By Rachel Gross
Against the back wall of the Berkeley East Bay Humane Society’s adoption room is a maze of cages, containing one lone cat. Magdalene, as she is called, is a black feline with patches of tan. She lies curled on a towel. When approached, she promptly rolls onto her back and paws the air, revealing a white underbelly.
Magdalene was found by a woman and brought to Berkeley Animal Care Services, the city’s animal shelter, two weeks ago, according to Valerie Mizuhara, the Humane Society’s Shelter Manager. At the time, the cat was extremely pregnant. Now, two faint blue lines on her stomach attest to the spay and surgery the Humane Society gave her to prevent “just one more unwanted litter,” from entering the world.
Magdalene sits up and emits a guttural purr. She is behaving so affectionately, Mizuhara says, because of residual pregnancy hormones in her system.
That Magdalene is the only cat in the room is a telling sign. It has been almost one year since a fire ravaged the nonprofit East Bay Humane Society nonprofit on May 20, 2010, killing 15 cats and wreaking $1.5 million worth of damage on the building. Most of the facilities remain condemned by the city, and the room that housed the cats is sealed with plastic and still smells eerily of smoke.
Since the fire, the shelter has spent $200,000 on rent and construction, according to interim Director Stephanie Erickson. It will be at least two years and potentially millions of dollars before the fire-damaged areas are completely rebuilt.
With nowhere to house the dozens of animals that might otherwise be put down, the shelter has switched to fostering animals at volunteers’ homes before adopting them out. There are 44 dogs and cats currently being fostered. As Shelter Manager, Mizuhara oversees foster owners, adoptions, and “matchmaking” — pairing an ideal adopter with an animal.
Mizuhara recalls the night of the fire: as she was heading to bed around midnight, she received a call from a community member alerting her to the blaze. She immediately got into her car, arriving on the scene at the same time as firefighters.
One there, she was told to wait for the building to be secured before she could enter it.
“We had to just stand outside,” she says, “and watch it burn.”
After firefighters put out the flames, she was able to lead them into the area where cats had perished from smoke inhalation. Then, she helped carry the surviving 12 cats to safety. In the following weeks, all were adopted by the community. The dogs in kennels, all of which survived, were immediately taken in by Berkeley Animal Services.
The cause of the fire may never be known. However, Mizuhara and others suspect it was electrical, because it broke out in a room that housed wiring.
Recovery has been an uphill battle, but Mizuhara has seen cause for celebration. On Jan. 21, the city allowed the Humane Society to move back into a portion of the building. And the shelter has already received $600,000 in donations from community members — a response she called “overwhelming.”
“We wouldn’t still be here if it weren’t for the community,” she said.
In the tragedy’s wake, making the choice of which animals to take has become more difficult. There are a limited number of volunteer owners, and many of them stop fostering when they become attached to their foster pets and decide adopt them, Mizuhara says.
Moreover, springtime is mating season for cats — and that means more orphaned kittens on city streets. These kittens, many of which are less than five weeks old when they are abandoned or found by a local shelter, have been separated from their mothers and are not old enough to feed themselves. They are called “bottle babies” because they require hourly feeding from a bottle by foster owners. Mizuhara says it is “heartbreaking” that the shelter cannot rescue more bottle babies, but at this point their resources simply can’t take the strain.
The Humane Society was started out of a pool room on the corner of Ninth and Carleton in 1927. Besides adoption services, it offers training classes, a low-cost spay and neuter clinic, and even a program on dealing with grief over a lost pet.
As a private organization, the Humane Society is not under the same obligation as the city shelter to take in every stray or abandoned pet. Instead, it has its pick of the litter from municipal shelters like Berkeley Animal Services and Oakland Animal Services. The choice is guided by a core mission to reduce the rate of euthanasia in the city.
For the Humane Society, this means taking animals from both ends of the spectrum: those that are the most “adoptable” (well-trained and compatible with humans) and those who suffer from medical conditions that would otherwise go untreated at a municipal shelter. (Unlike the city shelter, the Humane Society has a working veterinary hospital on the premises.)
Magdalene, with her precarious pregnancy, falls into the latter category. As Mizuhara tells me of the cat’s surgery, a baleful meow fills the room. I turn to find that Magdalene has crawled into the nearest cage and is now looking straight at me with unblinking green eyes.
“She’s attention-starved,” explains Mizuhara, reaching in to stroke her with two fingers.
At the end of April, the Humane Society opened its outdoor dog kennels for the first time since the fire. The kennels, which can hold up to 30 dogs, currently house three.
These include Chaps, a floppy cocker spaniel mix who suffers from hypothyroidism and separation anxiety, and Oona, a chocolate-brown pit bull terrier puppy with orange stripes who tends to chew on her leash — a sign of teething.
Mizuhara unlocks the door to the back area. Chaps is waiting for her, his pink tongue lolling out, apparently having escaped from his kennel. She chuckles tolerantly and leads him back, this time locking the gate securely.
Mizuhara herself was a foster owner until she adopted her two current dogs, Nestor and Money (who, incidentally, was given his name by a homeless man who owned him before surrendering him to the city shelter). They are a pit bull and a Chihuahua, respectively — two dog breeds that are least likely to be adopted and so are often found in shelters.
In his kennel, Chaps licks his lips and plunges his nose into the water bowl beside him.
“He needs a home with lots of care,” Mizuhara says. “When he’s with people, it completely alleviates his anxieties. And he’s a gentleman on the leash.”
Magdalene was adopted shortly before this article was posted. To adopt Chaps or Oona: email firstname.lastname@example.org, call (510) 845-7735, at extension 203, or visit BEBHS at 2700 Ninth Street during adoption hours. To volunteer as a foster owner, fill out an application here and fax it to (510) 845-3088 or e-mail it to email@example.com.