take the animal. We do not promise adoptions. Because we don’t even have an adoption program, we rely on our partners. We work with them as much as we can, but there’s no guarantee because we aren’t responsible for their program.”

In an effort to reduce the number of stray animals, especially cats that are found in Hamilton, the city is working to develop a cat-licensing program that will require owners have the same responsibilities they would with a dog. They also passed a bylaw that makes “outdoor cats” illegal, to avoid owned cats from mixing in with strays.

“We’ve reduced our intake so it may seem like there are more out there. It’s not an easy, measurable thing. It’s not an uncommon thing, it happens all across North America, it’s not just a Hamilton thing, even though a lot of people think it is just a Hamilton thing,” said Edwards.

A number of the stray animals we see in our community are tacked onto the issue of an ongoing wildlife crisis across the country. That is in part true, but many strays are still found sporting signs of previous ownership like declawing and neutering.

As student residents of this city, it is just as much our responsibility to ensure that we take care of the animals we own and do what is best for strays.

We may not all be able to take in five cats or care for a foster, but efforts should be made to ensure we are able to care for our animals. Regardless of whether it’s in our leases or not, committing to a pet is a contract.

Photo Credit: Jon White/Photo Editor

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